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An Introduction to the Music of Parsifal

  1. The Motivic Web
  2. The Secret of Form
  3. A Tonal Work of Art
  4. Other Aspects of the Music
Gill cartoon cartoon silhouette of Wagner conducting

The Motivic Web

Treatment of the Thematic Material

open quotes This music which is in perpetual evolution is probably the most highly personal musical invention of Wagner - it places the emphasis for the first time on uncertainty, on indetermination. It represents a rejection of immutability, an aversion to definiteness in musical phrases as long as they have not exhausted their potential for evolution and renewal. close quotes

[Pierre Boulez on Parsifal]

Right: Wagner in 1877.
Wagner in 1877

Since the thematic material of Parsifal is the subject of a separate article it will not be discussed at length here. A few important points are worth noting, however. There are thematic elements in the music of Parsifal that might be regarded as Leitmotive, i.e. recurring musical ideas that are encountered as presentiments of events in the future, or as reminiscences of events in the past1. (It is possible for the occurrence of a musical motive to be both at once: as when Gurnemanz tells the recruits about the seduction of Amfortas, we hear the teasing motive associated with the Kiss, that will be heard again when it is Parsifal's turn to be seduced). Many of the extended Leitmotive to be found in the score turn out, on closer examination, to be complexes built up from basic motives (which Lorenz called Urmotive), each consisting of only a few notes. In fact, there are five kinds of thematic element in this motivic web of evolution and renewal:

  • complexes, such as Kundry's Curse or Nature's Healing
  • main subjects, of which there are few, including Faith, Holy Grail and Prophecy
  • basic motives, to which we can apply such labels as Suffering, Yearning, Nature and Bells
  • characteristic intervals, such as the tritone associated with Kundry
  • characteristic chords, such as the added sixth chord associated with Parsifal.

A number of commentators on the work have observed that it is entirely made out of a small number of closely-related motives. They are related either by common elements (e.g. complexes sharing basic motives and characteristic intervals), or by their common origin in one or more thematic elements heard earlier in the work. Even the monody that opens the work, which I have referred to elsewhere as the Grundthema, is itself a complex which is, at the higher level of structure, composed of three short motives that will later develop their distinct associations, and at the lower level made up of a broken chord (that of Parsifal) followed by a number of tiny melodic cells that will be combined and developed later. Several of the extended themes (e.g. Prophecy) are revealed fragment by fragment until, at the appropriate moment, they are heard complete and connected to the dramatic action. Where there is contrast, it is mainly provided by the development of chromatic variants of diatonic originals, or by changes of rhythm.


Four of the principal characters each has his or her own motive, although Gurnemanz, as a neutral narrator, does not seem to have one of his own. These Leitmotive, together with those associated with objects, events and abstractions, blend into one another according to the relationships between the characters. This is deliberate; in this music Wagner was concerned with mediation. Whereas in earlier works he had used strong contrasts, he was now concerned with shadings, as of grey between the poles of black and white.

open quotes I recognise now that the characteristic fabric of my music (always of course in the closest association with the poetic design), which my friends regard as so new and significant, owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood. I should now like to call my most delicate and profound art the art of transition, for the whole fabric of my art is made up of such transitions: all that is abrupt and sudden is now repugnant to me; it is often unavoidable and necessary, but even then it may not occur unless the mood has been clearly prepared in advance, so that the suddenness of the transition appears to come as a matter of course. close quotes

[Letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, 29 October 1859, Wesendonk-Briefe 232-6, tr. Spencer and Millington]

The Secret of Form

Wagner referred to and exploited the operatic tradition by making use of traditional operatic forms. It is possible to identify accompanied recitative, arioso, ensembles and even strophic passages in Parsifal. The traditional forms, however, are scarcely recognisable, since Wagner transcended their limitations.

The German musicologist Alfred Lorenz analysed the forms of Wagner's works in his Das Geheimnis der Form bei Richard Wagner. In the later works, Lorenz found (or believed he had found) many examples of bar form (Stollen; Stollen; Abgesang), as it is described by David in the first act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, often on a large scale. According to Lorenz, the second act of Parsifal is constructed of nineteen musico-poetic periods, each of which has its own tonality. In terms of bar form, on the architectural scale, the first Stollen (periods 1 to 7) ends with the disappearance of Klingsor; the second Stollen (periods 8 to 12) ends at the reappearance of Kundry; and the scene between Kundry and Parsifal forms the Abgesang. Since it returns, in periods 18 and 19, to the tonality of b minor (associated with Klingsor, and therefore the tonality of period 1), and since material from earlier in the act returns in reminiscence during these two periods, this act can also be seen as an example of arch form. As can the entire opera, through the parallelism of acts 1 and 3, a structural aspect that Parsifal shares with Tristan und Isolde.

A Tonal Work of Art

Diatonic and Chromatic

open quotes In greatly simplified terms, the use of musical motives in Parsifal is governed and conditioned by the contrast of chromaticism and diatonicism: the chromaticism that conveys the deceptions of Klingsor's kingdom also expresses the anguish of Amfortas, while the expressive range of the diatonicism reaches from the naive simplicity of Parsifal's motive to the sublimity of the Grail themes. As categories of musical technique, chromaticism and diatonicism also have an allegorical significance: the very fact that two motives are both chromatic - an insignificant characteristic in itself, because it is so general - creates a dramatic association between them. The connection between deception and suffering, between the magic garden and Amfortas' lamentation, is as unmistakable as, in the diatonic sphere, that between the naivety of the "pure fool" and the Grail kingship that awaits Parsifal at the end of his path to recognition. The fact that Wagner based the differentiations and ramifications of the dramatic argument, which have caused so much torment to exegetes, on so simple, so obvious a contrast, which holds good for the stage action as well as for the music, is the proof of his theatrical genius. close quotes

[Carl Dahlhaus, tr. Mary Whittall, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas]

The domain of the Grail, which is physically the location of the first and last acts of the drama, is predominantly diatonic; whereas that of the magician Klingsor, which is the physical location of the second act, is predominantly chromatic. Parsifal's motivic group is at the diatonic extreme; Klingsor's motivic group is at the opposite extreme of chromaticism. The music of Amfortas and Kundry lies between these poles.

