Everything you wanted to know about the Tristan chord but were afraid to ask

The Nirwana Chord

open quotes The first chord of Tristan, known simply as "the Tristan chord", remains the most famous single chord in the history of music. It contains within itself not one but two dissonances, thus creating within the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution- but-not-resolution. close quotes
[Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (also available as The Tristan Chord), p. 208]

open quotes The name of "the Tristan chord" means of course no more than that chord which is used extensively and in a special way in the opera 'Tristan und Isolde'. Would that other motives could be so generously named. Its nature and its deployment at the outset of the Prelude make it a sensuous, emotive link between the two basic motives ... close quotes
[Roger North, Wagner's Most Subtle Art: An analytic study of 'Tristan und Isolde', p. 159]

Roger North goes on to say that, with only a couple of exceptions, the second basic motif (as he calls it) 1, a short musical cell first heard in the Prelude, is always accompanied by a Tristan chord. Here it is:

open quotes There is no country, no town, no village that I can call my own. Everything is alien to me and I often gaze around, yearning for a glimpse of the land of Nirvana. But Nirvana quickly turns back into 'Tristan'; you know the Buddhist theory of the origin of the world. A breath clouds the clear expanse of heaven: The yearning motive. it swells and grows denser, and finally the whole world stands before me again in all its impenetrable solidity. close quotes
[Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonk, 3rd March 18602]

RW to MW 3rd March 1860

In the extract quoted above, Wagner wrote of yearning for Nirvana (in German, Nirwana). He quotes the little motivic cell; the single breath that clouds the clear heaven. It will not come as a surprise to the reader, therefore, that both the Tristan chord and the same motivic cell appear in an orchestral fantasy called Nirwana. It was composed by Wagner's friend and supporter, Hans von Bülow. In a letter dated 28th September 1854 3 (a few weeks after Wagner had begun reading Schopenhauer and a few weeks before he wrote to Liszt with the first ideas for the opera Tristan und Isolde), Wagner offered his young friend some constructive criticism. He did not criticise von Bülow for writing dissonances but only for emphasising them, saying that he always tried to conceal his dissonances. It might be said that Wagner did not take his own advice, for soon he would be emphasising a dissonance himself, using a chord that he possibly discovered first in the score of Nirwana. Although it could with justification be called "the Nirwana chord", it has become known as "the Tristan chord".

The opening bars of 'Tristan und Isolde'

Various writers have played a kind of parlour game that consists of spotting the few occurrences of the Tristan chord (or some arrangement of the same four notes) in works by Mozart (Dissonance quartet K.428), Beethoven (op.31 no.5), Spohr (Concerto for two violins, Quartet op.4 no.1), Gottschalk (The Last Hope), Chopin (op.68 no.4), Liszt ("Die Loreley", "Ich möchte hingehen") and other composers. Some scribblers even presume to find something significant or prophetic in these isolated instances of the Tristan chord, or harmonies that resemble the Tristan chord; although in many cases it is not, strictly speaking, a Tristan chord such as it appears in the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde, with a perfect fourth and an augmented fourth.

Another game that learned scholars have been playing for many years is called, "pin a label on the Tristan chord". How is this chord to be classified? In a classic and often perceptive work of musical analysis, Ernst Kurth identified as one of the characteristic features of Romantic harmony the chromatic inflection of a chord by either raising or lowering one of its constituent notes by a semitone. The "altered" note thereby gains, according to Kurth, "leading note energy": a tendency to move to the "unaltered" note of the original chord. From Kurth's book onwards, most discussion about the Tristan chord has consisted of debating what chord has been altered to produce it. After much scholarly ink had been spilt, the leading contender emerged as the "French sixth". Whilst it is true that by altering a note in a "French sixth" one produces a Tristan chord, why Wagner would want to start with a "French sixth" has never been explained.

