Guide to the Thematic Material of Parsifal

The intention of this short guide to the thematic material of Parsifal is to assist the listener in hearing the key thematic elements of the music, and in relating them to each other and to the action of the music-drama. (Wolzogen called them Leitmotive but the composer preferred to call them Grundthemen).

In Parsifal, his last work for the stage, Richard Wagner had further refined the techniques developed for his previous works, and in some aspects (especially of orchestration) returned to an earlier style. Where his use of thematic material is concerned, we find a style and techniques quite different from those of the Ring. The nearest comparable work in this respect is Tristan und Isolde: it could be said that Parsifal is written in the "Tristan style". In fact, harmonically it is a continuation of the approach that Wagner had established in Tristan und Isolde.

Right: Cartoon by Gill, from L'Eclipse, 18 April 1869.
Image: Cartoon by Gill, 1869

Wagner's Leitmotivic Technique

In the Ring, many of the musical ideas are associated with single characters (such as Wotan or Loge) or objects (such as the Rhinegold, the Ring or the Tarnhelm), or with groups of characters (such as the Gods, the Giants or the Nibelungs). In only a few cases are the musical ideas only associated with states of existence (such as Sleep) or with abstract concepts (such as Love, Power, World Redemption or Inheritance of the World) and even then, there is also an association with a character or object that can be seen on stage (as the Flight motif is associated with Freia, or the Treaty motif with Wotan's spear).

In Parsifal the unambiguous identification of a musical idea with a character or object is the exception rather than the rule. Even those musical motives that are traditionally named after the characters (such as Amfortas or Kundry) or objects (such as Spear or Holy Grail) at whose presence on stage, or at the mention of which, the motive is heard in the orchestra, are much more than simple "calling- cards" for those referred to in the name. Therefore, as indeed when considering the Ring or Tristan und Isolde too, the reader is advised not to pay too much attention to the name of the musical motif, which is really no more than a convenient and easily memorable label. The semantic content of the label should not be allowed to obscure the musical and symbolic role that the motif plays in a specific context.

Below, left: Cartoon of "Wagner composing", from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 9 June 1877.

Image: Wagner composing (cartoon), 1877

Economy of Material

A striking characteristic of the score of Parsifal is the economy of musical material. On close examination and analysis, the entire score is found to have been constructed out of variations on a small set of melodic ideas, most of which appear in the first six bars of the prelude to the first act, and an equally limited set of harmonic ideas. This may be seen as an extreme refinement of Wagner's approach in Das Rheingold and Tristan und Isolde. Whereas in his earlier works the thematic material was clear cut, so that for example Wotan's material was contrasted to that of Fricka, in Parsifal the characters seem to blur into each other, so that it is almost impossible to find a boundary at which the music of Kundry stops and the music of Klingsor begins. The musical material seems to be used more to tie characters together than to delineate them as individuals, i.e. to describe relationships rather than those related. The music of Amfortas and Kundry has more to tell about the common ground between these two characters than about them separately.

A few principles or patterns in Wagner's use of musical motives can be identified. Firstly, each musical idea appears first in the orchestra, and is only later (and sometimes only much later) heard in the vocal line. Typically, new (or derived) ideas are presented in one of the three preludes or in the two interludes known as the Transformation Music. Secondly, the significance of a musical motive becomes defined when it is first heard in association with something that is seen on, or heard from, the stage. Thirdly, the complete or extended form of a motif is usually much more than the fragment(s) we hear at first. In particular, the musical motives of Agony, Prophecy and Klingsor's Magic emerge gradually, at first appearing as the tiniest fragment of two or three notes, that eventually grows into a melodic and harmonic complex several bars in length.

Although it has been said that much of the material grows out of the first six bars of the prelude, it must be admitted that not all of the musical ideas are firmly rooted in what is sometimes called the Love Feast melody, but which I have simply called Grundthema. Many of the ideas that appear later are related to the Grundthema only to the extent that they contain or develop a melodic cell that appears in the melody, such as a rising and falling semitone, or a fragment of arpeggio or scale. In the most extreme cases, the relationship may be that the musical motif is characterised by an interval that appears in the Grundthema (such as a tritone or a falling perfect fifth), or that the motif also modulates from tonic key to mediant key or the reverse, or (in the case of the Holy Grail motif as related to the first part of the Grundthema) that the motif consists of an incomplete ascending scale from tonic to octave. The reader should decide for his or herself how much credence to give to these suggested relationships. It is certainly not worth trying to relate everything that appears later to the Grundthema, although there may be those who will try to do so.

It is, however, the elucidation of relationships between the musical material and the dramatic action that makes the exercise worthwhile. Otherwise it is reduced to a sterile activity of labelling musical motives, like butterflies in a museum, so that they may be listed in a handbook such as those that have been sold at Bayreuth for over a century. The quest for musical relationships is a rewarding one, and the discoveries to be made provide insights not only into the process of composition but also into the ideas beneath the surface of the music-drama.

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