It’s difficult to believe, given the size of the work, that Wagner’s last opera is all built on very little material, relatively speaking. The very first phrase that we hear holds in itself the germs of dramatically important leitmotifs recurring throughout the whole opera.
The first one is the Fellowship or Redemption motif, spanning 2 bars; overlapping it, is the Wound or Guilt motif starting halfway through the second bar; the third, is the motif of the spear, covering the last 3 bars.
“He plays me the Prelude, from the orchestral sketch! My emotion lasts long – then he speaks to me about this feature, in the mystery of the Grail, of blood turning into wine, which permits us to turn our gaze refreshed back to earth, whereas the conversion of wine into blood draws us away from the earth.”
In this way, Richard Wagner’s wife Cosima describes in her diary, on September 26, 1877, her first encounter with her husband’s last opera. And Richard himself noted that
“the prelude contains all that’s needed and it all unfolds like a flower from its bud”
Richard Wagner by Franz Hanfstaengl, 1871
The story of Parsifal, in Wagner’s complex libretto, evolves around the Spear used to stab Christ on the cross and the Grail from which he drank during the Last Supper. The honorable Knights of the Grail are there to guard these two relics against evil.
It’s the ultimate synthesis of Wagner’s beliefs in creating a new form of art, one that could incorporate not just all arts but the micro and macro cosmos of humanity, from philosophy to religion.
At the same time, it was the consecration of his own temple, Bayreuth: he insisted that the opera could only be performed there until the end of its copyright.
R.Wagner – Parsifal, Prelude to Act 1
Should you need a score you can find one here.
The Prelude is an introduction to the opera: not just to its various motifs but also to the inner nobility that the listener should derive and be invested in by the end of the performance.
The structure is essentially built on 3 sections, similar to the traditional Italian overture of the 18th century.
The music reveals itself very slowly, giving the audience all the chances to absorb it.
Notice the orchestration, warm, elegant: violins and cellos with mutes, 1 bassoon, and 1 clarinet. It’s interesting to also notice the tonal ambiguity, shifting between Ab major and C minor.
This is, by the way, the same melody to which the chorus sings “Erlösung dem Erlöser” (Redemption to the Redeemer) at the end of the work.
Quite a few motives that develop throughout the opera derive from this motif or from parts of it, the motif of the Grail Nights, for example, or the one of the Communion.
Pulsing triplets of the flutes and clarinets, along with the swarming arpeggios of the violas accompany warm chords of trombones, horns, and bassoons: everyone is starting in their lowest register building up a wall of sound.
It’s a cocoon, out of which the main motif emerges in a solo trumpet doubled by the oboes and half of the violins, first and second. The other half of the violins join the violas in the arpeggio figures contributing to the build-up of this cathedral of sound.
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