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Parsifal
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Orchestration of Wagner's Parsifal

Wagner's Orchestra

open quotes I'm thinking of that orchestral colour which seems to be lit from behind, of which there are such wonderful examples in Parsifal. close quotes

Claude Debussy writing to André Caplet, 25.8.1912

The starting point for the orchestration of Wagner's mature operas is Berlioz's Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, a book which documented the possibilities available to composers both from the individual instruments and from the orchestra as a whole that were available then (1843). Wagner learned much from Berlioz such as the potential of the trombone, which before Berlioz had rarely been given a melody.

open quotes If Wagner learns about the emancipation of colour from line from Berlioz, then his own achievement is to win back the liberated colour for line and to abolish the old distinction between them. Here he gains a signal victory over conventional schemes of every kind. close quotes

Theodor Adorno, Versuch über Wagner, 1952, chapter 5.

Wagner was able to make use of recent developments, such as valve horns, trumpets and tubas; to which, for the Ring, he added a small tuba that has become known as the Wagner tuba. Although Wagner exploited the flexibility of the valve horn, he regretted that the introduction of valves had caused an undeniable loss of its beauty of tone and of its legato ability. He used the full range of woodwind instruments from the high notes of the piccolo to the low notes of the contrabassoon; although he is sparing in his use of the oboe because it does not blend with the other instruments as easily as, for example, clarinets with bassoons. Following the example of Berlioz, Wagner used as many strings as wind instruments, producing a blended string sound in which the individual voices become merged.

For Parsifal Wagner reduced the number of brass instruments, although he called for trumpets and trombones onstage, but retained a full section of woodwind. He added the contrabassoon which he used to strengthen the bass line of the Faith motive (no.3). For this opera the percussion section is relatively small, in keeping with Wagner's clear intention to achieve a blended orchestral sound.

In his later operas Wagner made use of multiple harps, an instrument that was now fully chromatic. In the first act of Parsifal the harps are only heard twice. During the first scene with Amfortas (the Waldesmorgenpracht) the harp plays an arpeggio of B major, the key of Good Friday. The harps are heard again with the Swan motive (no.17), a reminiscence of Lohengrin. The harps are busier in the second act in connection with the erotic sphere, as Egon Voss described it in his dissertation on the instrumentation of this opera. At the end of the act there is a harp glissando that portrays the spear flying through the air when Klingsor throws it towards the hero. The harps are featured again in the final scene of the third act, for example at the healing of Amfortas, and in the final apotheosis (E. Voss again). Unfortunately the harps can be hidden in the orchestral and choral texture of this passage and therefore some conductors increase the number of harps to four here.

A distinctive feature of Wagner's late style is his preference for doubling of voices. Where for example Berlioz might have given one instrument or instrumental subgroup a melody, Wagner employs two or three instruments or subgroups. Sometimes from the same section of the orchestra but often chosen from two orchestral sections. For example, at the very beginning of the work, we hear clarinets and bassoons with violins and celli, soon joined by the cor anglais. Later he uses doubling combinations such as: horns and celli; trumpets and violas; clarinets and violins; oboe, clarinet and tremolando violins; clarinets and tremolando violas; oboe, horns and violins.

The leading motives are often introduced by one grouping of instruments and then taken up by another group. For example, the motive of the Grail (no.2) is first heard on trumpets and bassoons changing to woodwind, then it returns in the strings. Over the entire opera, each of the principal motives is heard in different instrumentations, as shown for some of them in the table below (from Bauer, 1978, pages 263-4). For each of the principal motives (as selected by Bauer) it gives the number of times the motive appears with a particular combination of instruments.

No. Motive Strings Strings+Woodwind Woodwinds Brass Tutti
1 Grundthema 5 17 8 15 0
1c Spear 2 23 9 22 1
1g Wound 9 5 3 3 1
22 Agony 13 8 6 0 7
2 Holy Grail 18 21 31 33 7
21c Grail Knights 25 6 6 3 5
3 Faith 5 3 5 10 0
16 Parsifal 1 0 8 39 3
9 Prophecy 20 13 10 6 0
5+6 Amfortas 34 22 17 6 1
32 Desolation (1) 34 7 6 1 0
13 Nature's Healing 12 1 7 1 0
39 GF Meadows 2 6 5 0 0
19 Herzeleide 34 3 13 1 0
14 Magic 50 15 24 0 0
15 Klingsor 18 14 10 0 0
11+10a Kundry, Riding 117 15 22 0 0
26b Flattery 6 5 3 0 0
10b Fighting 4 7 3 0 0

A Comparison of the Orchestras for 5 Operas

In the table below I have summarised the orchestra specified in the scores of each of the last five operas in the Wagner canon, by date of completion. I have included the onstage/offstage instruments where any are specified in the scores. Wagner did not specify the number of strings in every case but we can assume that a similar number, approximately 64, were expected.

Tristan und Isolde (Dec.  1859) Die Meister-singer (Oct. 1867)   Siegfried  (February 1871) Götterdämmer -ung (Nov. 1874)  Parsifal (January 1882)  
Woodwind
Piccolo*
1
Flutes
3
Oboes
2
Cor angl.
1+1
Clarinets
2
Bass clar.
1
Bassoons
3
Piccolo*
1
Flutes
3
Oboes
2
Clarinets
2
Bassoons
2
Piccolo*
2
Flutes
4
Oboes**
4
Cor angl.
1+1
Clarinets
3
Bass clar.
1
Bassoons
3
Piccolo*
1
Flutes
3
Oboes
3
Cor angl.
1
Clarinets
3
Bass clar.
1
Bassoons
3
Piccolo*
1
Flutes
3
Oboes
3
Cor angl.
1
Clarinets
3
Bass clar.
1
Bassoons
4
Brass
Horns
4+6
Trumpets
3+3
Trombone
3+3
Bass tuba
1
Horns
4+2
Trumpets
3+2
Steerhorn
1
Trombone
3
Bass tuba
1
Horns***
8+1
W. Tubas
4
Trumpets
3
Bass Trp.
1
Trombone
4
BassTromb.
1
Bass tuba
1
Horns***
8+2
W. Tubas
4
Trumpets
3
Bass Trp.
1
Steerhorn
2
Trombone
4
BassTromb.
1
Bass tuba
1
Horns
4
Trumpets
3+6
Trombone
3+6
Bass tuba
1
Percussion
Timpani
3
Cymbals
1
Triangle
1
Timpani
3
Cymbals
1
Triangle
1
Glockensp.
1
Tenordrum
1
Bass drum
1
Timpani
3
Cymbals
1
Triangle
1
Glockensp.
1
Tamtam
1
Thunderm.
1
Timpani
3
Cymbals
1
Triangle
1
Glockensp.
1
Tamtam
1
Tenor drum
1
Timpani
3
Glockensp.
1
Thunderm.
1
Tenordrum
1
Other
Harp
1
Harp
1
Lute
1
Organ
1
Harp
6
Harp
6+4
Harp
2
Pars. Bells
1
Strings
Strings
N
Strings
N
Strings
64
Strings
64
Strings
N
+ Onstage/offstage band.
* Piccolo doubling 3rd (4th) flute.
** Oboe doubling cor anglais.
*** 4 horns doubling Wagner tubas.


© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (minor correction) --- Mon 11 March 2019 21:30 CET ---