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Some Notes on Analyzing Wagner: "The Ring" and "Parsifal"

Author(s): David Lewin

Source: 19th-Century Music, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Summer, 1992), pp. 49-58
Published by: University of California Press
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The Ring and Parsifal


Example la sketches the Tarnhelm motive

from Das Rheingold as first heard; ex. lb
sketches the modulating middle section of the
Valhalla theme, again as first heard. For many
years I had sensed some underlying relation between the two passages, without being able to
put my finger on it. In my recent book, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations,
I tried to work out a suitable relationship using
networks of Klang transformations. Figure 1 reproduces figure 8.2 from the book.' There is a
misprint: what is incorrectly written as "(G ,-)"
on the left of figure la should be written as
"(G ,-)."
The bracketed harmonies on the figure are
understood as interpolated transformational

19th-Century Music XVI/1 (Summer 1992). ? by The Regents of the University of California.
'David Lewin, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations (New Haven, 1987), p. 179.

stages in the networks. LT signifies Riemann's

Leittonwechsel transformation: the two notes
spanning the minor third of a triad are preserved, while the third note moves a semitone
to form a new triad of the opposite mode. The
transformation SUBM makes a given triad the
submediant in the key of the transformed triad.
I was eager to assert SUBM between the
opening and final harmonies of figure la; this
made me assert B major, but not B minor, to be
functional at the end of ex. la. (Wagner uses
both major and minor harmonizations in the
course of the Ring and Tristan.)
In the book (p. 178), I say that exs. 2a and 2b
"make visually clear a strong functional relationship" between the two passages, "a relationship which it is difficult to express in
words." The relationship is difficult to express
because the analysis is bad. It is bad for at least
three methodological reasons that I can spot.
Criticism (a): There is no point asserting "a
strong relationship" without being able to



a. Tarnhelm motive, Das Rheingold, sc. 3, mm. 37ff.

(muted Hn.)



b. Modulating section of Valhalla theme, Das Rheingold, sc. 2, mm. 5ff.
(Trpt., Tbn.)








Burg ist ganz

-sichtlich geworden.
L S 1 64



Example 1

specify just what the relationship is. All things

are "related" in the Great Chain of Being. Criticism (b): Figure 1 does not lead us deeper into
the music of ex. 1, or into other pertinent
music, or into dramatic ideas about the Ring.
Criticism (c): Figure la, as it stands, is technically malformed by the criteria of GMIT. (The
criteria are developed only later in the book,
but that is beside the point in this connection.)
While I felt the dissatisfactions of criticisms
(a) and (b) most keenly, I was unable to make
progress until I became aware of (c) as well; this
gave me a point of departure for improvement.
Figure 2 will help us to explore the specific way
in which figure l a is malformed.
It is true, as figure la asserts, that GO minor
is the submediant of B major, and that the
Leittonwechsel of G# minor is the subdominant of B major. Symbolically, the equation of
figure 2a is true: applying the transformation
SUBM to the particular Klang G# minor has the
same effect as applying, to that particular
Klang, first the transformation LT and then the
transformation SUBD. But the equation of
figure 2b is not true. In general, if one applies

SUBM to a Klang, the result will not be the

same as if one applies first LT and then SUBD.
Figure 2c shows how this works when the
Klang in question is, for example, C major; applying SUBM to C major yields a different result than does applying first LT and then SUBD.
The chord of which C major is the submediant
is not the same as the chord of which the Leittonwechsel of C major is the subdominant.
Because the equations of figures 2b and 2c
are false, the functional equation of figure 2d is
false. And so the configuration of arrows and arrow-labels on figure la is malformed by the criteria of GMIT (9.2.1 [D], p. 195). As soon as I noticed the malformation, it occurred to me that
the SUBM arrows of figure 1 were problematic
in other ways as well. The SUBM arrow of
figure la, for instance, was forcing me to assert
B major and ignore B minor, where Wagner's
music suggests both B major and B minor
equally. Bringing B minor into figure la along
with B major forms a suggestive analogy to the
F major and F minor of figure lb. Then, too,
why should I assert a SUBM relation in figure
lb between Gb major and the bracketed Bb


[(E, +)]




(B, +)


(G ,-)


[(Bb, -)]





(Bb, +)

(G, +)


(A, +)

(F, +)


meas. 1-6


11; 13


Figure 1
Reprintedfrom Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations
by permission of Yale University Press.

a. true: (g#) SUBM = ([g#]LT)SUBD


= ( E ) SUBD; correct.

b. false: (any Klang)SUBM= ([that Klang)LT)SUBD

c. false e.g.: (C)SUBM = ([C]LT)SUBD
d. false:

= ( e )SUBD

??; wrong.


