The Tristan Chord at 150

Posted on: June 11, 2015

“You may have heard of the so-called ‘Tristan chord’ from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde,” writes Stephen Raskauskas on Wednesday (6/10) at Chicago classical radio station WFMT’s website. “Audiences were stunned to hear this infamous harmony when the opera premiered on June 10, 1865 in Munich, Germany.… To Wagner’s listeners, hearing the notes F – B – D# – G# sounded dissonant indeed.… The same clusters of dissonant notes were used by Mozart in the ‘Dissonance’ Quartet (K.428) and by Beethoven in one of his op.31 piano sonatas. What was unique about the Tristan chord was not the chord itself, but how it ‘resolves.’ … The chord doesn’t resolve until the very end of the opera, during Isolde’s famous ‘Liebes-Tod’ (‘Love Death’).… Wagner’s operatic music was admired because it disregarded certain rules of counterpoint to match the dramatic situation at hand. He usually resolves harmonies, though often in surprising ways. The Tristan chord was unique because it delayed harmonic resolution for literally hours, creating the ultimate musical and dramatic ‘delayed gratification.’ ” The article includes a link to “The Wagner Effect,” a “Beyond the Score” analysis of the Tristan chord by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Posted June 11, 2015

Pictured: image from “The Wagner Effect,” a Chicago Symphony Orchestra Beyond the Score video analyzing the Tristan Chord.