In the middle of the 19th century, especially among German composers, it became fashionable to use the diminished-seventh chord. It is simply four notes stacked at intervals of a minor third. Wagner used it so much in his Tannhäuser that a young music critic called Eduard Hanslick, in a generally favourable review, noted Wagner's tendency towards "diminished-seventh chord music". Wagner wrote to Hanslick not to deny this charge but claiming that he had inherited the tendency from Spontini and Weber. Since by his own admission the diminished-seventh chord was an element of Wagner's harmonic language (already in 1845), it might be worth considering whether the Tristan chord might be produced by altering a diminished-seventh chord 4.

Four distinct Tristan chords are prominent in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. They can be divided into two groups. In bars 2 and 6 we hear "normal" or definitive Tristan chords: in which the upper notes are separated by a perfect fourth and the lower notes by an augmented fourth (or tritone). In bars 10 and 12, however, we hear inverted Tristan chords: these have the tritone above and the perfect fourth below. The first two are respectively Tristan chords on F and A flat, and both of the later ones are the Tristan chord on D. From now onwards, I shall write T(F) for "the Tristan chord on F" and so on. Much later in the Prelude we hear T(B). The first three of these chords appear frequently during the opera but T(B) is less often heard (for example, and perhaps significantly, in the Love's Ecstacy section of the second act at "Lass' mich sterben") and therefore it is sometimes called the "secret" Tristan chord5. There are other possible vertical re- orderings (positions) of the Tristan chord but they are rarely used in this opera: Wagner kept them for Parsifal, in which opera he used all of them.

The Sweet Death motif, initial version.

A little detective work shows that each of these four Tristan chords can be produced by altering the diminished-seventh chord on B, or Bdim7, taking a different note to alter each time. See the diagram below.

Altered diminished-seventh chord

Audio examples:

Soundbytes Tristan chord on F : bars 0-3
Soundbytes Tristan chord on A flat : bars 4-7
Soundbytes Tristan chord on D : bars 8-11
Soundbytes Tristan chord on B : bars 88-90

Therefore we can say (following Chafe, p.92) that diminished-seventh harmony "lies behind" the Tristan chords. Not only are they related to a diminished-seventh chord but the four primary Tristan chords of the opera can be related to each other through the same chord Bdim7, which might be called the hidden harmonic basis of the score. Incidentally, the other eight Tristan chords -- since there is one for each note of the chromatic scale -- can be produced by altering E flat dim7 and G dim7 in exactly the same way.

The reader might ask where Wagner uses the remaining 8 Tristan chords. They are used sparsely throughout the score then all of them appear together in a remarkable and intense passage in the second act transition to "O ew'ge Nacht". This part of the score gave Wagner a lot of trouble. It features the New Death Motif or Sweet Death6, a Leitmotif that is associated with a new understanding of death that, in this scene, replaces the first Death Motif of Isolde's Curse. The harmonies of Sweet Death include two Tristan chords. In the passage beginning at "Lass' mich sterben", Wagner transposes this leading motive six times and in the process uses all twelve Tristan chords.

With rare exceptions, the Tristan chord resolves on to a dominant-seventh chord. Since this is not considered as a consonant harmony (it still contains some dissonance), there is a relaxation of tension but not full resolution. As a metaphor for unsatisfied desire and unquenched yearning, that resolution is reserved until the final bars of the opera. In a few instances, Wagner moves from one Tristan chord to another and even to a third: for example at Tristan's words, "das Sehnen hin zur heil'gen Nacht", which is harmonised with T(G#) T(D) T(F) and which prefigures the emergence of Sweet Death.

Sequence of Tristan chords

The Tristan chord is said to be ambiguous because it is ready to move to a chord in either one of two keys a tritone apart. Therefore it might be seen as the limiting case of ambiguity in Romantic harmony — and ambiguity of every kind was increasingly a feature of Wagner's operas. As a means to effect a transition between remote keys, the chord would have been no more than a useful addition to the compositional toolbox. If, as Kurth claimed, Tristan brought about a crisis in Romantic harmony then it was not because of the prominence of this chord alone. As we noted above, the Tristan chord (or something similar to it) had sometimes appeared in earlier music. What Wagner did that was radical was to emphasise this discord, just as von Bülow had emphasised discords in Nirwana. The chord and its usage is part of the Tristan style, which has other components such as chromatic voice-leading, the avoidance of full cadences, and so on. That style was a departure from and implicitly a challenge to Romantic harmony as it existed around 1860.