In the domain of Klingsor (or when Gurnemanz refers to it) we hear, in minor keys, chromatic versions of Leitmotive that were originally diatonic and predominantly in major keys. Consider the use of the Redemption theme (motive 1A) in Parsifal's outburst after the Kiss. This kind of variation according to context is not just restricted to the melodic and rhythmic elements. This also applies to another important element: the transformation music that accompanies Parsifal's access to the Grail Castle in each of the outer acts. At the climax of the second act prelude, there is a distorted parody of the transformation music that takes the listener into Klingsor's distorted version of the Grail Castle. Like the reflections in Klingsor's mirror, all that is found in his castle is a distorted, sterile reflection of the domain of the Grail.

Diminished-seventh Music

Although there are some triadic passages in the score, there are also passages in which diminished-seventh chords are prominent. A diminished-seventh chord is just a stack of notes separated by minor thirds. The so-called Tristan chord, which is heard for example in the second act of Parsifal at the moment of the kiss, can be regarded as a modified diminished-seventh chord; and diminished-seventh chords are the basic element of Parsifal's subsequent outburst, after the kiss, from Amfortas! Die Wunde! to Hier, hier!. Later, it is a diminished-seventh chord (B flat, D flat, E and G) that dominates the desolate music of the third act prelude. Both harmonically and melodically, Wagner's consistent use of minor thirds and tritones to some extent replaces the traditional triadic harmonies based on perfect intervals.

Fig. 1 Cadences


Several commentators have noted that there are relatively few unequivocal cadences in the work. Note, shown above, the outburst of diatonic harmonies, with three very definite B major cadences, after Gurnemanz hails the pure one as the new Grail King. Obviously something extremely important is happening at this moment. It is followed by the 26 bars during which Kundry is baptised. Then, as Kundry weeps, the music reaches the remote key of b flat minor (the tonal center of the prelude to this act), returning to B major for Parsifal's motive in its final development. In his essay in the Cambridge Opera Handbook on Parsifal, Arnold Whittall has observed:

open quotes It is clear that Wagner's essential musico-dramatic technique is not merely a matter of preparing and then evading cadences, but an almost ironic reversal of traditional cadential function. The fewer the points of diatonic cadential resolution, the greater their structural significance might appear to be. But if some of these resolutions are outside of the prevailing tonality ... they resolve nothing; they rather enhance the prevailing instability, and create an even stronger contrast with the truly structural cadences which do confirm prevailing tonal tendencies. close quotes

Not only does Wagner sometimes seem to be evading cadences, but also avoiding the appearance of the implied tonic, e.g. by establishing the dominant of an unheard tonic. As for example in the first scene with Kundry, where the shifting chromatic harmonies at times suggest an underlying b minor, although the tonic chord is never heard. The emphasis on keys a tritone apart is one factor that has frustrated attempts to analyse this music with the techniques appropriate to sonatas and symphonies, including Schenkerian analysis. Listen, for example, to the change from D flat to A major at the end of Gurnemanz's narration in the first act (durch hell erschauter Wortezeichen Male) and the equally powerful shift from D major to A flat major on the word Gral in Parsifal's final phrase (Enthullet den Gral, öffnet den Schrein!) at the end of the work.

Other Aspects of the Music


In the orchestration of Parsifal, Wagner returned to the quadruple woodwind he had used in the Ring, but omitted the so-called Wagner tubas, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone. In his scoring of the work, Wagner returned to the blocked instrumentation of his earlier operas, rather than the integrated scoring of Tristan and Die Meistersinger, where melodic lines pass seamlessly from one instrument to another and textures are built with instruments from different divisions of the orchestra. Parsifal actually begins with this kind of orchestration, but when the motives of Holy Grail (motive 2) and Faith (motive 3) appear, they are played by different instrumental groups in turn. The block-like scoring is less evident in the more contrapuntal passages, such as the music of the Flower Maidens. As in Tristan, the horns are mostly grouped with the woodwind, rather than with the other brass instruments.


As Pierre Boulez has remarked, the tempi of Parsifal are unstable in dramatic passages and stable in reflective passages. Since about the middle of the 20th century, there has been an increasing tendency for conductors to emphasis the contrasts in tempi, for example taking the opening of the work (marked sehr langsam) very slowly, and the prelude to the second act (marked heftig, doch nicht übereilt) very fast.

Footnote 1: Wagner did not invent the word Leitmotiv (leading motive) and did not much like it. He preferred to speak of Hauptthema or Grundthema. By definition, a leading motive returns and when it does so, the listener and spectator is reminded (consciously or subconsciously) of the context in which it occurred before. Note that a leading motive does not always have one fixed meaning: if it occurs multiple times, in different contexts, the motive acquires a trace of meaning. See next article for more about this topic.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2018. This page last updated (updated an internal link) --- Mon 27 Aug 2018 12:25 CET ---