Figure 2

minor? Why not assert a Leittonwechsel here,

making another suggestive analogy between
figures la and lb? Rethinking my analysis
along these lines, I quickly arrived at the new
network analyses of figure 3.

In these graphs the Leittonwechsel, subdominant, and parallel transformations have been
abbreviated as L, S, and P respectively. The new
analyses are much better than the old. They
specifically respond to each of the three earlier













Figure 3

criticisms. In response to criticism (c), the

graphs of figure 3 are well formed. I particularly
emphasize this point because when a graph is
well formed, one is apt simply to take that for
granted. I want to stress once more that it was
just this criterion which enabled me to work
out the better analyses, with consequences we
shall shortly examine.
The new analyses also respond to criticism
(a). A very specific relationship can now be asserted between the two passages: they admit of
isographic analyses under the interpretations
of figure 3. That is, the configurations of nodes
and arrows are the same, on figure 3b as on
figure 3a; furthermore there is a certain privileged way of relating transformations that
makes the transformations of figure 3b analogous to those of figure 3a as they label their respective arrows. Here the privileged relationship is very strong-it is absolute identity. To
the extent that transformations here play the
role of extended formal "intervals," there is a
quite precise sense in which figures 3a and 3b
demonstrate the same tune in different modes.
That is, they run through the same configuration of "moves," differing only in the place
where they begin their journeys. One asserts a
specific and very strong relationship when one
makes precise a sense in which the Tarnhelm
and the modulating section of Valhalla can

be described as "the same tune in different

Finally, this way of regarding the two passages leads suggestively deeper into the music,
responding to criticism (b). One reason I had
felt a relationship between Tarnhelm and Valhalla in the first place was that the two thematic ideas grow to interact more and more as
the Ring progresses. Example 2 shows the passage in which one first becomes strongly aware
of the interaction, the climax to act II, sc. 2, in

Die Walkiire.

There is not space here to discuss the Tristan

harmony which engulfs the opening A? minor,
or the Gold motive at the end, or the fantastic
rhythmic detail, or all aspects of the vocal line.
That being said, one can hear clearly enough
that the opening Tristan harmony enlarges Ah
minor, and one hears E minor at the end. The
large progression of Al minor to E minor evidently elaborates the first two harmonies of the
Tarnhelm motive. Furthermore, the notes with
stems up on the top staff of ex. 2 clearly constitute a transformation of Valhalla - the opening,
rather than the middle section of that theme.
Example 3 works the transformation out in
some detail.
Example 3a puts the opening of the Valhalla
theme in Al major and indicates the most accented harmonic gesture of the two measures,


WOTAN (mit bittrem Grimm sich aufrichtend)







lun - gen





Example 2: Die Walkiie, act II, sc. 2, climax.

namely the inflection of the tonic by its subdominant.2 One gets from ex. 3a to ex. 3b by
following the first descending P-arrow at the
right of the example: ex. 3b puts all of ex. 3a
into the parallel minor. To get from ex. 3b to ex.
3c, one then follows the descending L-arrow:
ex. 3c transforms the chords of ex. 3b into their
respective Leittonwechsels, starting from the
third chord on. Then ex. 3d transforms the
chords of ex. 3c into their parallels, starting
from the fourth chord on. The effect of the various vertical arrows is logged by the transformational analyses that build up beneath exs.
3b, 3c, and 3d. The various transformations involved here, namely S, P, and L, are exactly the
transformations involved in the earlier networks of figure 3, networks that established a
strongly isographic relationship between the
Tarnhelm and the middle section of the Valhalla theme.
Figure 4 emphasizes that aspect of the analysis by juxtaposing two networks. Figure 4a reproduces figure 3a, the Tarnhelm analysis
which is isographic to the middle section of the
Valhalla theme. Figure 4b puts into analogous
form the transformational analysis from be-

