Tristan Und Isolde‘s opening chord (F, B, D sharp, G sharp: now known as the ‘Tristan Chord’) revolutionised how composers treated tonality. Without it, Debussy might not have been so readily drawn to individual chords, bell-like or whole-tone; and Schoenberg would not have embarked on his voyage far from the shores of conventional tonality which resulted in Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire.
Why is the ‘Tristan Chord’ important?
Before Tristan, it had been a given in music – at least since Bach’s time – that a discord must be resolved onto a concord. But Wagner, expressing his central characters’ almost ecstatic pain of unrequited love, created a chord to which there is no obvious closure, least of all in the opening Prelude. Only in the last Act, with Isolde’s so-called ‘Liebestod’, is resolution finally reached. Wagner’s example inspired not only Schoenberg’s adventures in ‘extended tonality’, but also Scriabin, whose Divine Poem pays explicit homage to Tristan, and whose subsequent works became infused with what he called the ‘mystic chord’.
Furthermore, through not being instantly resolved, the ‘Tristan chord’ soon became widely known as an identifiable sound in its own right. Parry, a follower of Wagner’s ‘rival’ Brahms, wryly acknowledged this in his ‘Blest pair of Sirens’, making the ‘Tristan chord’ the ‘harsh din’ that resulted from ‘disproportioned sin’. More frivolously, Britten in his opera Albert Herring had the chord played while his hero drank a ‘potion’ of lemonade spiked with rum, lasting through his subsequent minute-long fit of hiccups.
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