As such an epic opera, it can be hard to know where to start with the sublime music of Wagner’s Parsifal, so we’ve picked out five moments to listen out for…
Parsifal opens with an achingly beautiful 15-minute orchestral prelude (or overture). Out of silence, a simple melody emerges, played by unison strings, and seems to hover there — it is difficult to pinpoint where the beat is, which creates a sense of otherworldliness. Several minutes in, the brass takes over, adding grandeur and nobility.
Many of the opera’s leitmotifs (reccurring musical themes that represent objects, people or ideas) are introduced right from the get-go — those associated with the Grail and the Spear, and also abstract ideas like sorrow and faith: “the prelude contains all that’s needed and it all unfolds like a flower from its bud” (Wagner).
By the prelude’s close, the audience is already totally drawn into Parsifal and its soundworld!
2. ‘Wehvolles Erbe’ (Woeful legacy)
This is Amfortas’ lament in Act I, a famous tour de force for a dramatic baritone. With the knights assembled for Holy Communion, their King, Amfortas, grieves that it falls to him to uncover the Grail when, as the only sinner among them, it causes him so much pain.
You can hear his shame and torment in the music — the restless string rhythms and shifting harmonies always searching for resolution.
3. ‘Ich sah das Kind’ (I saw the child)
This is Kundry’s aria in Act II, through which she attempts to seduce Parsifal. Cunningly, she knows that the way to make him most vulnerable is to use memories of his beloved mother and early childhood (yes it’s a bit odd!)
As such, it contains music of great tenderness in slow 6/8, the traditional time signature of a lullaby. It also has a hazy quality, seemingly in danger of losing its tonal centre with a vocal melody that wanders, lulling both Parsifal and the audience into a dreamlike state…
4. Good Friday Music
In Act III, Parsifal has made his way back to the Castle of the Grail and exhausted, he rests in a sunny meadow. He notices how beautiful nature is and is told that this is because of “Good Friday’s Spell” — a moment of transfiguration in which the world is renewed.
What follows is known as the ‘Good Friday Music’, and with the vocal lines removed, it is often performed as a standalone orchestral piece. The music is peaceful but always searching, evolving and building. Many of the leitmotifs return, including the fanfare-like theme that represents Parsifal himself, but most important is the ‘flower meadow motif’, which is played by the oboe and paints the colours and scents around him.
N.B. according to his autobiography, the idea for Parsifal came to Wagner on a sunny Good Friday in 1857!
The final five minutes of Parsifal are totally transcendent — and worth the wait. Over the celestial sound of harps, we hear the motifs associated with the Grail and the Spear finally united in one ascending line, followed by the sound of the distant chorus, who sing the opera’s final line “Erlösung dem Erlöser” (Redemption to the Redeemer).
In the shimmering last moments, the music goes through a vast array of keys — a long circle of fifths leads upwards, carrying the audience into exalted places. Finally, we arrive at Parsifal’s ultimate resolution, and have somehow ended up in the same key in which the opera began… phew!
Our concert staging of Parsifal opens in June, and tours concert halls around the UK.