2The dominant harmony that supports the penultimate

note of ex. 3a is omitted on the sketch. To include it, and
to carry along its transformations through the later stages
of ex. 3, would be to complicate the analysis needlessly for
present purposes. The omission is not to be construed as
an implicit assertion that less accented, smaller-scale harmonic features, such as those supporting melodic passing
tones, are "less important" in some unspecified aesthetic

neath ex. 3d; this is the analysis of the

Tarnhelm-infected Valhalla Kopf at "So nimm
meinen Segen."
Figure 4 shows how the gradual corruption of
the pure Valhalla theme, logged by the progressive transformational encrustations of exs. 3a,
b, c, d, is actually the systematic working out of
a transformational scheme already implicit
within the middle section of the Valhalla
theme itself; that middle section, in its isography with the Tarnhelm motive, already contains the potential for Valhalla's corruption.
Just so does the progressive deformation of
Dorian Gray's portrait merely log the potential
for corruption already implicit in the narcissism of the beautiful youth himself.
Indeed, the "bitter rage" of Wotan in ex. 2 is
aroused not so much by the frustration of his
plan as by his dawning awareness of the corruption necessarily inherent in the plan itself. The
very idea of Valhalla contains at its center the
source of its own corruption, and Wotan's becoming aware of the fact here moves him beyond political action, suffering, and anger to
tragic self-awareness.
There is a significant technical feature of the
work so far that contributes to problems in this
sort of post-Riemann transformational analysis. In figure lb we saw Gb major analyzed as
the submediant of B? minor, whereas in figure
3b, an alternate analysis of the same passage,
Gb major was analyzed as the Leittonwechsel
of B? minor. One can easily imagine other contexts in which one could assert yet other
Riemann-type relationships between the two
Kldnge. For example, Gk major is the parallel of


Valhalla in Abmajor.



Putit all in parallelminor.


Valhalla in g minor.



[no. 3 on]

to all
chordsfromthe thirdone on.





Apply parallel transformation to

all chords from the fourth one on.







stage of example 2.



Example 3: Transformations of Valhalla theme.

G' minor, which might progress along a chain

of subdominants through D? minor, Ab minor,
and E&minor to Bb minor; in this context one
could assert Bb minor as "PSSSS" of Gl major.
To sum the matter up, there is no unique
Riemann-type relationship abstractly specified
by the notion of starting at Gb major and arriving at Bl minor; the system makes a number
of transformations conceptually available, each
of which abstractly carries Gl major to Bl
minor. In mathematical language, one says that
the pertinent group of transformations "is not
simply transitive."
Wagner interweaves such multiple relationships with particular craft. To explore some of
his art we shall now examine a number of interrelated passages from Parsifal. Example 4a


shows aspects of the opening, which presents

the Communion theme. The theme is written
under one slur; essentially following Lorenz, I
have articulated it into three sections, namely
an incipit motive, the Schmerzensfigur, and the
Spear motive.
Example 4b aligns beneath the Communion
theme the first statement of the Grail motive in
the opera. The alignment shows how the Grail
harmonies reference and summarize salient
features from the overlying incipit and Spear
motives. The Grail, as heard in ex. 4b, does not
reference the central Schmerzensfigur of ex. 4a
at all.
Below ex. 4b appears a harmonic analysis.
The final cadence, which involves characteristic scale activity not taken directly from the