Both metaphorically and musically, the Tristan chord is associated with the rising four-note phrase quoted earlier in this article, one that some commentators have interpreted as signifying Yearning. Both elements of Wagner's score are associated with the idea of Nirvana and, through von Bülow's orchestral fantasy that contains the same musical elements, there is a connection with thoughts of death and suicide. The rising phrase (North's second basic motif) is used, again in association with yearning, in Parsifal (for example, as Kundry yearns for the Redeemer: see #35 in the Leitmotif Guide). In the same (pre-Tristan) letter in which Wagner criticised von Bülow's fantasy piece, he recommended to him some books that he had been reading, by the philosopher Schopenhauer. In the context of his philosophy, the Tristan chord might be regarded as representing the Will, which is also Eros, the origin of desire and yearning. Wagner might have chosen any dissonant chord to achieve this. Recognising the musical potential of the Tristan chord and especially as an element of ambiguity and tonal instability, Wagner made a good choice.

Further Reading

  • Bailey R., "Richard Wagner: Prelude and Transfiguration from Tristan und Isolde", 1985, New York, W.W.Norton.
  • Chafe, E., "The Tragic and the Ecstatic: the musical revolution of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde", 2008, OUP Oxford.
  • Cooke, D., "Wagner's Musical Language", in "The Wagner Companion", ed. Burbidge and Sutton, 1979, London.
  • Kurth, E., "Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagner's Tristan", 1920, Berlin & Leipzig.
  • Lorenz, A., "Das Geheimnis der Form bei Richard Wagner", Band II, 1926, Berlin.
  • Magee, B., "Wagner and Philosophy", Allen Lane, 2000, London; also published in the USA as "The Tristan Chord".
  • Mitchell, W., "The Tristan Prelude: Techniques and Structure", in "The Music Forum" I pp.167-203, 1967.
  • North, R., "Wagner's Most Subtle Art: An analytic study of Tristan und Isolde", 1996, London.
  • Spencer, S. and Millington, B., "Selected Letters of Richard Wagner" in English, 1987, Dent London.
  • Vogel, M., "Der Tristan-Akkord und die Krise der modernen Harmonie-Lehre", 1962, Düsseldorf.
  • Wagner, R., "Richard Wagner an Mathilde Wesendonk: Tagebuchblätter und Briefe 1853-1871", ed. Wolfang Golther, 1904/14, Leipzig.
  • Wagner, R., "Richard Wagners Briefe an Hans von Bülow", ed. Daniel Thode, 1916, Jena.
  • Wagner, R., "Sämtliche Briefe", ed. G. Strobel, W. Wolf, H-J. Bauer, J. Forner, 1967-, Leipzig.

Footnote 1: What I find most refreshing about Roger North's analysis is that he concentrates on the little cells that are developed and transformed, rather than the larger units that other commentators call Leitmotive or leading motives. Which is not to say that the Leitmotive are of no significance, only that one needs to look deeper into the music. Further, North eschews fancy names and calls the basic motives (in Lorenz's terminology, Urmotive) a, b and c. Of these, the first two appear in the initial bars of the Prelude and the third, first heard later in the Prelude, is the Honour motif.

Footnote 2: Wesendonk-Briefe pp.259-260. Sämtliche Briefe v.12 p.85. English trans. in Spencer and Millington, pp.485-6.

Footnote 3: Bülow-Briefe pp.59-63. See Spencer and Millington, p.165, pp.320-322.

Footnote 4: As far as I can determine, this was first suggested by William Mitchell in 1967. His article is reprinted in R. Bailey's book.

Footnote 5: All four of the primary Tristan chords are heard together towards the end of Act 3, when Brangäne reveals her "secret" to King Mark.

Footnote 6: The name Sweet Death was taken from one of the fourteen lines that Wagner deleted when he revised the transitional section leading to "O ew'ge Nacht" in 1859. They can be found in Chafe p.215 and Lorenz p.121. The deleted music can be found in an Appendix in Chafe's book, pp.285-295.

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