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Parsifal, Prelude to Act 1

Parsifal – Prelude and Good Friday Music

From the very opening of the Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, the listener is transported into a world out of time. A long, unaccented and unaccompanied theme rises slowly form the lower string to the shimmering resolution which fills the whole orchestra, and from which the same theme re-emerges. Wagner is in no hurry to leave this gently wistful motif and extracts a good deal of mystic power from it before moving on to the next section. This is introduced by a very simple statement of the Dresden Amen, representing the Holy Grail, leading a sonorous, forthright brass theme, the Faith motif. Only one other motif is clearly heard in the Prelude, Amfortas’s Agony, whose tortured harmonies cast a shadow over the calm of the other three. The overall impression is a curious, unearthly blend of immobility and of a reaching upwards towards the light. Having attained it, the music hovers there, drifting into silence without any descent from that enchanted summit.

In Act 3, Parsifal, now in possession of the once-lost Holy spear and made wise through his years of painful travel, finds his way back to the Castle of the Grail, arriving on a Good Friday. His return means the fulfilment of the prophecy, Amfortas’s salvation and the renewal of the Brother hood of the Grail. He is greeted by the hermit Gurnemanz as their saviour, and is anointed King, to the triumphant fanfare that begins the passage known as the Good Friday Music.

Before leaving the spring by which Gurnemanz lives, the weary Parsifal rests and observes with wonder the beauty of the sunlit, flower-filled meadow around him. ‘This is Good Friday’s magic spell,’ explains Gurnemaz. Nature and all Creation rejoice on this day because with the Redeemer’s sacrifice the earth has been cleansed of sin. Quiet triplets in the strings create a translucent wash of sound from which a beautiful oboe melody rises tranquilly, evoking the warmth of sunlight and the lightest of flower-scented breezes. As in the Prelude, the picture is one of tranquility, peaceful ecstasy and profound compassion.

Kate Lang


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