Figure 4

overlaid portion of ex. 4a, is analyzed using traditional scale degrees, Roman ii, V, and I. Up
until that final cadence, the M-arrows assert
each harmony of ex. 4b as the mediant of the
next. The chain of M-arrows coexists comfortably with the chain of falling diatonic thirds in
the trombones, and with the regular rhythm of
the harmonic changes during this portion of ex.
4b.3 Abstractly one could assert the progression
from Ab major to F minor as a "relative" relation, and likewise the relation from Db major
to Bb minor. Since the progression from F
minor to Dk major, however, cannot be analyzed as a "relative" relation, such an analysis
would break the chain just discussed. The
break in the chain would feel particularly uncomfortable, because a smooth and homogeneous transition from F minor to Db major, in
the middle of ex. 4b, serves the very particular
purpose of gliding unnoticeably over the
missing Schmerzensfigur references. It seems
awkward to draw attention to the lacuna,
which would happen to the extent one hears
the f-Db progression in the middle of ex. 4b as
somehow specially marked. The critical point
is all the more cogent when one observes that
the most likely abstract candidate for an f-DM
3The chain of falling thirds in the trombones is the source
of the "Helpful Kundry" motive.

relation here, other than the M-relation of ex.

4b, would be specifically a Leittonwechsel relation. The Leittonwechsel is the most characteristic harmonic feature of the Schmerzensfigur
in ex. 4a; there the Leittonwechsel supports a
climactic downbeat when the high Ab moves
to high G. To hear f-Dr in ex. 4b as a Leittonwechsel would then be to draw particular attention to a Schmerzensfigur that is missing at
this point, rather than to glide surreptitiously
over its absence.4
Example 4c, also aligned beneath ex. 4a,
shows the special role reserved for the Leittonwechsel relation in the context of the Communion. Contour, dynamics, and floatingversus-beating metrics spotlight the climactic
Leittonwechsel from A? major to C minor, and
the return to Ah by Leittonwechsel. As ex. 4c
suggests, the progression inflects the theme as
a whole, not simply the Schmerzensfigur and
its immediate continuation. The Schmerzensfigur is, to be sure, the special focus of the rela4If one plays over the incipit and Spear motives of ex. 4a
without the Schmerzensfigur, connecting the end of the incipit bracket directly to the beginning of the Spear bracket,
one can hear the f-D6 progression as a Leittonwechsel.
One can specifically hear the agogically accented D6 of the
Spear melody stepping up from the C within the incipit
material, rather than stepping down from the Eb of the
missing Schmerzensfigur. The analysis is latently possible
to that extent and worth exploring to that degree.




a. Communion motive, act 1,m. 1.








b. Grail motive, act I, m. 39.






Example 4: Parsifal

tion; one wonders if Wagner was consciously

exploiting a pun on Leidton.
Example 5a shows the consequent, C-minor
variant of the Communion theme. Below this,
ex. 5b aligns a succession of harmonies that can
be inferred from the melodic activity - one
must remember that the tempo for the written
quarter note is "Sehr langsam." The harmonic
analysis below ex. 5b shows how profoundly
the structure of the theme has changed, in the
pertinent transformational system.s At the
very beginning of ex. 5b, the progression from C
minor to Ab major is not analyzed as a mediant

5One might go so far as to say that the analysis calls into

question the extent to which ex. 5a should be called a
"variant" of ex. 4a, rather than a new idea. Exploring the
question, one notes that the two melodies, if analyzed as
series of diatonic places, coincide exactly in their intervals
up to the fourth note of the Spear motive. Both melodies
rise a third from their point of departure, then rise another
third, then rise a step and repeat the note, rise a step, rise
a step, fall a step, and so forth. In the system of transformations containing such gestures, the melodies have isographic profiles. There is thus a profound divergence between the diatonic world of the music and its Riemannfunctional world. The reader will find that idea developed
at greater length in my article, "Amfortas's Prayer to Titurel and the Role of D in Parsifal: The Tonal Spaces of the
Drama and the Enharmonic CG/B," this journal 7 (1984),


relation, following the precedent of Ab -f at the

beginning of ex. 4b; rather the c-Ab that opens
ex. 5b is analyzed as a Leittonwechsel. That is
because we associate the specific tonality-andharmony of C minor, in relation to the tonalityand-harmony of Ab major, with the paradigm of
the Schmerzensfigur in ex. 4c, and the largescale Leittonwechsel relation that spreads out
over ex. 4c therefrom. Unlike ex. 4a, the theme
of ex. 5a is articulated by several different slurs;
the first of these slurs sets off the opening c-At
progression just discussed.
The leading tone of C minor appears climactically at the proper moment in ex. 5a. Because
of the augmented second in the melody, supported by the slurring of the theme here, however, one does not hear C-minor return before
the sforzando on the high B. Instead the Ab remains frozen in the melodic line, continuing to
project Ab-major harmony, so that when the
sforzando B? occurs, the effect is to change AT
major to the parallel Ab minor, as indicated by
the P-arrow below ex. 5b. As the exact intervals
of the Schmerzensfigur are subsequently recapitulated, the earlier Ab of the melody in ex. 5a
continues frozen under the B?, so that the implied harmony moves on from Ab minor to E
major, via a new Leittonwechsel. The end of
the Schmerzensfigur finally restores the me-


