Richard Wagner and his Mystical Chord
he 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.
he importance of harmony for Wagner can be seen in Wolzogen's Memoirs, where the author refers to that
es: Faust with the mothers!
he 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.
or 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.
he 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:
ow 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.
he 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.
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 "mystical". Therefore I call it the mystical chord.
[Discussion of 92 cases with examples omitted - ed.]
o 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 "mystical" chord, particularly the occasional
n 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
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 mystical 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.
he 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: