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
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
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.
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.
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.