The Bells of Monsalvat
n Wagner's score, the transformations in Acts 1 and 3 are accompanied by an
ostinato theme on bells: C, G, A and E. Sometimes alone, sometimes in unison with the bass instruments.
The sun is at its zenith; the time for the sacred
meal approaches. Parz., supporting himself on the old man, asks where they are, for the forest seems steadily to be disappearing as they enter stone corridors. It
looks as if they are on the right path, and the boy, he realises, is still innocent, otherwise the way to the castle would not be opening up before them so
readily. They climb stairs and again find themselves in vaulted corridors. Parzival, hardly feeling that he is walking, follows in
a daze. He hears wonderful sounds. Trumpet notes, long-held and swelling, answered from the far distance by gentle ringing, as of crystal bells.
At last they arrive in a mightly hall which, cathedral- like, loses itself in a high dome. Light falls only from above: from the dome - an increasingly louder
ringing of bells.
[1865 Prose Draft], editor's emphasis.
Act I Transformation Music,
Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1951 (ogg format, mono, duration 4.5 minutes)
Parsifal solemnly takes up the spear and with Kundry
follows Gurnemanz [who is] slowly leading. The scene changes very gradually, as in the first Act but [with the scenery moving] from right to left. After remaining
for a time visible, the three entirely disappear, while the forest is gradually vanishing and in its place the rocks draw near... Through the arched passages, the
sound of bells swells ever louder.
[stage direction for the Act 3 transformation]
Act III Transformation Music, Knappertsbusch,
Bayreuth 1962 (ogg format, mono, duration 5 minutes)
agner thought that Chinese tamtams might supply a suitable sound:
I am now - for honour's sake - making preparations
for the production of Parsifal. Having fared so badly with our English dragon, let us see if we cannot do any better with the Grail bells.
Following a discussion with experts on the best way of representing the necessary sound, we agreed after all that it could best be imitated by means of Chinese
tamtams. In what market are these tamtams to be found in the greatest number and best selection? It is thought to be in London. Good! - Who will be
responsible for selecting them? Dannreuther, of course. And so, my dearest friend, try to track down 4 tamtams which will produce - at least an approximation of -
the following peal.
It should be noted that - in order to produce
a deep bell-like sound - these instruments must be struck only gently near the rim, whereas if you hit them sharply in the middle they produce a
much brighter sound that is quite unusable. And so, see what you can do!
Video: Steingraeber's Parsifal Bells for Richard Wagner
Left and below: Metal canisters used to produce bell sounds
at Bayreuth from the late 1880's to about 1929. ©Richard-
The tamtams did not satisfy Wagner, so he had metal drums constructed to make the appropriate pitches. Even these were not quite what he wanted.
afternoon another scenery rehearsal with piano accompaniment, the orchestra is permitted to watch and breaks into hearty applause after the transformation scene,
which does R. good, though he has many difficulties to contend with: the bells are not right ...[Cosima's diary entry for
5 July 1882. ]
Wagner also had an instrument built by Steingräber, an upright piano frame with 24 strings but only four keys, each causing a hammer to strike six strings tuned
to the same pitch. This was placed in the orchestra pit. It sounded like six upright pianos being played simultaneously.
ince Wagner's first production, conductors have tried to find better solutions for
the bell sounds. To use either church bells or tubular bells would be impractical because of the necessary size. For many years, Bayreuth used the Mixtur-Trautonium,
the first synthesiser, invented in Berlin at the end of the 1920s by Sala and Trautwein. It was similar to the thérémin, but played by depressing a steel wire on to
a steel bar, thus altering the resistance in the circuit. Timbres were changed by changing the capacitors which controlled the upper harmonics. (Paul Hindemith wrote
a concerto for this instrument).
Right: a set of Parsifal bells at the Salzburg Festival.
he Vienna opera used bronze-coated iron rods, struck with a hammer controlled by a
relay and then amplified. Knappertsbusch used a similar method at Munich from 1962 and it was also used in Mannheim, where the leader of the orchestra controlled the
relays from a box on his desk. In 1973, Sawallisch returned to the four-string piano frame solution, and the following year used difference tones generated by a Moog
synthesiser. Horst Stein adopted this solution in Bayreuth in 1975.
ore recently, electronic solutions have been favoured. In Hamburg, Ludwig and
Liebermann used a tape loop of piano sounds, recorded inside the instrument, mixed with bell sounds. In 1976, Maronn and Hecht, of the Studio for Musical
Communication in Hamburg, produced a synthesised bell sound based on the analysis of German cathedral bells. This is produced
from an initial recording of 14 superimposed sine waves, to which various different harmonics have been added at different volumes to produce a bell-like sound. The
mixture is then passed through a magic box which forms a sound with an extremely short attack time followed by a long exponential decay of 3-7 seconds. Pitch is
controlled by adjusting the speed of the tape. The results are in use at Bayreuth and major European opera houses.
hat seems to have been missed, or forgotten, in the history of the
Parsifal bells is that Wagner did not intend these "crystal bells" to sound like church bells. Although he did not know what oriental temple bells sounded
like, it is clear he was seeking a sound that would suggest temple bells and certainly nothing that resembles the sound of church bells.
usical facts about the Bells motif can be found in the