Program Notes


BORN May 22, 1813. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

DIED on February 13, 1883. Venice, Italy

COMPOSED: Drafted from September 1877 to April 16, 1879, and completed in January 1882

WORLD PREMIERE: (Of the complete opera) July 26, 1882, led by Hermann Levi at Bayreuth Festspielhaus

US PREMIERE: December 24, 1903, at the Metropolitan Opera, led by Alfred Hertz

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—April 1971. Seiji Ozawa conducted 

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes, 3 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 26 mins

THE BACKSTORY Richard Wagner called his final opera, Parsifal, a Bühnenweihfestspiel, which is to say a “festival play for the consecration of a stage” or, as it is sometimes translated (though problematically), a “sacred stage festival play.” It is beyond question that the composer himself viewed the term as relating to a particular stage: the stage of the Festspielhaus that he had arranged to have constructed according to his detailed plans in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. Opera had been part of the landscape of Bayreuth since the mid-seventeenth century, and the town was (and still is) home to a lovely late-Baroque theater, the Margravial Opera House, in which works had been presented regularly. But such a theater would not have the technical—or spiritual—resources for the works Wagner wished to create.

In 1863, in the preface to his four-part operatic epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner outlined his aspirations about building a new theater on radical lines, including “an auditorium in the shape of an amphitheater and with the great advantage of an orchestra invisible to the audience [to which] singers from German opera houses, chosen for their outstanding acting skills, would be summoned probably in early spring, to rehearse the several parts of my work, uninterrupted by any other artistic activity.”

Wagner’s chief patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, approved the realization of Wagner’s dream, as did various civic authorities and bankers, and in May 1872 the foundation stone was laid on what would become famous as the Green Hill on the northern outskirts of Bayreuth. Fundraising proved difficult, to Wagner’s amazement and discouragement, but the theater rose nonetheless, if more slowly than Wagner wanted. By August 1876 it was open for its inaugural performances, the first-ever complete presentation of the Ring Cycle, which was given thrice in succession.

After that came six years of silence, during which Wagner contemplated the immense deficit his project had run up. For better or worse, Wagner’s ego was such that discouragement rarely impinged on his ambitions. Since 1857 he had been working on a libretto on the story of Parsifal and the Holy Grail, derived from a thirteenth century epic poem titled Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. It had been a long-term aspiration. He had taken a copy of Wolfram’s text along with him on a trip to Bohemia just after the premiere of Tannhäuser, in 1845. “With the book under my arm,” he wrote, “I hid myself in the neighboring woods and, seated by a brook, feasted myself on Titurel and Parzival in Wolfram’s strange yet intimately appealing poem.”

Parsifal was a popular character in medieval literature. His first extant appearance was in Perceval ou le Conte du Graal (Perceval, the Story of the Grail), an unfinished romance penned by the trouvère Chrétien de Troyes in about the 1180s, but Chrétien said that he derived his poem from a pre-existing source which has never been located. Wolfram’s version followed not long after, and in the fifteenth century the tale figured in one of the cornerstones of English literature, Sir Thomas Malory’s The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table, known today as Le Morte d’Arthur, the name it was given when it was published posthumously in 1485. Although the details about Parsifal vary in the different tellings of the tale, they agree on the general thrust of his character. Following his father’s death, his mother raised him in isolation in a forest, where he grew up as a sort of holy innocent unaware of the sinful propensities of mankind. A chance encounter with knights passing through the woods inspired him to join their ranks, and he became a principal figure in their guardianship of the Holy Grail.

In Wolfram’s version of the story, Parsifal has a son—Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan. Shortly after he read Wolfram’s poem by the Bohemian brook, Wagner embarked on writing his opera Lohengrin (premiered in 1850), and indeed Parsifal merits a reference in the libretto. At the point where Lohengrin reveals his long-concealed identity, he sings: “I was sent here among you by the Grail: my father Parsifal wears its crown; his knight am I, and Lohengrin my name.” When he wrote Tristan und Isolde (premiered in 1865), Wagner still had Parsifal on his mind; for a while, he planned to have him play a part in Act III of that opera, though he eventually decided against it.

Already in 1857, Wagner reported an experience he had in a garden near Zurich: “The garden was breaking into leaf, the birds were singing, and I could rejoice in the fruitful quiet I had so long thirsted for. Suddenly it came to me that this was Good Friday, and I remembered the great message it had once brought to me as I was reading Wolfram’s Parzival. . . . Its essence now became clear to me in overwhelming significance, and on the basis of the Good Friday idea I quickly conceived an entire drama of which I made a brief and hasty sketch in three acts.” Not until the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was achieved and the Ring Cycle introduced did Wagner finally turn his focus squarely on Parsifal. In 1877, with the sounds of the Ring still ringing in his ears, he brought his libretto for Parsifal to finished form and began setting it to a musical score. In January 1882, Parsifal was finally finished, and six months later the Festspielhaus opened its doors again, greeting its patrons for sixteen performances of what would be Wagner’s final opera.

The complicated plot of Wagner’s Parsifal involves the knights who, at their castle in Spain, watch over the Holy Grail (the vessel holding Christ’s blood) and the spear that pierced Christ’s side, the hardships that befall them in retribution for sins (particularly losing guardianship of the spear), and how Parsifal arrives in their midst and, following various travails, sets things aright, all against a background of mystical religiosity. The “Good Friday Spell” (or “Good Friday Music”) falls at the end of Act III, Scene One. Having achieved his principal task of regaining the spear, Parsifal is set to become the knights’ leader. He “gazes in gentle rapture on wood and meadow, which are now glowing in the morning light,” reads the stage direction. “How fair seem the meadows today!” he sings; and a senior knight responds, “That is the magic of Good Friday, my lord!”

THE MUSIC With the vocal lines stripped out, this music becomes the “Good Friday Spell,” often excerpted as a standalone orchestral piece. As with all the operas of Wagner’s maturity, Parsifal is riddled with leitmotifs, musical themes that recur to suggest specific dramatic ideas. This section opens with Parsifal’s own leitmotif, a fanfare figure, but the musical phrase that is perhaps most widely associated with Parsifal is also very present in this expanse: the “Dresden Amen,” so called because it was composed by Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741-1801) as an Amen setting for use at the Kreuzkirche in Dresden. Its harmonic progression and its melodic line, rising step-wise, occur frequently enough to serve as a unifying force in this excerpt. The principal “Good Friday” theme, however, is entrusted to the oboe, which sings it forth with a combination of calm and expressiveness, which are the overriding sensations in this passage of transcendent loveliness.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(April 2019)

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