For a composer whose mature works were almost exclusively for the operatic stage, Richard Wagner has an extraordinary presence in the concert hall. Orchestral excerpts by Wagner are mainstream symphonic repertoire, and they are not limited to the overtures and preludes to his operas. The nature of Wagner’s writing is such that the orchestra has an important role in furthering the plots of his music dramas. His system of Leitmotifs — literally, ‘leading motive,’ — associates a specific person, object, event, or even an emotion with a particular snippet of music. By combining, repeating, and layering these motives, Wagner gives listeners insight as to what characters on stage are thinking or feeling, without them necessarily even singing. His superb technical command of the symphonic ensemble allowed the operatic ‘pit’ orchestra to evolve into a larger and more sophisticated entity. Most of the Wagner overtures and instrumental excerpts are demanding and virtuosic for the performers, often showing brasses and strings to great advantage.
Parsifal was Wagner’s final opera. He drafted the libretto in March and April, 1877, and composed the score between August, 1877 and January, 1882. Wagner’s principal source for the tale was Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem, Parzifal. (The legend of the Holy Grail also has roots in the 12th-century French writings of Crestien de Troyes.) Wagner first read Eschenbach’s poem in modern German translation in the 1840s, shortly after completing the first version of Tannhäuser. His letters indicate that he thought about writing a Parzifal-based opera in the late 1850s, but Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and the Ring tetralogy intervened. A quarter of a century elapsed before Parsifal was premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in July, 1882.
Two orchestral excerpts from Parsifal show up in the concert hall: the Prelude that opens this evening’s program, and the Good Friday music. Thanks to Wagner’s recurring Leitmotifs, their music is related. He introduces most of the musical and philosophical elements of the opera in his Prelude: first the motives of suffering and the spear; later the motives associated with rites of the Holy Grail and with Faith.
Chappell White has written:
Parsifal is neither liturgy nor theology; it is art. . . .One must admit the possibility of serious, profound experience in the theater, for Parsifal epitomizes the rejection of the theater as entertainment and the acceptance of its use for promoting the highest things in life. . . . It does not require an act of faith on the part of the viewer. The meaning of the drama is mystical and religious.
It is not necessary to have an acquaintance with the opera in order to appreciate the Prelude or the Good Friday Spell. Listeners unfamiliar with this music will sense the importance of atmosphere in its opening measures: calm, slow, and expressive. Those who know Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony will recognize the “Dresden Amen,” which Wagner adapts as his Grail motive.
The Good Friday Spell music is drawn from early in Act III, which takes place on Good Friday. Parsifal has returned to the Temple of the Grail after years of wandering, having safely guarded the spear with which a Roman soldier pierced Christ’s breast at the Crucifixion. Recognizing the young man as the ‘pure fool’ of a prophecy made years before, the knight Gurnemanz anoints him the leader of the Temple. Parsifal notices that the countryside appears to be transformed. Gurnemanz explains that the Good Friday Spell transfigures nature through love and recovered purity.
As in the Prelude, Wagner’s unhurried pace evokes a sense of otherworldliness and eternity, but also suggests the eternal renewal of spring. Even without any religious association, the music communicates a reverence that is quite moving.
The score calls for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
IN THE COMPOSER’S WORDS
In his autobiography, Wagner claimed that much of his inspiration for the libretto of Parsifal came from a glorious day in spring 1857. The relevant passage is thought to be the seed of the Good Friday Spell.
Beautiful spring weather set in. On Good Friday I awoke to find the sun shining brightly for the first time in this home; the little garden was radiant with green, the birds sang, and I at last could sit on the roof and enjoy the long-yearned-for peace with its message of promise. I suddenly remembered that the day was Good Friday and I called to mind the significance this omen had already assumed for me when I was reading Wolfram’s Parsifal. Since the stay in Marienbad when I had conceived Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had never occupied myself again with that poem. Now its noble possibilities struck me with overwhelming force, and out of my thoughts about Good Friday I swiftly conceived a whole drama of which I made a rough sketch with a few dashes of the pen dividing the whole into three acts.
Not for another twenty years would those rough sketches come to fruition; however, the result was a late masterpiece, and the Good Friday music one of Wagner’s most sublime inspirations.
It turns out that Fal parsi means “pure fool” in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.
