The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy; Brian Magee, 2000, Macmillan
A book review by Peter McKenzie-Brown
Tristan und Isolde is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner to a libretto he wrote himself. I’m not sure how well you know Wagner. A lot of opera lovers, including my wife, find his operas difficult and only listen to them under duress. Personally, I love his work. Today, I want to talk about the evolution of a revolutionary chord in this opera. I’m not going to push your musical skills too far; my own are not up to the task, in any case.
Wagner’s compositions stress musical themes, and his operas are quite long. Our version of Tristan is more than four hours in length. In effect, Wagner made the orchestra the prima donna in his opera, and this innovation affected other German composers.
According to Bryan Magee, “because of the weight and seriousness of his work [Wagner] is widely supposed to have been someone of a ponderous and humourless disposition, but this is not so at all. For instance, we have this account of his behaviour during rehearsals for the first performance of Tristan: ‘if a difficult passage when particularly well he would spring up, embrace or kiss the singer warmly, or out of pure choice stand on his head on the sofa, creep under the piano, on to it, run into the garden and scramble joyously up the tree…’ Standing on his head was something he did quite often, usually as an expression of delight. So was climbing. Once, arriving at a friend’s house, the first thing he did was climb up the front of the house. On another occasion, visiting a friend for lunch, he immediately clambered to the top of the tallest tree in the garden – and this at the age of fifty-seven. He was always much given to sliding down the banisters – again well into middle age. It would be considered extraordinary if someone behaved in this way now, but it was a great deal more extraordinary in the middle of the 19th century. There was something not only of the theatre about Wagner but of the circus, something of the acrobat or clown….” (McGee, 236-237)
Wagner wrote the opera (including its libretto) in the late 1850s; its first performance was in 1865. It is one of the great works of opera, and broke new ground in its use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension. In a letter to his lover – the wife of a businessman who had befriended the composer, and funded his work – Wagner wrote the following:
“There is no country, no town, no village that I can call my own. Everything is alien to me and I often gaze around, yearning for a glimpse of the land of Nirvana. But Nirvana quickly turns back into ‘Tristan’; you know the Buddhist theory of the origin of the world. A breath clouds the clear expanse of heaven: it swells and grows denser, and finally the whole world stands before me again in all its impenetrable solidity.”
Elsewhere in that letter, Wagner cited a musical passage a young composer named Hans von Bülow had written, and offered a bit of constructive criticism. He did not criticize von Bülow for writing dissonances but for emphasizing them. Rather, he said, composers should conceal their dissonances.
Wagner did not take his own advice, for soon he would be emphasizing a dissonance himself, using a chord that he possibly discovered first in the score of von Bülow’s opera Nirwana. Although it could with justification be called “the Nirwana chord,” it has become known as “the Tristan chord.”
First, let’s get the story out of the way. Tristan is a nobleman from Breton, and the adopted heir of Marke, the king of Cornwall. Tristan’s job is to accompany Isolde, an Irish princess, to Cornwall to marry King Marke. With the aid of a love potion, Tristan and Isolde fall in love aboard ship. This causes a great deal of commotion in the story. By the end of Act III King Marke has shown himself to be an honourable man, but Tristan is dead.
The Tristan chord includes the notes F, B, D♯, and G♯. It is the opening phrase of the opera, and is a leitmotif – a theme – relating to Tristan. I read somewhere that it “contains within itself not one but two dissonances, creating in the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution-but-not-resolution. It is not until we reach the opera’s closing notes that the chord finds resolution.
When it came to promoting his work, Wagner was an almost hyperkinetic genius. For example, he promoted and personally supervised the design and construction of a theatre in Bayreuth, which contained many architectural innovations to accommodate the huge orchestras for which Wagner wrote as well as the composer’s particular vision about the staging of his works.
It was there, in fact, that American humourist Mark Twain heard Tristan. “I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away,” he wrote after the production. “I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the one sane person in the community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.”
Some years ago the Calgary Philharmonic Opera dealt with the Tristan chord in an extraordinary way. The philharmonic didn’t play the opera, obviously. Rather, it played a composition that began with the opera’s overture and travelled through its orchestral finale. This was an extraordinary way to hear the Tristan Chord, which gradually went from unresolved to full resolution.
Note: I used many sources for this book besides Bryan Magee’s extraordinary book. A useful online source is available here.