Parsifal (Prelude with ending of the third act ad.lib.)
Wilhelm Richard Wagner
Vorspiel WWV 111
Prelude with ending of the third act ad.lib.
(b. Leipzig, 22 May 1813 – d. Venice, 13 February 1883)
Premiere: Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Second Annual Festival, 1882
At the feet of Weber
If ever a composer was born into a theatrical milieu, it was Richard Wagner. An artistic revolutionary who reimagined nine–teenth-century musical theater, he was a complex, controversial figure rooted in the music of the early Romantic German stage
Raised by his mother and stepfather Ludwig Geyer, the young Wilhelm Richard Geyer (as he was known until the age of fourteen) moved with his family to Dresden at the age of one, where his stepfather joined the Court Theater as a character actor. Ludwig smuggled his youngest stepson into the Costume Shop, and Richard made his first appearance as a cherub at four years old. His five sisters were named after heroines in Goethe and Schiller, and three became professional actresses. His niece Johana created the role of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and had a notable career as a singer.
Composer Carl Maria von Weber (cousin of Constanze Weber Mozart) was a regular visitor to Wagner’s childhood home, and the eight-year-old boy had a model theater of the Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s Freischütz, including scenery, curtains, animals, and fireworks. Theater in this period was ubiquitous, with troupes of traveling players, municipal companies, small private court theaters allowing no press (like the one in Weimar where Liszt gave the premieres of many of Wagner’s works), and large court theaters run mainly by Italians.
By the time of the French Revolution, spectacular scenery had become an essential ingredient of opera. The zenith of such endeavors was the Paris Opéra around 1830, where Jewish composers such as Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) and Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) wrote works exploiting the expertise of engineers and stage technicians. Weber made crucial innovations in Dresden, building up a German opera company in Dresden alongside an established Italian one. By the time of his death in 1826, two-thirds of Dresden premieres were of German works. It was Weber who started the modern practice of beginning rehearsals for a new work with a Leseprobe (table read), and he was one of the first composers to take responsibility for all aspects of staging and scenic design. Wagner built on this foundation and applied his gifts for coaxing totally committed performances from his singers.
After his stepfather died in 1821, Wagner was sent to the Dresdner Kreuzchor boarding school. After his fourteenth birthday, the family resettled in Leipzig and regularly attended performances at the Leipzig Theater, which had an orchestra of thirty-three and a mixed chorus of thirty. He changed his last name to Wagner, studied composition at Leipzig University (sketching a dramatic tragedy, Leubald and an opera, Die Hochzeit), and assisted the Cantor at the Thomasschule, where Bach had taught a century earlier.
The eldest of his three brothers, Albert (1799-1874), was a high tenor and stage manager of the Würzburg Theater company: he hired Richard as a chorus master (of fifteen choristers) in 1833. While in Würzburg, the twenty-year-old acted in plays, performed as a character mime in the ballet, and completed his fairy-tale opera Die Feen (premiered posthumously in 1888, since he refused to use Würzburg’s recycled “oriental” costumes).
Part-time positions followed, beginning in with a musical directorship in Magdeburg; here he completed his second opera, Das Liebesverbot (1834), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The production closed after only two performances due to a small audience, a ten-day rehearsal period that encouraged improvisation with his staging and lyrics, and a pre-performance fight between the prima donna’s husband and the tenor.
Although a successful conductor, especially in Riga, Latvia (1837-1839), Wagner ran up such huge debts that his passport was confiscated and he had to flee from creditors. Wagner had begun work on a third opera in Riga, but abandoned it after only three songs: he transplanted a tale from The Arabian Nights to nineteenth-century Germany and titled the work Männerlist grösser als Frauenlist, oder Die glückliche Bärenfamilie (Man has more guile than woman, or The happy bear family). His next project, begun in Riga and finished in Paris, was to become his third completed opera, Rienzi.
Wagner reached Paris by way of a storm-tossed sea voyage via London, but could only find work arranging operatic airs for cornet à pistons, due to “the protégés of the powers which alone controlled art matters.” The Théâtre Italien and the Opéra-Comique focused on Italian opera, whereas the Théâtre Lyrique, rebuilt after the 1830 war, produced new works by Frenchmen such as Berlioz and Gounod, and occasionally transferred works from the German and Italian stage (including the premiere of the French version of Wagner’s Rienzi in 1869).
