The Mystic Chord

Orion nebula: formation, transformation The following extracts have been translated from volume 4 of Das Geheimnis der Form bei Richard Wagner by Alfred Lorenz (1868-1939). They appear near the beginning of the book in the discussion of act one, period VI.


The importance of harmony for Wagner can be seen in Wolzogen's Memoirs, where the author refers to that wondrous, indefinite, buzzing and sounding of the spheres, as it penetrated down every now and then from the Master's hidden workplace into the lower spaces of Wahnfried. Never did I hear what to my certain knowledge became motives of the work; but only harmonies, which the creator conjured up from the piano, like the primeval nebula from which the world would arise. They floated as it were around the creative fantasy as elements of mood, in which it tended to sink deeper and deeper, in order -- like Faust ascending to the mothers -- to arrive at the eternal Ideas, the forms and shapes of its art.

Yes: Faust with the mothers! Into the free realm of forms! -- Like coiling cloud the busy brood will weave -- formation, transformation, eternal mind's eternal recreation -- by magic power the incense haze, henceforth must turn to gods upon their ways. All these mysterious lines of Goethe come to mind, when I think of those harmoniously flowing spirit tones, suggesting everything that is not actually heard, that which developed there in the lonely, inner sanctuary of Wagner's art. No doubt in this wallowing in harmonies there was an exploration of the infinite possibilities of applying a given chord, of its countless progressions and its different expressive possibilities, to mention only the main areas. Because the time which Wolzogen recalls here was that of the composition of Parsifal, in which this chord plays a leading role.

The chord is a minor seventh chord, a connection of the diminished triad with the minor seventh... It is identical in form with the so-called Tristan chord. Its application in Tristan was the subject of a thorough and detailed discussion by Ernst Kurth in the second section of his Romantic Harmony. In Tristan it contains suspense-creating factors, which provide its effect. [The chords which appear in Tristan contain the intervals of a perfect fourth and a tritone, i.e. an augmented fourth - ed.] In Parsifal it has the dark colouring of tighter intervals. Also the effect well-known from the first two bars of Tristan is rarely heard in Parsifal, where other progressions prevail.

For maximum clarity, I must present the chord in every possible interpretation. As reference I take the chord constructed on the note C; in compositions of course it can be found at any pitch but for the purposes of this discussion I shall refer to it in examples transposed to this reference pitch.

The chord occurs in its first position [see figure below - ed.] about 600 times, in second position over 250 times, in third position about 150 times and in fourth position approximately 80 times. (Here the cases where it connects itself with a pedal-like fifth bass note are not taken in account). I had to introduce the word "position" here instead of the word "inversion", because each sound position can be written like a seventh chord, or like an added sixth, etc. - depending upon the enharmonic reinterpretation of the individual notes:

Possible interpretations of a mystic chord in each of its four positions

Now each of these chords can be developed again on different degrees of the scale and thus receive a different functional meaning. However the possible representations are still far from exhausted, because in addition one or more notes can be treated as appogiaturas. I want to examine each individual case with its solutions. Here I pick out examples occurring in Parsifal, without claiming to be exhaustive. Theoretically one could find even more cases. The present book is not, however, a harmony textbook and I am only concerned with making clear how Parsifal developed in R. Wagner's brain. Concerning the examples, which one may study in the notes, it is to be noted that Wagner attached no importance to correct writing, not from carelessness, but because with the multiple enharmonic reinterpretations a completely perfect way of writing often would require two tied notes instead of one, which would only have resulted in confusion. Wagner chose to give legibility priority over theoretical correctness.

The interpretation of each instance of the chord will have to be inferred not from the way the notes are written, but from the approach to the chord and the manner in which the parts move away from the chord. Its representation can change while it still sounds by diatonic or enharmonic reinterpretation. This "dissolution" is important because only then is the striving or tendency of the chord revealed, i.e. which energy needed to be released, where its strength lay. Thus the dissolution of the chord reveals how the composer felt about the sound.