a. Act I, m. 20.




-5- ----




c. Act III,m. 1098.



Example 5: Parsifal

lodic G, but by now the harmony has changed

so that the melodic move from A6 to G sounds
in a local context of E harmony: the effect is
from E major to E minor, as indicated by the
second P-arrow beneath ex. 5b. The Spear motive returns us to the local tonic, now C minor,
as did the Spear motive before, in Ab. In ex. 5a
the C-minor version of the motive is changed
so as to put extra emphasis on the early return
of E6 in the melody; the change is supported by
the end of the second slur in the theme. The
overall harmonic effect, from E minor at the
end of the Schmerzensfigur, is through C major
and back to C minor via yet another L transformation and yet another P transformation.
Overall, then, the transformations below the
left side of ex. 5b go through a complete cycle of
alternating Ls and Ps, starting and ending at C
minor. Once C minor has returned, it is confirmed by a scale-degree, dominant-tonic progression as indicated, supported by the third
slur of ex. 5a. The melody within that slur crescendos to another sforzando on the low B of
that dominant, restoring the leading-tone function of the B in C minor. By association of dynamics, and by octave equivalence of extreme
registers in the melodic ambitus, the gesture recalls the earlier frustration of C-minor leadingtone function in the upper register at the
climax, where we heard local A -major and
local Ah-minor harmony.

The foregoing discussion has clarified, I

think, what an error it would be to assume that
the first arrow beneath ex. 5b should bear the
same transformational label as does the first
arrow beneath ex. 4b, simply because ex. 5a begins as a diatonic transposition of 4a. Example
4b shows a chain of diatonic mediant relations
supporting the first and last sections of the
theme; the chain of mediants is immersed in
the larger-scale diatonic Leittonwechsel of
ex. 4c, which bursts into the foreground to interrupt the chain of mediants during the
Schmerzensfigur. Example 5b shows a thoroughly chromatic chain of alternating L and P
transforms, owing its closure to a mathematical symmetry rather than a diatonic context.
Example 5b may be regarded as a trope on the
Schmerzensfigur, which provides both the L
idea, and the idea of moving to C minor as a
setting for ex. 5, whence the whole system of
alternating Ls and Ps arises via the A -B relation as discussed.6
Just as ex. 4b is the version of the Grail motive that goes with ex. 4a, so ex. 5c is the ver6The reader
is again referred to my article, "Amfortas's
Prayer," propos the diatonic-and-Riemannian worlds of
the drama. Important work on the form-building potential
of L-and-P chains, and of such transformational algebra in
general, has been carried through by Brian Hyer in a recent
study, Tonal Intuitions in Tristan und Isolde (Ph.D. diss.,
Yale University, 1989).



sion of the Grail that goes with ex. 5a. One sees
how ex. 5c fits ex. 5a precisely because of the
analysis that underlies ex. 5b. Example 5c occurs almost at the end of the entire opera, eight
measures before the final chorus, at the stage
direction "Allmihliche sanfte Erleuchtung des
'Grales"' (gradual soft illumination of the
In the Ring, the L and P relations of the
Tarnhelm are involved in the corruption of
Valhalla. In Parsifal the same transformations


become equally associated with suffering,

minor, and chromaticism; however, they lead
through suffering to salvation, durch Mitleid
wissend. The musical difference, I think, is
that the L and P relations of Parsifal chain
together and eventually build complete cycles
that return to their points of departure, as
in exs. 5b and 5c. In the Ring, the open-ended
application of LP rather disrupts and destroys, as in the relation of
exs. 3d to 3a.