Orchestration of Wagner's Parsifal
Claude Debussy writing to André Caplet, 25.8.1912
he 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.
Theodor Adorno, Versuch über Wagner, 1952, chapter 5.
agner 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.
or 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.
n 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
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.
he 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.
n 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.
* Piccolo doubling 3rd (4th) flute.
** Oboe doubling cor anglais.
*** 4 horns doubling Wagner tubas.