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Classical 101

Parsifal and the Lost Bells of Bayreuth

ONE AUDIO PIECE Richard Wagner's last music drama, Parsifal, had its premiere in 1882 at Bayreuth, a few months before the composer's death at the age of 70. Parsifal is set during medieval times in the Spanish monastery of Monsalvat, where an order of knights, led by their king Amfortas, guard the Holy Grail. All Monty Python references aside, this was the chalice believed to have been used by Christ at the last supper. Amfortas has been mortally wounded after consorting with the seductress Kundry, and can only be redeemed by ein reine Tor'-a perfect fool. Wagner insisted that Parsifal be performed only at Bayreuth, his own theater in Germany. The Metropolitan Opera broke the copyright laws in 1903. Since then, Parsifal has thrived as a very special, spiritual and for many controversial work, in and out of Bayreuth. England's Gramophone and Typewriter Company went to Bayreuth in 1927 to record selections from Parsifal.  G&T hoped to capture Bayreuth's magnificent warm acoustic, with the theater's wooden walls and the orchestra hidden beneath the stage. It is for this acoustic and the chance to be in Wagner's own theater that tickets to Bayreuth have a five-year waiting list to this day. The great conductor Karl Muck led the Orchestra and Chorus of Bayreuth. Muck had been Music Director of the Boston Symphony and left the Hub in 1918 because of anti-German sentiment during World War I. Muck was a titan in German musical life and a direct link to Wagner himself. Productions of Parsifal at Bayreuth used a set of magnificent bronze bells, designed by Wagner. The Bells of Monsalvat were secreted above the stage. These bells became part of the mystique and the experience of attending Wagner's works at Bayreuth. The bells were destroyed during World War II and have never been replaced. You can hear the bells in this excerpt from the 1927 recording of Parsifal made at Bayreuth, conducted by Karl Muck. The Transformation scene in Act I takes us from the gardens of the castle to the great hall of Montsalvat where the Grail Knights await their wounded king. Selections from Parsifal, Karl Muck conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival in Wagner's Festpielhaus in August, 1927. [audio:parsifal-bells]  

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.