Of course that solves nothing. But here’s a clue: reverse the two words. Rather than adopt the name of the traditional Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic poem – or its British version as Percival – Wagner opted for an inversion of the Arab name that gave him the personality of his hero: a ‘pure fool’ with compassion. There you have it: the key to the entire opera.
Okay; perhaps it’s not quite so simple as that, but the meaning of the hero’s name goes a long way with a composer to whom every fragment of melody added another layer of meaning to orchestral texture. On the surface, the opera appears to be about Christian faith and the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Others perceive the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Buddhist ideas, with the underlying theme of compassion, pity, and forgiveness. The darker side of Parsifal is the undercurrent of racial purity and anti-semitism that are present in so many of Wagner’s writings. (He also wrote all his own libretti.)
The Good Friday Spell occurs in Act III, after Parsifal has baptized Kundry, his would- be seductress in Act II. Her baptism is his first sacred act after being entrusted with the holy mission as caretaker of the Grail. Parsifal shows Kundry the miracle of nature reawakening, an announcement of the Resurrection and forgiveness the day after Christ’s Passion. That miracle is the ‘action’ of the Good Friday music.
Serge Diaghilev. The name alone is magical in its evocation of dance and the ultimate synthesis of staged art in the early twentieth century, a presence whose power and force of personality have only been matched by George Balanchine. With his extraordinary Ballets russes troupe in Paris, Diaghilev anchored the finest dance company that the world had yet seen. Thirsty for artistic and musical talent as well as dancers, he was the quintessential impresario, orchestrating a confluence of genius that remains one of the greatest cultural miracles of modern times. Under Diaghilev's aegis, Stravinsky and Prokofiev shifted from talented unknowns to musical masters with major international ballet successes to their credit. Too ecumenical to restrict himself to his countrymen, Diaghilev sought out Richard Strauss in Germany and Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France. In each case his patronage and commissions resulted in works of major importance.
Diaghilev's collaboration with Ravel was stormy and crisis ridden. Their clashes proved to be a major thorn in the side of the young French composer for several years. During a fecund period when Ravel produced, with apparent ease, major works such as Rapsodie espagnole and the one-act opera L'heure espagnole (both of which were instrumental in placing him firmly at the forefront of French composition), he struggled with Daphnis et Chloé for almost four years. The ballet was highly problematic for him, yet the paradox is that the resultant musical work is widely considered to be his greatest symphonic composition. While it is regularly revived as a staged ballet, it is also extremely popular as a concert piece and has yielded two orchestral suites that are even more frequently performed.
The generic conflict between ballet and symphony is key to an understanding of why Ravel encountered so much trouble with Daphnis et Chloé. Diaghilev's choreographer for the work was Michel Fokine, who also contributed significantly to the development of the scenario. In a June 1909 letter to his friend Mme de Saint-Marceaux, Ravel wrote:
I must tell you that I've just had an insane week: preparation of a ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3:00 a.m. What complicates things is that Fokine doesn't know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. In spite of the interpreters, you can imagine the savor of these meetings.
Ultimately the symphonic impulse in Ravel proved stronger than his desire to accommodate either Fokine or Diaghilev. Daphnis et Chloé's great success derives from the fact that Ravel moved forward on his own terms, rather than sacrificing his inspiration or inclination to the needs of the dancers. He had serious words with Diaghilev when the Russian impresario attempted to mount a regional low-budget production of the ballet, without choruses, in London!
Purists will want to know that the pastoral legend of the shepherd Daphnis and his love, the shepherdess Chloé, is adapted from the writings of the third century Greek writer Longus. They will do better to understand Ravel's perspective, contained within the world of the 18th-century painters Fragonard, Largillière and Watteau. In his autobiographical sketch of 1927, Ravel described his intent in Daphnis:
A vast musical fresco, less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies quite willingly with that imagined and depicted by 18th-century French artists.
The formal title of the symphonic version is "choreographic symphony in three movements." (Listeners familiar with the two suites will recognize their music in the second and third segments.) The ballet's plot concerns Daphnis's courtship of Chloé, which is thwarted when she is captured by rampaging pirates. With the aid of nymphs and the god Pan, the lovers are reunited at the close of the work, in "joyous tumult."
Ravel's ballet score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo and alto flute; 2 oboes and English horn; 2 clarinets in A (doubling B-flat clarinets) and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and tuba; timpani, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, military drum, antique cymbals (crotales), castanets, cymbals, wind machine, bass drum, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps, mixed chorus and strings.
© Laurie Shulman, 2018