Parsifal

Motif 04: Suffering

German names: Wehelaute, Heilesbussemotiv; Urmotiv des Leidens


Musical example: Motif 4a - Suffering -
Soundbytes Suffering (ogg)

Lorenz remarked that many of the smaller elements of Wagner's music, although they had not been singled out as "leading motives" (Leitmotive) by von Wolzogen or others, were deserving of attention because of their structural importance. The Suffering motif was, in fact, noticed by von Wolzogen, who labelled it as the sounds of woe. It would be easy to avoid labelling something as simple as a descending three (or sometimes four or even five) notes of chromatic scale as a motif, were it not so ubiquitous. Following Kurt May, Lorenz referred to this "basic motive" as das Urmotiv des Leidens oder Vergehens.

Robin Holloway, writing in the ENO/ROH Guide to the work, considers the harmonic complex (A) associated with this motif so important that he describes it as the work's central, sonorous image. As well as the three-note Suffering motif, this complex also includes an important element of the Agony complex (marked with 'x' in the example above), see #22.

It may even be a conscious reference to part of the central, sonorous image of Tristan und Isolde, since the three-note motif is a beheaded version of the first basic motif of that work, another motif associated with suffering. In his analysis of Tristan und Isolde, Roger North has observed that these three notes, differently harmonised, appear in a scene that Wagner laid aside in order to work on Tristan: in Mime's Starling Song, which is also about suffering.

Suffering of Amfortas - Franz Stassen

In what might be considered as its definite form, the Suffering motif is harmonized in thirds, as shown in examples A and B. In Lorenz's view, it develops from the last part of the Grundthema (fragment G). It first becomes prominent during the 1st act transformation music: starting at bar 1123 on a C major chord, then repeated in sequences a semitone higher a few bars later and finally a third higher. This is another instance of Wagner increasing tension in his music by progressively raising the pitch of an important voice within it. As he will do again in the final scene of the 2nd act, where both the harmonised and unharmonised forms of the motif are prominent. In example C the 3-note fragment is repeated before the phrase ends with a falling fifth.

Musical example: Motif 4b - four descending notes
Above: four-note form (or is it five?) as it appears in the second act, recalling the sounds of woe heard earlier in the transformation music.

Musical example: Motif 4c - three descending notes
Above: three-note form as it appears in the second act, repeated.

The basic motif of Suffering usually appears as three notes, sometimes extended to four, and sometimes followed by a rising minor third. It is closely related to the Agony motif and in the four-note form to its inversion, the Yearning motif, which may also be regarded as a basic motif.

Other analyses of the themes that appear in Parsifal have applied the label "suffering" elsewhere. There are several themes related to pain and suffering; to which of them we apply this label is unimportant. In applying it to this motif the author is following Carl Dahlhaus.


References: Hans von Wolzogen, Guide Through the Music of Wagner's Parsifal, page 44.
Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, page 154.
Robin Holloway, Experiencing Music and Imagery in Parsifal, ENO/ROH Guide, page 32.
Roger North, Wagner's Most Subtle Art, page 11.
Newman ex.26, ENO ex. 41-42, 44.
Lorenz vol. IV, page 20, pages 70-71.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2018. This page last updated (expanded text for clarification) --- Sat 18 Aug 2018 21:00 CET ---