Wagner’s Parsifal – A Musical Analysis

In this video, I’m looking at the prelude to the third act of Parsifal, the last music drama by Richard Wagner, and one of my favourite pieces of music. I won’t go into too much depth of analysis, but I do want to note a few things that may help us to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into composing this work.

We begin with very much a B flat minor feeling, the upbeat on the B flat suggesting the tonic note. This opening motif is well constructed out of these strong intervals – the ascending forth, which then descends by a diminished fifth. (These kinds of intervals really stick out of a melodic line or a contrapuntal texture, hence they are extremely useful motivic building-blocks.)

Wagner, however, introduces an ambiguity with the intrusion of the G flat in bar 2; is it an added sixth, or does it establish the fundamental of a G flat seventh chord? We are treated with more “vagrant harmonies” or chromatic shifts as the phrase progresses. The diminished seventh chord, favourite device of late romantic composers, offers smooth part-leading in this passage, and it also provides a profile of the motivic content of much of this prelude.

The diminished seventh maps out neatly onto the octatonic scale, from which we can derive a lot of the melodic ideas here. At 214, for instance, the melody and bassline map out the octatonic scale, with added chromatic notes, to smooth out the voice-leading and to offer a more defined sense of tonality. The octatonic scale, used strictly, can feel rootless, without a sure key centre; if overuse it runs the danger of making a piece of music sound stale or overly static. Wagner’s writing feels very fresh here, because he retains a strong sense of tonality, however ambiguous.

I’m not suggesting that Wagner consciously thought of writing music with the octatonic scale – here it is merely a consequence of his use of chromaticism and diminished chords – but for the sake of this analysis it’s a recognisable structure we can point to.

He cranks up the tension, by repeating these phrases up the scale by a semitone. We can feel the anxiety ramping up a notch, until it reaches a peak and we experience a sense of relief as the melodic line descends, almost with a sense of deflation, which leads us into a repeat of the main motif, transposed up an augmented fourth.

The importance of leitmotif in Wagner really comes to the fore in these busy passages, for they root the music in something solid and familiar, which allows for a freer play of tonality (with more expressive and ambiguous harmony), without compromising the formal structure of the work. Wagner succeeds in this because his motifs on the whole have strong tonal implications. It’s a question of balance between these different elements of the composition.

The regular, plodding bassline in this passage also does a lot of work towards establishing a sense of rootedness, almost like a passacaglia. In places it closely resembles the kind of walking bass figures you get in certain blues progressions, though I doubt Wagner would approve of the analogy.

In fact, the tell-tale profile of this phrase is what makes up the character Kundry’s leitmotif. The way it folds back on itself helps to suggest the cyclical nature of time, for this is a character who has lived for hundreds of years in a seemingly futile search for redemption. It is rooted by its own repetition – not in any sense of cadence or harmonic progression. This is a crucial distinction to make, for Wagner is utilising here the sense of telos that comes with tonality – the feeling that we are approaching a goal, a final resolution of dissonance, such as we find in the climactic ending of Tristan und Isolde. In Parsifal, this sense of telos is absent from the music of the more wayward characters – Kundry, Amfortas, and the evil magician Klingsor. They are stuck in a cycle of suffering, unable to effect their own deliverance from it. We may find in this the strongest example of a buddhist influence on the opera, which Wagner openly acknowledged. In this sense, the characters are stuck in samsara – the directionless cycle of death and rebirth – and only the intervention of Parsifal can offer them liberation.

One of his leitmotifs is an ascending series of fifths, which finds its fullest expression in the final scene of the opera, when Parsifal releases Amfortas from service to the grail. A fifth is a very pure, consonant harmony, perhaps suggesting the moral purity of Parsifal himself, and these fifths seem to be building towards a resolution, ascending by degrees of the diatonic scale. In the prelude they appear with these dotted rhythms, which links them to another motif associated with Parsifal – this martial-sounding figure. This is his most characteristic leitmotif, and it is unapologetically tonal, tracing out a brilliant, triadic fanfare. It is one figure conspicuously absent from this prelude, for it is associated more with Parsifal as a youth, eager for adventure. By the third act Parsifal is a mature warrior, and it makes sense that his music is more sober and subdued at this stage.

Much of this prelude reads almost as a dialogue or conflict between this motif of the mature Parsifal, and the regular, keening figure associated with Kundry.

The dissonance here is extreme for its time, and although Wagner is well known for his use of dissonance, it remains striking to this day; a testament of how expressive his music can be. It owes this extreme sense of dissonance in part to Wagner’s use of registers – having the Gflat sound high above, in a gaping melodic leap gives full emphasis to its dissonant, semitonal relationship to the F in the bass. The other reason it sounds so striking, is that it is a note outside the octatonic scale, to which the bassline corresponds. We might expect to hear a G natural in the melody, which would fit the mode, but instead that scale degree is flattened, leaving the note sticking out like a sore thumb.

I’ve composed a very conventional alternative to this dissonance, to illustrate these points. Here’s how it would sound if the melody remained in the same register, and if we stuck safely within the octatonic scale. It’s a perfectly fine passage of music, which might have come out of any average late romantic composer, but it lacks the emotional oomph of the Wagner, and is in no way remarkable as the original is.

Wagner already explored the impact of these displaced melodies in his earlier music drama, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, particularly in this passage to which Arnold Schoenberg draws our attention. These kind of innovations and such a flagrant disregard for the “rules” of smooth melodic writing aroused the anger of critic Eduard Hanslick, for whom the conservatism and formal purity of Brahms set the bar for other composers. In Hanslick’s view, this kind of writing was simply amateurish, or else in very poor taste. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced by Wagner’s use of this style of melodic writing in the example from Die Meistersinger, and I can understand Hanslick’s reservations, but in the case of the passage from Parsifal, such innovative composing elevates the material to new heights of grandeur and pathos.

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