An  important consideration is whether the sound wants to pull together or expand. In the former case, its largest interval is a minor seventh, which can again mutually narrow itself into a fifth, or asymmetrically to a minor or major sixth or even into a diminished seventh. In the case of the expansion the largest interval to be heard is nearly always an augmented sixth, which expands into an octave; the expansion of the minor seventh to the octave (with simultaneous falling of the lower tones) is an exceptional case. The uncanny quantity of different tendencies, which can affect the individual notes of this chord, give it a shimmering light, which in its twilight really deserves the name "mystic". Therefore I call it the mystic chord.

[Discussion of 92 cases with examples omitted - ed.]

So the chord is much more ambiguous in Parsifal than in Tristan, where Kurth distinguished only eight different possibilities. But the many perceptive observations, which Kurth made concerning the Tristan chord, are at least as much applicable to the more general case of the "mystic" chord, particularly the occasional change in the internal tensile states (p.77), stripping the dependence on linear tensions and his reference to it as an independent sonic image (p.63), which finally receives the sense of a comprehensive leading motive of the whole music-drama (p.67). Above all, it also applies in the general case that contents and effect in its living will appear. Only by this it wins also its motivic meaning, as also for these the enharmonic multiformity, the mutability of the internal dynamics emerges on all sides; because, even while it is sounding, the chord always holds the possibility of inclining to different kinds of play of its richly changing contents.

In the aesthetic consideration of harmony it not only matters which chords are used but also which chords do not occur. This was recognized by Wagner himself, when he remarked that certain modulations and intervals, pathetic harmonies and sentimental melody could not at all occur in this work. Here I will limit my observations to noting that there are whole stretches of Parsifal, despite the extensive use of the mystic chord in the work as a whole, where it does not appear at all: such as the whole first period (bars 1-154) except for one turbulent passage (bars 83-104) and four individual bars, then large parts of the Titurel narration: bars 573-591, 595-633, 676-690, 703 to conclusion (bars 714 and 716 excepted), then the shooting incident at bars 742-753, the description of the holy forest at bars 794-848 (two bars, 806 and 826, are unimportant), the interrogation of Parsifal with the removal of the swan at bars 886-934, then everything from the transformation music to Amfortas' lament (the part called "the Saviour's lament" excluded), i.e. apart from these 17 + 22 bars, a passage of nearly 200 bars! Similar passages recur after Amfortas' lament. In the second act it is noteworthy that the whole scene of the Magic Maidens, particularly in their main part, is nearly free from the chord. In the third act it is very economically used from the baptism to the conversion, and with the uncovering of the Grail it falls silent. These examples, to which others could be added, show that the absence of the chord causes clarity and light.

As  regards the symbolic meaning of the chord I should like to say that one could feel inclined to identify it with the term "sin" in the Christian sense. That is not correct, however, for all cases. One might prefer the term "confusion", which in classical Greek drama, as Rudolf Pfeiffer beautifully explained in a Goethe lecture, meant something similar to what the Christian later -- with the intellect suspended -- called "sin". Some Sophoclean verses show that the Greek saw in muddled thinking or confusion of the understanding a "trespass". Such a "confusion" is effected in the music by this mystic chord, that, as we saw, appears in Parsifal in 92 different cases and with the theoretical potential for even more solutions. It is certain that Wagner's use of these harmonic symbols was influenced as much by his extraordinary humanistic knowledge, as by his spiritual attitude to the German mystics.

The fact that Wagner knew the philosophy of these German thinkers can be seen in the essay, which he published in the Bayreuther Blätter at the beginning of the year 1880, where he says: the God within the human breast, whom our great mystics saw shining through all existence, this God, for whom no dwelling place in the sky needs to be scientifically proven, has kept the parsons busy. For us Germans had he become our inmost own ... So the teachings of Master Eckehart play a more important part than so far assumed in the trains of thought within Parsifal, and I can best describe the strange nature of the sound, which mysteriously pervades the score of Parsifal, by calling it the mystic chord.

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