Richard Wagner’s character is famous all over the world, admired as well as decried as just behind Christ and Napoleon, it is the German composer who has given rise to the most impressive bibliography; in 1962, according to Jean Gallois, nearly forty-two thousand books, articles or documents were written about him and if one considers the tetralogy as his greatest masterpiece, it is “Tristan und Isolde” that will remain the most innovative harmonically. The chromaticism of the prelude pushed to the extreme marks a turning point in the history of music, arriving at a point of no return for tonal music. Is it the end of romanticism or the birth of the processes of modern music? The question has often been debated and the French composer Achille Claude Debussy, very influenced by Wagner and this opera before detaching himself from it and rejecting it, will write about Tristan:
“this twilight that we took for a dawn” .
This is the first chord of the prelude, the first chord of the entire opera, which is controversial and that all musicologists for a century and a half sought to analyze harmoniously by integrating it into the tonal system. Jean-Jacques Nattiez has identified about fifty different interpretations of this same chord, and though each one of these interpretations isn’t completely false, none of them provide complete satisfaction. We will not attempt to analyze this chord but to reproduce in stages the composition process of the chord by highlighting the Wagnerian stylistic elements. This is of course partisan to the most widespread analysis at present.
A perfect cadence usually consists of three chords: a preparation chord, which is a subdominant functional chord (either a 2nd or 4th degree, rarely a sixth), followed by a dominant chord (5th degree) serving the function of a tension chord which is then resolved by a tonic chord (first degree). From this “cadence generator”, we can build several archetypes of cadences.
A half-cadence is a perfect cadence amputated of its resolution. It leaves the listener on hold on the dominant accord that calls the tonic that will not come. It corresponds perfectly to the argument of the opera: the love of Tristan and Isolde does not find fulfillment on Earth and can only be consumed in death.
Historically, it is on the preparation chord that one will seek to produce dissonances. This is particularly the case in the majority of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorales, on the penultimate beat. In the romantic harmony, this chord will gain even more weight and the composers will begin to alter it, that is to say, to raise one of the notes of the chord to give it another color and to make its sound harder. they are found on the second degree by the alteration of the third. This is one of the sixth augmented chords that owes its name to the increased dissonant sixth interval highlighted in the second overthrow (here F-D#). This is commonly known as a French sixth chord.
Apart from the alteration of certain chords, one can also, to enrich the harmony, add foreign notes, such as appoggiaturas (grace notes) and passing notes. The appogiaturas being supported and plated to the chord, they change our harmonic perception since we do not hear the basic chord but a chord with one (or more) “false notes” that will be resolved by the actual note , giving the sound of the basic chord. For the tonal structure to remain audible, composers choose between harmonic enrichment by altered chords and contrapuntal enrichment by adding foreign notes, which creates dissonance and tension in both cases. But Wagner’s great achievement is going to be the combination of these two processes, which will form the very particular sound of the Tristan chord: an altered chord with an added appogiature. To continue the chromatic rise of the upper voice, we will find an appogiature also on the dominant chord, which is more usual.
Wagner’s other find is in rhythm: normally, the appogiatura is short and the actual note takes the most space. Here, the appogiatura is so long that it ends up being perceived as a real note, so much the resolution to be waited for, and Tristan’s chord becomes an entity in itself. It is also on this main point that the analyses are distinguished. Here, we have decided to consider that the G is the appogiatura of the “real note”, but we could consider the G as the main note, and the A as a passing note. Nevertheless, our analysis is that we fall back on a sixth chord (French sixth) while the Tristan chord with the G# is not explained tonally.
In addition to the rhythm that accentuates the G#, the orchestration goes in this direction, since the second oboe doubles the G# of the famous chord but stops at the moment of the resolution, reinforcing the accidental harmony (caused by a foreign note ) and not the “real” harmony.
Here is the final result obtained by Wagner!
Encompassing all Wagner’s genius in a few measures, Tristan’s opening is also a summary of the main argument of the whole opera, namely that here the chromaticism provoking the harmonic tension becomes symbolic of passion (love), an element already present in the musical language of Bach (especially in The passions, precisely). But Wagner makes Tristan a glorification of chromaticism to reverse the relationship between diatonicism and chromaticism. Usually casual, chromaticism will be the be the general rule and it is the diatonism that will become an exception, generating a musical effect translating a sound effect (for example, the vain discussion between Brangaine and Tristan in act 1, empty of all feeling). In addition, the Wagnerian chromaticism is often accompanied by contrary movements: here we have an upward chromaticism in the upper voice combined with a descending chromaticism on the bass and the viola, which causes a sensation of stretching. This contrasting chromatic relationship will be an important element of Debussy’s writing, for example.
Conversely, in Parsifal, religious fervor translates into perfect diatonism. Let us mention the prelude with its brassy chords which is another model of the Wagnerian genius on the opposing end of “Tristan”.