Despite the Revolution of 1830, the Paris Opéra (as called the Académie Royale de Musique) was under government control, specializing in five-act French grand opera. Words, music, religious processions, crowds, executions, sunrises, revolutions, sunsets, and ballet were combined to maximum spectacular effect. The official Commission de Surveillance demanded “grandeur,” but restricted Opéra scenarios to those “drawn from mythology or history; principal subjects are kings or heroes.” Wagner attended at least ten Opéra productions and praised the “beautiful orchestral playing and the meticulous and effective staging” of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. He was paid to create the piano-vocal score for Halévy’s La Reine de Chypre (1841) and later affirmed that he “still took pleasure in the great style [of La Juive] and praised Halévy as “the first musical genre-painter.” He met the scenic artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1789-1851), who was famous for his lighting illusions (such as the eruption of Vesuvius used for the finale of Auber’s La muette de Portici), and the invention of the silver iodide daguerreotype.
Although Wagner did not present any work in Paris, Meyerbeer recommended Rienzi to the Dresden Court Theater, where all six hours were staged to considerable acclaim in 1842. The premiere enabled Wagner to return home, and he was appointed the Royal Court Composer of Saxony the following year. Wagner first encountered the 13th-century chivalric romance by Wolfram von Eschenbach that provided his chief source for Parsifal in the remarkably productive summer of 1845, in the spa town of Marienbad, while on vacation from his duties as a conductor for Dresden’s opera house. Wagner was an ambitious and determined man of 32 that summer; by the time he began writing the music for Parsifal, he had reached his mid-60s, a weathered and withdrawn composer suffering from angina. He completed the full score in January 1882, just a little more than a year before his death in Venice.
While in Dresden, Wagner got involved in leftist politics, and after the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848-1849, Wagner, Smetana, and other composers fled the region (he was not allowed to return until 1862). All of his political and racially charged writings date from these years of exile, after the completion of Rienzi. Wagner developed his own conception of German grand opera or “music drama” as Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art), and built his own theater in Bayreuth.
Wagner’s final opera is a musical journey unlike any other. The composer labeled Parsifal a Bühnenweihfestspiel, a festival play for the [second] consecration of a stage [the Bayreuth Festival House, which Wagner had built to produce the Ring cycle]. Parsifal took advantage of the distinctive sonority and immersive experience of the Bayreuth space: its sound world reverberates with colors, nuances, and textures unlike anything else found in Wagner. Nietzsche damned the opera as “a curse on the senses and the spirit,” and after hearing the Vorspiel performed he wrote of its “penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as with a knife.”
In 1865, responding to a request from King Ludwig II, his patron, Wagner produced a detailed sketch of Parsifal—including the backstory pertaining to the Holy Grail and the origin of the medieval chivalric order of knights assigned to protect it. He wrote the libretto in January 1877, following the first-ever staging of the Ring cycle the previous summer. As Wagner wrote in his late essay Art and Religion, art is able to reveal the “deep and hidden truth” of the “mythic symbols” which religion “would have us believe in their literal sense.”
The score of Parsifal is an extraordinary blend of musical transcendence and dramatic cohesion with bells and offstage choruses evoking a liturgical atmosphere. The magnificent and expansive Vorspiel conveys the important role the orchestra will play in creating a world in which time itself is experienced in an unusual way. Wagner, moreover, wove personal experiences from across the span of his life into the fabric of Parsifal’s music, imagery, and scenic conception, such as the “Dresden Amen” from the city where he once harbored revolutionary hopes or the tolling bells he heard in his exile in Zurich.
Wagner’s widow Cosima tried to intensify Parsifal’s mystique by restricting staged performances to Bayreuth for the thirty-year duration of its copyright. Causing a scandal, New York’s Metropolitan Opera stirred up enormous excitement by staging the first American performance on Christmas Eve in 1903.
Richard Wagner Goes to the Theatre (1996) is a beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue from Bayreuth by Oswald Bauer that chronicles Wagner’s life as a theatergoer. The two leading books on Romantic grand opera design and culture are Jane Fulcher’s The Nation’s Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art (Cambridge, 1987) and Patrick Carnegy’s Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (Yale, 2006): “the best documented publication in all the recent literature on Wagner,” according to Pierre Boulez.
©2016 Laura Stanfield Prichard
San Francisco Symphony
For performance material please contact Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden.
225 x 320 mm