1878: Wagner: Parsifal

TUESDAY, July 28, 2020

An overture famous for 137 years…

There is a long, complicated story behind this, and technically this is not really an overture. It’s really:

Parsifal, Prelude to Act I

The Parsifal Story

I am not personally much interested in the story itself, and I could no more listen to a complete Wagner opera than go through minor torture for a few hours. It’s just not my thing and never has been. I am in no way an opera lover. But this music is incredible, and even many people who don’t like Wagner’s music love this overture, or prelude, or whatever you want to call it.

Otto Klemperer…

A year ago this man was just a famous name to me. Over the last few months, since Covid has ground the whole world to a stop, I started listening a bit to Klemperer, then more, then ever more, and I can now say that there have been only a few conductors in the history of recordings who could make time stop this way. Many of his recordings are longer than anyone else’s, but instead of feeling slow or boring, they are fascinating, full of incredible details that you just don’t hear elsewhere.

Overtures are for those of us who don’t much care for operas…

This music stands alone, and for way more than a century overtures of this sort have been extremely popular around the world. In a way they sum up musically everything that happens in very long operas, so they are musical overviews in a way.

Wagner was a complicated person…

In fact, of all the major composers I know of, he may be the most unlikable. There is more to his story, and I’m starting to view him a bit more favorably, now that I know more about his life. He had a really rough childhood. So perhaps we should cut him some slack. But there is no doubt that he was one of the greatest musical geniuses who has ever lived. I try hard to separate Wagner the man from Wagner the composer. Parsifal may be my favorite composition of all that he wrote.

He always had money problems, and even his friends were exasperated by his behavior:

“Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.”

The Overture (or Prelude to Act I) to Parsifal reminds you of how much slower life used to be. Imagine, this is just a “prelude”, meaning something that goes before. It is like a both a summation and an introduction. I think it contains some of the most magical sounds I’ve ever heard, and it has haunted me since I was around eight years old. I have always been hard-wired for sound. I was born that way. If I am around a total experience, the first thing to be engaged will always be what I hear.

3 thoughts on “1878: Wagner: Parsifal

    1. Michael, it is eerie because the story of Parsifal is a famous myth. Wagner was a master at sliding chromatically, which is what I’m starting to teach you how to do. If you listen to Scheherazade there is a similar kind of sliding, and it’s very interesting to listen to.

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