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Musical Highlight: Wagner's use of church music in Parsifal

How, where and why Wagner incorporated the Dresden amen.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

15 November 2013 at 5.51pm | Comment on this article

The Prelude to Wagner’s opera Parsifal begins with a melody that only gradually reveals its shape. It is slow, sustained, with long phrases that seem to yearn upwards in pitch. Subtle syncopations are half-hesitant, half-urgent. It's played twice, each time building and then dying away almost to nothing. Then silence. The melody is played again but varied, and again followed by silence. Then comes something unexpected (at 4:23 below). It is a very different theme, a musical opposite: short, no chromatic notes or modulations of harmony, rhythmically simple and with a melody based on a five-note rising scale (A flat up to E flat). The style of the theme is so different from the first one, with an air of calm authority – a quietly confident full stop, after the numinous, intangible first theme. What is this musical ‘full stop’ and why is it so different?

Wagner is especially known for his use of leitmotifs – musical themes that represent people, actions, objects and concepts, which are altered throughout an opera to reflect what is happening in the story and what the characters are thinking. Usually these leitmotifs are almost fragmentary or open-ended to allow for change. The Parsifal ‘full stop’ is totally different because it is so closed musically, almost defying change. But then it isn’t by Wagner. It is a sung ‘amen’ widely performed in Protestant churches in Wagner’s time, associated in particular with Dresden and hence called the Dresden amen, also present in the composer's other operas Das Liebesverbot and Tannhäuser.

This association matters. In any opera prelude or overture we may hear melodies that come later in the opera and have significance as leitmotifs. But at the beginning they have no associations – these themes are just sounds until we discover their dramatic context. But for the audiences of Wagner’s time the Dresden amen came with its own preformed religious associations. Parsifal is based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th century epic poem telling the tale of Arthurian knight Parzival and his quest for the Holy Grail, and when we hear the Dresden amen in the drama it is clearly associated with the revelation of the Grail to the knights at the climax of the ritual that is also the climax of Act I.

Mostly we continue to hear the Dresden amen in contexts when the Grail is present as symbol and in actual fact. This is why it is part of the music for the transition as Gurnemanz leads Parsifal to the temple for the first time to witness the ritual. We also hear the Dresden amen referenced as Parsifal catches the spear in Act II, where its musical certainty contrasts starkly with the ‘unstable’ music of sorcerer Klingsor’s magic realm. In Act III it is a significant part of the final scene of redemption.

The orchestral prelude that opens Act III shows this theme in a different and very unexpected way. So often in such introductions Wagner takes a familiar motif and changes it through a process of symphonic development. But here it works the other way round. The uneasy, syncopated climbing figure in the orchestra gradually coalesces into a forceful statement of the Dresden amen (at 2:55 above). It is as though the five-note rising phrase has got tangled up like string, and the music is trying to unravel it. So the Dresden amen is not the music’s starting point, but its goal. The symbolism of spiritual aspiration is very clear. But that aspiration is thwarted, as the Dresden amen isn’t allowed to resolve onto the last chord as we expect it to – though this only adds to the power of its final resolution at the end of the opera. Ultimately, the certainty of the Amen is more than just a musical 'full stop'. It represents through music the certainty Parsifal has gained in Faith itself.

Parsifal runs from 30 November-18 December 2013. Tickets are still available.
The production will also be relayed live to cinemas around the world on 18 December. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support of the Metherell Family, Roland & Sophie Rudd, Dr and Mrs Michael West, Marina Hobson MBE, Ian and Helen Andrews, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Annie Frankel, Malcolm Herring, Dr L Mikheev and N Mikheev, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, The Wagner Circle and The Parsifal Production Syndicate and generously supported in memory of Simon Tullah.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

15 November 2013 at 5.51pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Stephen Langridge, Holy Grail, Music, Musical highlight, Parsifal, Parzifal, Production, Richard Wagner

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