Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan chord’ would have completely astonished the audiences who first heard it.
The seed of inspiration for our 2022 season, this harmonic cluster opens Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a music-drama that follows the intense yet doomed love and longing of the titular characters.
Wagner didn’t invent this chord. The infamous Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo, perhaps used it ﬁrst. And later, so did Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
The combination of notes isn’t particularly striking. They can be ‘spelled out’ enharmonically as a half-diminished seventh chord, a sound very much in fashion in mid-nineteenth-century Germany.
But to paraphrase the classic Australian ﬁlm, The Castle, it’s what Wagner did with it that was so extraordinary.
It begins with a single line in the cellos, starting on an A, and reaching up to an interval of a sixth.
Listeners may have expected a harmonious resolution, in keeping with conventions. But instead the sound is left suspended in the air, ambiguous.
The upper voice continues upward. The other voices descend, yet never seem to arrive or even settle. The effect is great tension, an almost unbearable sense of longing.
And then, silence.
It seems almost an eternity.
Listen out for four ‘Tristan chord’ moments in the opening bars to the Prelude:
- In bars 2 and 6, we hear a perfect fourth over a more harmonically tense tritone (augmented fourth)
- These sounds are inverted in bars 10 and 12, the tritone in the upper parts above the perfect fourth
Here, Wagner’s genius as a composer and dramatist is revealed. Just a few bars in, we ﬁnd ourselves transported to a completely different sound world.
Wagner repeats the motif again and again. By now, we’re on the edge of our seats, our ears craving a musical resolution.
The composer refuses, delaying gratiﬁcation. The love of Tristan and Isolde is eternal, their longing without end.
It’s not until we ﬁnally arrive at Isolde’s Liebestod (‘love-death’) – over four hours later if you hear the whole opera – that the Tristan chord is resolved. As she utters the words
‘almost rapture’, in her ﬁnal moment of yearning ecstasy, the psychological drama reaches its resolution.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Tristan und Isolde is among the most important pieces of Western classical music ever written. The Tristan chord opened the door to modern music, where a sound could become an end unto itself, not merely a milestone on the way to harmonic resolution.
The composers who followed couldn’t fail but be inﬂuenced by it.