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|Component intervals from root|
|augmented fourth (tritone)|
The Tristan chord is a chord made up of the notes F, B, D♯ and G♯. More generally, it can be any chord that consists of these same intervals: augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented ninth above a root. It is so named as it is heard in the opening phrase of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde as part of the leitmotif relating to Tristan.
The notes of the Tristan chord are not unusual; they could be re-spelled to form a conventional half-diminished seventh chord. What distinguishes the chord is its unusual relationship to the implied key of its surroundings. When Tristan und Isolde was first heard in 1865, the chord was considered innovative, disorienting, and daring. Musicians of the twentieth century often identify the chord as a starting point for the modernist disintegration of tonality.
This motif also appears in measures 6, 10, and 12, several times later in the work and at the end of the last act.
Much has been written about the Tristan chord's possible harmonic functions or voice leading (melodic function), and the motif has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Schering (1935) traces the development of the Tristan chord through ten intermediate steps, beginning with the Phrygian cadence (iv6-V).
Vogel points out the "chord" in earlier works by Guillaume de Machaut, Carlo Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Louis Spohr, as in the following example from Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, tempo allegro:
What makes the Tristan motif different from earlier appearances of the same notes, in the eyes of many analysts, is its duration. In the Beethoven example, the E♭ resolves to D in approximately a quarter of the time it takes the G♯ to "resolve" to the A in the Wagner. In Wagner, the resolution is used merely in passing to a further chromatic dissonance (the A♯ in the following measure), rather than as a resting point in itself. In Beethoven, the notes' simultaneity may be considered to consist partly of nonchord tones; it is not a chord or harmonic entity in itself.
The Tristan chord's significance is in its move away from traditional tonal harmony, and even towards atonality. With this chord, Wagner actually provoked the sound or structure of musical harmony to become more predominant than its function, a notion which was soon explored by Debussy and others. In the words of Robert Erickson, "The Tristan chord is, among other things, an identifiable sound, an entity beyond its functional qualities in a tonal organization."
Although at the same time enharmonically sounding like the half-diminished chord F-A♭-C♭-E♭, it can also be interpreted as the suspended altered subdominant II: B-D♯-F-G♯ (the G♯ being the suspension in the key of A minor).
circle of fifths.
According to J. Chailley (1963, p. 40), "it is rooted in a simple dominant chord of A minor [E major], which includes two appoggiaturas resolved in the normal way":
Thus in this view it is not a chord but an anticipation of the dominant chord in measure three. He explains (1963, p. 8): "Tristan's chromaticism, grounded in appoggiaturas and passing notes, technically and spiritually represents an apogee of tension. I have never been able to understand how the preposterous idea that Tristan could be made the prototype of an atonality grounded in destruction of all tension could possibly have gained credence. This was an idea that was disseminated under the (hardly disinterested) authority of Schoenberg, to the point where Alban Berg could cite the Tristan Chord in the Lyric Suite, as a kind of homage to a precursor of atonality. This curious conception could not have been made except as the consequence of a destruction of normal analytical reflexes leading to an artificial isolation of an aggregate in part made up of foreign notes, and to consider it—an abstraction out of context—as an organic whole. After this, it becomes easy to convince naive readers that such an aggregation escapes classification in terms of harmony textbooks."
Nattiez distinguishes between functional and nonfunctional analyses of the chord.
Functional analyses include interpreting the chord's root as on:
D'Indy (1903, p. 117), who analyses the chord as on IV after Riemann's transcendent principle (as phrased by Serge Gut: "the most classic succession in the world: Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant" (1981, p. 150)) and rejects the idea of an added "lowered seventh", eliminates, "all artificial, dissonant notes, arising solely from the melodic motion of the voices, and therefore foreign to the chord," finding that the Tristan chord is "no more than a subdominant in the key of A, collapsed in upon itself melodically, the harmonic progression represented thus:
"This is the simplest in the world," just a sophisticated sixth chord.
Deliège, independently, sees the G♯ as an appoggiatura to A, describing that
in the end only one resolution is acceptable, one that takes the subdominant degree as the root of the chord, which gives us, as far as tonal logic is concerned, the most plausible interpretation ... this interpretation of the chord is confirmed by its subsequent appearances in the Prelude's first period: the IV6 chord remains constant; notes foreign to that chord vary.—1979, p.23
Nonfunctional analyses are based on structure (rather than function), and are characterized as vertical characterizations or linear analyses. Vertical characterizations include interpreting the chord's root as on the
Linear analyses include that of Noske (1981: 116-17) and Schenker was the first to analyse the motif entirely through melodic concerns. Schenker and later Mitchell compare the Tristan chord to a dissonant contrapuntal gesture from the E minor fugue of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (cf. Schenker 1925-1930 II: 29).
William Mitchell, from a Schenkerian perspective, does not see the G♯ as an appoggiatura because the melodic line (oboe: G♯-A-A♯-B) ascends to B, making the A a passing note. This ascent by minor third is mirrored by the descending line (cello: F-E-D♯, English horn: D), a descent by minor third, making the D♯, like A♯, an appoggiatura. This makes the chord a diminished seventh (G♯-B-D-F).
Serge Gut (1981, p. 150), argues that, "if one focuses essentially on melodic motion, one sees how its dynamic force creates a sense of an appoggiatura each time, that is, at the beginning of each measure, creating a mood both feverish and tense ... thus in the soprano motif, the G♯ and the A♯ are heard as appoggiaturas, as the F and D♯ in the initial motif." The chord is thus a minor chord with added sixth (D-F-A-B) on the fourth degree (IV), though it is engendered by melodic waves.
Allen Forte, who (1988, p. 328) identifies the chord as an atonal set, 4-27 (half-diminished seventh chord) but then "elect[s] to place that consideration in a secondary, even tertiary position compared to the most dynamic aspect of the opening music, which is clearly the large-scale ascending motion that develops in the upper voice, in its entirety a linear projection of the Tristan Chord transposed to level three, g♯'-b'-d"-f♯"."
Schoenberg (1911, p. 284) describes it as a "wandering chord [vagierender Akkord]... it can come from anywhere."
After summarizing the above analyses Nattiez asserts that the context of the Tristan chord is A minor, and that analyses which say the key is E or E♭ are "wrong". He privileges analyses of the chord as on the second degree (II). He then supplies a Wagner-approved analysis, that of Czech professor citation needed]
The chord and the figure surrounding it is well enough known to have been Last Tango in Bayreuth.
The Brazilian conductor and composer Flavio Chamis wrote Tristan Blues, a composition based on the Tristan chord. The work, for harmonica and piano was recorded on the CD "Especiaria" , released in Brazil by the Biscoito Fino label. Flavio Chamis found an intriguing relation between the Tristan chord/resolution and the blues scale - much used in jazz - in which all have practically the same notes.
In 1993, the opening theme was used in the film Lars von Trier.