Everything you wanted to know about the Tristan chord but were afraid to ask
[Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (also available as The Tristan Chord), p. 208]
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.
[Roger North, Wagner's Most Subtle Art: An analytic study of 'Tristan und Isolde', p. 159]
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 ...
oger North goes on to say that, with only a couple of exceptions, this "basic motif" (as he calls it) 1, a short musical cell first heard in the Prelude, is always accompanied by a Tristan chord. Here is how Wagner explained it:
[Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonk, 3rd March 18602]
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: it
swells and grows denser, and finally the whole world stands before me again in all its impenetrable solidity.
n 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".
arious 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.
nother 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.
n 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
our 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.
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 (by a semitone) each time. See the diagram below.
Audio examples: Tristan chord on F : bars 0-3
Tristan chord on A flat : bars 4-7
Tristan chord on D : bars 8-11
Tristan chord on B : bars 88-90
herefore 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.
he 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.
ith 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
he 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.
oth 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
- 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.
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,
) 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
Wesendonk-Briefe pp.259-260. Sämtliche Briefe v.12 p.85. English trans. in Spencer and Millington, pp.485-6.
Bülow-Briefe pp.59-63. See Spencer and Millington, p.165, pp.320-322.
As far as I can determine, this was first suggested by William Mitchell in 1967. His article is reprinted in R. Bailey's
All four of the primary Tristan chords are heard together towards the end of Act 3, when Brangäne reveals her "secret" to King
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.
© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (http to https) --- Sun 4 August 2019 22:35 CET ---