Motif 32: Desolation

German name: Ödethema

Soundbytes Desolation (ogg format)

Musical example: Motif 32 - Desolation

We hear this musical idea on strings alone at the very start of the prelude to the third act. The prelude is music of utter desolation. The simple motif of Desolation appears repeatedly throughout the first scene of this act, in which the penitent Kundry and the elderly Gurnemanz greet the stranger. Lorenz observed that this motif is as important for the third act as the Grundthema was for the first act. It is the starting point for the music of the final act of the drama.

Wagner's sketch for the Desolation motif

Above: Wagner's sketch (October 1878) for the Desolation motif.

The falling fifths might be heard as an allusion both to the Prophecy motif and indirectly to the falling fourths of the Bells motif. It might be intended that where the Prophecy motif held out hope for the Grail community, this motif expresses the loss of that hope. The falling tritone immediately suggests Kundry, since as we noted earlier it is her characteristic interval, and so it connects the opening of this act with Kundry: who at this point is asleep, awaiting Parsifal. What is certain is that all of these musical ideas are interconnected. The second part of the theme (a) recalls the subsidiary motif of Nature, which appeared earlier in the contexts of Nature's Healing and in the seduction music of the Flower Maidens. Here the composer is speaking again of nature but also of the Grail domain as a community in distress.

The motif of Desolation returns at the first words of Amfortas (Ja, Wehe! Wehe!) in the final scene. Here it serves to connect the weariness of Amfortas, waiting for Parsifal, with the weariness of Parsifal seeking Amfortas. So an alternative name for this idea would be weariness.

Albert Lavignac called this motif the desert and von Wolzogen called it desolation (Öde).

References: von Wolzogen ex.20, Lorenz pp.144-6, Lavignac p.464, Kufferath ex.45, Newman ex.39, Bauer pp.36-39, ENO ex.47, Kinderman 2005.

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