The Most Desolate Music Ever Written
Prelude to Act 3
I intend going straight on without a break to the
third act, which promises me a blessed harvest after the labours of the second act. But I must first introduce it with an orchestral prelude to accompany
Parsifal's effortful wanderings up to the point where he rediscovers the realm of the Grail.
[Richard Wagner to King Ludwig II, 15 October 1878, tr. Spencer and Millington]
ost of the material used in the third act prelude is reminiscence of the first
act (e.g. the Prophecy, no. 6 in the Guide) and second act (i.e. the music of Klingsor's domain). Furthermore, much of the
music of the third act can be derived from the music of Parsifal and Kundry respectively -- even though she has only two words to sing, she is present in the music
until her baptism, after which she all but disappears from the score. The third act prelude is dominated by the music of these two characters but, strangely,
Amfortas seems to absent from this prelude.
Prelude to Act III (ogg format, mono,
duration 5 minutes, conducted by Knappertsbusch in 1951)
Prelude to Act III (ogg format, mono,
duration 6 minutes, conducted by Siegfried Wagner in 1927)
Left: Figure 1. One of Franz Stassen's illustrations for Act III of Parsifal
, showing the opening bars of the third act prelude.
o understand what is happening, let's put the third act prelude in its dramatic
the end of the second act, the newly enlightened hero has been
miraculously saved from destruction by the stolen spear cast at him by Klingsor. Wielding the spear in the sign of the cross, Parsifal destroys Klingsor's power,
including his hold over Kundry, and his magic garden with its Magic Maidens. Between the second and third acts, Parsifal, cursed by Kundry both to wander and
denied paths that lead away from her, wanders in search of the domain of the Grail. It is there that he will find the stricken
Amfortas; whom the hero now understands, having experienced his suffering himself. Kundry, however, knows the way to the domain of the Grail, and during this prelude she is sleeping, in the same spot where she fell asleep at the end of the first act. I like to think of the prelude
to act 3 as Kundry's Dream, in which she recalls the events of the previous act and sees the wandering of Parsifal, who is bringing healing in the form of
the Spear. She knows that Parsifal will find a way back to her and therefore to the domain of the Grail.
et us examine the prelude to the third act in detail. The second
act ended in the black key of b minor. The prelude begins with a tension between B major and
b flat minor.
Figure 2. Nature theme of the flower maidens (no. 16 in the Guide
), "Ich sah das Kind" and Serving or Desolation (no. 19 in the
he first four notes in the top line (3) I call the Serving motif
(although it's not the same as the notes to which Kundry sings her "dienen") and it ends with a falling tritone, b flat - e, the characteristic interval associated
with Kundry. This falling tritone is a feature of the Laughter idea that was introduced in the first act and associated with Kundry and her accursed
laughter. This is followed by six notes from the Nature music of the flower maidens (1) and also weakly reminiscent of
Ich sah das Kind
Figure 3. Straying and Waking
bar 5 we come to a three-note idea that I call Waking (2), no.
20 in the Guide, which will be developed later in the prelude. The music now has a flavour of Kundry's material, e.g. the rocking
arpeggios in the bass line in bars 11 to 13, perhaps, like Kundry's motif, suggesting the eternal cycle of rebirth.
hen we hear the wandering Parsifal, in an idea that Newman called
Straying (1). This is developed by the insertion of more notes, we hear Kundry at bar 20 as the music slows down, and then the chromatic
Straying, no. 32 in the Guide, turning into the diatonic Dresden Amen (i.e. Grail), proclaiming the domain of the
Grail (bar 22). This is easily transformed into the related motif of the Spear (with its three emphasized, rising notes), at which
Kundry laughs in her sleep (bar 24), in a longer version of Kundry's Laughter over the Spear motif in the bass.
"new" idea appears at bar 25, which on closer inspection turns out to be the
Prophecy motif in diminution, leading into the fully developed form of Waking. As Kundry stirs in her sleep, these three themes are woven
together with that of the Spear and the rocking arpeggios (eternal cycle). The Prophecy idea is developed into an insistent figure with a
double-dotted rhythm and shortened notes; the key is now e flat minor. As Gurnemanz emerges from his hut, we hear the Serving
motif and then the music of the waking Kundry. The first scene begins at bar 49, in tonal ambiguity around Gurnemanz's d