TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
The four notes of the chord have been the subject of endless musicological wrangling, which has attempted to define its significance in the opera itself, as well as how it has gone on to have a life of its own, as signifier of heightened and frustrated desire and tension not only in Wagner’s later operas but in all manner of fin de siècle works, good and bad. The New Grove dictionary does its best at a summary: ‘It can be explained in ordinary functional harmony as an augmented (French) sixth with the G sharp as a long appoggiatura to the A, or…as an added sixth chord in first inversion with chromatic alterations.’ If ever an opera seemed resistant to such analysis, though, it is Tristan, whose world is patently not one of ‘ordinary functional harmony’, as is made clear even in those first three bars of the Prelude, whose Langsam und schmachtend (‘Slow and yearning’) marking is as much a precis of the action as a musical direction.
The key signature, ostensibly A minor, gives little away; the 6/8 pulse is all but undetectable. The instrumentation of the chord sets the tone for the score’s entire orchestration: low, mellow wind instruments blend with the cellos to form a new sonority whose exact make-up is difficult to pick out. Throughout the score Wagner exploits this blending of instruments: a technique, pioneered in the organ-like chords of Lohengrin and which later achieved physical realisation in the sunken pit of Bayreuth (Theodor Adorno criticised it in Marxist terms as part of a concern with the phantasmagorical which sought dishonestly to conceal the means of production). But the chord, and the way the following phrase peters out, set the work’s pattern for creating musical expectations that are never resolved, showing why, for Robert P Morgan, Tristan exemplified the most important tendency in 19th-century tonality,
The first Tristan and Isolde, 1865: Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld was left scratching his head by the ‘strange’ first page: ‘I have yet to discover the least idea of what the author wishes to do,’ he wrote. Even today, Tristan remains a work that can inspire fierce devotion or baffled resistance: it eludes clear definition and explanation and encourages intemperate hyperbole at every turn. Maybe Michael Tanner’s thought-provoking description is one of the best: ‘Along with Bach’s St Matthew Passion,’ he writes, ‘it is one of the two greatest religious works of our culture.’
Or perhaps we can turn to more coolly objective matters, and The New Kobbé’s Opera Book, which states that ‘Tristan is the most influential opera in all musical history’. If Isolde herself is allowed in the opera to zero in on the ‘und’, the wörtlein (or ‘little word’) that both unites her and Tristan and places unwanted distance between then, then might we also read significance into the fact that Kobbé talks not of ‘operatic’ history but of ‘musical’ history? The standard assessment of the opera’s role in this latter regard is well known: it broke down the rules of harmony, emancipated dissonance, unleashed atonality and set the foundations, four decades early, for the musical 20th century. If we are to believe for a moment that, pace Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was the ‘prize bull that inseminated the whole modern movement’, then perhaps we can suggest that Tristan provided the potent cocktail that helped get the bull in the mood. The two works could hardly inhabit more different aesthetic universes, but if analysts have tussled for decades to define The Rite’s ‘Augurs of Spring’ chord (before someone suggested that Stravinsky’s hands had simply alighted by chance on a chord that sounded right at the piano), then that is nothing compared with the fascination with the ‘Tristan chord’ – heard almost immediately in the Prelude after the cellos’ first three yearning, ambiguous notes.
Wagner and Cosima’s illegitimate daughter Isolde was born just before the premiere
12 GRAMOPHONE JUNE 2015