Exploring Chords: “Tristan and Isolde”


Illustrated by Abigail Edmonds

In Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner expresses tragic love and desire, using what has been named the Tristan chord. To truly experience Wagner’s Tristan chord takes four and a half hours of intense listening – all the way to the last notes of the opera. These are sounds of prolonged tonal ambiguity that bring about feelings of emotional depths to the listener.

Less important than the chord itself, Bill McGlaughlin explains how Wagner gets to the chord, when he moves away from it, and where he goes to.

Opening measures of the Prelude to “Tristan and Isolde”

From the first few bars of the prelude, the music is suspended, embracing an atmosphere of tension as the chords move up the staff, reaching for a resolution that is always just beyond its grasp. Finally, as Bill talks about when the resolution happens in the last few chords of the opera, we seem to just accept it. We are drained of all passion; our emotions have deepened as if we have gained the wisdom of time. Isolde’s final aria, “Mild und Leise” (“Softly and gentle”) is also called the “Liebestod” (Love–Death).

Love’s longing has been tackled in many art forms. Always, it seems to take time and patience for the audience to understand, and this opera is no exception; it took years for music lovers to get  it “in their ears.” Wagner, when writing this opera, traveled from country to country, looking for peace and quiet to help him concentrate. During this time he had at least one affair, ended his marriage, and then fell in love with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of Hans von Bülow, who was conducting the premiere of Tristan and Isolde.

Wagner eventually married Cosima and wrote for her, as a birthday/Christmas gift, a symphonic poem called Siegfried Idyll, one of the most beloved works about the beauty and preciousness of love, and written completely void of tension or suspense.

But back to opera – to be a true Wagnerian soprano or tenor or even the conductor of Wagnerian operas, you have to walk on stage able to convey, with the largest of gestures, the most intimate of thoughts and feelings.  The orchestra is large, complete with bass tuba, sometimes even with instrumentalists on stage interacting with the singers.  This is at the same time as quiet tears are being shed, and small innocent gestures cause the ruination of the lives of heroes. All of the props and plots are literally out of this world.

One note: Franz Liszt, Cosima’s father, wrote a fabulous piano transcription of Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan and Isolde, by Herbert James Draper

Explore more chords with Bill McGlaughlin.