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The ‘Tristan Chord’: the most significant chord in Western music?

Wagner is credited with changing the course of Western music in just four notes, but what turned a chord into a musical icon?

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

20 November 2014 at 12.06pm | 2 Comments

It may seem strange to think that a single chord could be the highlight of an entire opera. But the first chord played in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – on the first beat of the second full bar in the Act I prelude – has been called not only a highlight, but the most significant chord in Western music. So it is clearly much more than just the four notes of F, B, D sharp and G sharp (from the bottom of the chord up).

The opera opens with a single melodic line played very quietly on the cellos. It rises up to a held note and then sinks down – at which point the oboes begin a rising melody that mirrors the descent of the cellos. The ‘Tristan chord’ is created on the oboes’ first note, a G sharp, with the cellos’ D sharp and the completion of the full chord with F and B in the bassoons and clarinets and D sharp in the cor anglais. What makes this particular chord so distinctive? How does a single chord become an icon?

For a start, there isn’t even agreement on the chord’s technical name. It can be called a half-diminished 7th chord (F, G sharp, B, D sharp). It’s also the superimposition of a perfect 4th (D sharp, G sharp) on a tritone (F, B); or a French 6th (F, A B, D sharp) with an appoggiatura (G sharp leading to A); or even… Well, you get the idea.

So many people, including Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith, have given their versions of how it works within the Western tonal system. The point is that it does not neatly fit one clear description. It is an ambiguous sound – we can’t tell clearly where it is going – and that is why it is difficult to agree on a single name for it.

Wagner wasn't the first to use this chord, by any means. You can find it in the music of such composers as J.S. Bach and Mozart. There are other examples in Beethoven’s E flat piano sonata op.31 no.3, and Liszt’s song ‘Ich möchte hingehen’. Both of these, as in the Tristan Act I prelude, use the chord in passages with short, rising melodic lines. It’s a good reminder that every chord exists in a context. In Tristan, the chord comes in as a wonderful moment of sustained sound that emphasizes the melody’s upward search. The second chord is a more standard dominant 7th – it is the surprise of that first chord that catches our attention.

With the opening melody moving down to the bass, the melody at the top rising and the middle notes left suspended, there is an air not of confusion, but uncertainty. This is a sound looking for somewhere to go, trying to find a direction, a purpose. And in that sense it summarizes the numinous quality of the whole opera. This single chord makes unfulfilled potential a fundamental part of the opera’s musical language.

In Tristan, Wagner lingers on unresolved sounds, rather than conclusive ones. Wherever a musical full stop might seem inevitable (as at the end of the great Act II love duet) it is abruptly redirected. Any sense of completion is left hanging, until the very end. Tristan’s music is more descriptive of the search than the goal. That concept alone suggested new freedoms in harmony and flow that have influenced music ever since.

Discover more about Wagner’s innovations in the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, at the V&A Museum 30 September 2017–25 February 2018.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

20 November 2014 at 12.06pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged analysis, by Christof Loy, French 6th, half-dimished, Music, musical history, perfect 4th, Production, Richard Wagner, Tristan chord, Tristan und Isolde, tritone

This article has 2 comments

  1. Jennifer Riley responded on 23 November 2014 at 11:43pm Reply

    Thanks! Heard this chord described as Wagner's way of keeping the audience in place, waiting in their seats, for the resolution.

  2. John Braine responded on 4 December 2014 at 5:35pm Reply

    Sublime and deeply moving, looking forward to hearing the whole thing live tomorrow.

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