Wagner – “Prelude” (to Act I) and “Good Friday Music” to Parsifal

by Max Derrickson

Wilhelm Richard Wagner      (b Leipzig, 22 May, 1813; Venice, 13 February, 1883)

“Prelude” (to Act I) and “Good Friday Music” to Parsifal

Wagner’s opening Prelude to Parsifal, his last opera (premiered in 1882), is an extraordinary expression in many respects.  That it is called a Prelude, rather than an Overture (as is the operatic norm), is a particularly Wagnerian contrivance; largely composed from the opera’s thematic motifs, it functions mainly as a preparation for the grandiose scope and tenor of the story that will unfold.  Slowly and ponderously it introduces the tale, charged with an indescribable emotional undertow, its motifs build into wondrously majestic epiphanies and then melt into disarmingly somber and aching moments.  With Wagner’s incomparable gifts at orchestrating and molding themes and harmonies, one is left somewhere between pious reflection and immeasurably deep awe.

This reverent reflection is precisely the frame of mind which Wagner intended for his listeners, as Parsifal was to be his ultimate achievement in art and social/religious  theory.  His artistic attempt to combine all of the arts (literature, music, graphic art) and religion into the “true art,” or opera as the sublime expression, certainly manifests itself in Parsifal.  That he spent nearly a quarter of his life planning, financing, and building an opera house (the “Festspielhaus” in Bayreuth, Germany) dedicated solely to the production of his operas is only half of the megalomania of Richard Wagner.  The Festspielhaus was intended to be a Shrine to Art and Purity, and those who took the pilgrimage to this sacred place far from the maddening crowds were to be purified by the sacrament of Wagner’s creations.  Near the completion of the Festspielhaus he began writing a newspaper, the Bayreuther Blätter, devoted to expounding on his music and his social theories of racial purification.  Obsessed as he was with his Christ complex, Parsifal was a fitting theme for consecrating his holy shrine with his “true art.”  Wagner called it, not an opera, but a “Buhnenweihfestspiel” (meaning roughly stage-consecrating festival play), insisting that it could be produced only inBayreuth for the term of its copyright.

The story of Parsifal, mythified by Medieval writers (in particular the German Eschenbach), and rewritten by Wagner, revolves around the Spear that stabbed Christ’s side on the Cross, and the goblet (Grail) that Christ drank from at the Last Supper.  Wagner’s rather complex libretto tells the story of a brotherhood of honorable men, the Knights of the Grail which is formed to guard those two sacred relics and to fight evil. When Klingsor, an applicant for the Knighthood, is rejected by the Knights,
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Parsifal’s destiny is to heal Amfortas’ wound with the Spear that caused it, but his greater destiny is to exemplify a Christological compassion and redemption.

Whatever Wagner’s sacramental intentions might have been in his grand opera house, today in the concert hall one does not come to hear Parsifal for redemption, but rather for its exquisite music that transcends all of Wagner’s’ incredible eccentricities.   The two orchestral portions played tonight, “Prelude to Act I” and “Good Friday Music,” are magnificently austere and noble, and beautiful in their breadth and vastness.  Keystones to Wagner’s operas are his innovative uses of rich chromaticism and harmonies, ingeniously unique orchestration (in fact, Wagner designed some of his own instruments), and his intensive development of the leitmotif — themes associated with specific characters, locales, or plot elements.  The “Prelude” begins with the Motif of the Sacrament,
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Motif of Faith, which is given an especially dignified theme in the brass.  The development of this motif builds to one of the most movingly powerful moments in the opera.

The “Good Friday Music,” originally set for voices and orchestra, is the baptismal scene appearing in the third and final Act, when after years of wandering, Parsifal (the “holy fool,” the chosen one) finally returns to the Grail Castle on that holy day.  One of the Knights explains to him
[. . .]
In the midst of all this, Parsifal, in his purity and innocence, takes a moment to remark on the beauty of the blooming mountain meadows, and the clarinet sings the magnificently lovely Good Friday Meadows Motif.  The scene then meanders through various motifs and their reincarnations, gently winding down to its softly tender ending.