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Ringing the Changes in Parsifal: The Bells of the Grail Hall

A look at the tricky development of one of Wagner’s most distinctive sounds.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

20 November 2013 at 9.44am | 3 Comments

It's so simple – but the effect is immense. The four bells that toll through the transition scenes of Parsifal, Wagner's great final masterpiece, have an earth-shattering impact.

Parsifal twice journeys to the Grail Hall, in Acts I and III, and each time entails a majestic (and lengthy) scene change. The purely orchestral music is derived from a simple four-note theme, and towards the climax of each passage we hear the pattern played on four bells. The air hums with their complex overtones – bells sound not one note but a whole chord behind the main pitch – and at the height of their tremendous crescendos they almost make the building shake. Their many-note quality makes bells the perfect instrument to reflect the same-yet-different nature of the two transitions: in Act I dignified and heroic; in Act III, as the Grail community disintegrates, desolate and horrifying.

What were the actual sounds Wagner had in mind? Bells at the low pitch he required were hardly conventional orchestral instruments – for good reason, given the lowest pitch bell would weigh more than twenty-six tonnes and have a diameter of around eight metres. Tubular bells or bell plates, popular orchestral bell substitutes, would not cut it. Wagner needed something otherworldly – but also something that could fit in the pit.

There’s no easy solution. Wagner first thought to use tamtams, but after procuring some from London (apparently the nearest tamtam centre) he decided that alone they weren’t enough. He then commissioned a special piano-like instrument from his friend Eduard Steingraeber, with a piano’s metal frame and 24 strings all tuned to four notes, and a keyboard with just four (massive) keys.

For the premiere the Steingraeber was played alongside tamtams, gongs and a tuba, but the result evidently didn’t match the sounds of Wagner’s imagination. During rehearsals his wife Cosima wrote in her diary ‘The orchestra…breaks into hearty applause after the transition scene, which does R. good, though he has many difficulties to contend with: the bells are not right’.

A few years after the 1882 premiere - and Wagner's death the following year - Cosima supervised the construction of four huge metal barrels. These remained in place at Bayreuth for several decades. Other opera houses, once the 30-year embargo on performances outside Bayreuth had expired, had to find their own solutions, usually some combination of tubular bells and gongs.

The development of synthesizers in the early 20th century generated a new set of sounds, though it was some time before they made it to the Grail Hall. The Trautonium, invented by engineer Friedrich Trautwein in 1929, was used by composers throughout the 1930s, particularly Paul Hindemith who worked in collaboration with Oskar Sala, the instrument’s main proponent. It wasn’t until after Richard Strauss had used it to re-create bell sounds for his Japanische Festmusik (1940) that the Trautonium’s Parsifal potential was realized, with Sala taking over bells duty at Bayreuth from 1952.

Synthesizers are now the most widely used bells, and combined with a PA sound system they can have the requisite earthquake-like effect. They’re not without their perils, however, and if misjudged can sound less like bells of solemn majesty and more like an ice-cream van.

Synthesizers have been used at The Royal Opera for the previous two productions – but for Stephen Langridge’s new production Music Director Antonio Pappano has introduced a combination of live instruments, returning to Wagner’s original solution but now supported by modern technology. Tubular bells and bell plates will be played together with a close-miked piano, and the combined sound will be relayed through the Royal Opera House’s sound system. Judging from the rehearsals, it’s going to be thrilling.

Parsifal runs from 30 November to 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 Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

20 November 2013 at 9.44am

This article has been categorised Music, Opera and tagged Bayreuth, bells, by Stephen Langridge, Cosima Wagner, Holy Grail, Parsifal, Production, Richard Wagner, Steingräber, Trautonium

This article has 3 comments

  1. Awesome. Also interesting is the story of the original bells, donated by Wagner familiy to the Nazi government for fundition in WWII. There is a recording by Karl Muck with those bells.

  2. N. B.: The first electro-acoustic Grail Bells were performed by the German inventor Jorg Mager in 1931. See Peter Donhauser's book "Elektrische Klangmaschinen: Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Osterreich" (Vienna: Bohlau, 2007), pp. 200-203.

  3. Joy brooks responded on 4 July 2014 at 5:01pm Reply

    Excellent article and music out of this world.

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