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An Analysis of The Opera, Tristan Und Isolde by Richard Wagner

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An Analysis of The Opera, Tristan Und Isolde by Richard Wagner essay

In Zurich, Switzerland, in 1852, Richard Wagner met a woman named Mathilde Wesendonck. She was married to a silk merchant who came to enjoy the music composed by Wagner so much that he eventually granted the composer a place to stay on the Wesendonck property. It was not long before Wagner developed a romantic interest in Mathilde. We know very little about their relationship here on, but we do have evidence that there was some kind of platonic love, but that Mathilde did not want to jeopardize her marriage to the silk merchant. (Wagner, too, was married at the time.) However, for the next five years, this woman would be the inspiration for many of Wagner’s most amazing and classic works. Chief among them is the opera Tristan und Isolde, a musical masterpiece that throws a sheet across concepts of love, passion and, ultimately, how far one would go for that love. The opera begins with a prelude that is arguably the most striking but definitely the most famous of the works spawned from this story, due in large part to the precursory elements of modernism found in the piece. While the prelude is predominantly romantic in its subject matter and emotional impact, it achieves these effects with methods that would only come into use in the future.

The best and most obvious place to begin is the beginning. However, this location contains more than simply the beginning, but the foundation for much of the piece and much of the reason why there is modernism in this music. At 0:10, and recurring throughout, there occurs the so-called “Tristan Chord,” a combination of notes that was surely the cause of more than a few turned heads at the premier of the opera. The chord evokes a feeling of sadness through unquenched longing, drawing the listener in to the piece immediately. The following rise supplements the chord, as if to leave the listener with a sense of being so close to satisfaction, and yet so far away as he is pulled back at the last second. Indeed, the feeling proceeds for the entire eleven minutes of the prelude, even until the curtains rise.

Why does it create this feeling so well? How does it describe what mere melody cannot, or could not similarly? One reason is that it repeats itself several times within the first minute and a half of the piece, before the music moves on to seemingly bigger and better things. More important, though is the structure of the chord. Like the feeling of near satisfaction it creates, the chord itself seems to be very close to cadence, close to settling with a triad, but instead it introduces a fourth note, and it teeters and distances itself over the next ten seconds with the “Desire” leitmotif, which will be addressed later.

Despite its effectiveness in creating a mood which to set the entire prelude, the Tristan Chord is rather unremarkable when compared to a more modern example of musical mood-making. What makes it noteworthy is its context: the fact that it was composed and premiered in the middle of the 19th century. To 21st century ears, the piece does no more than create a mood, but over 150 years ago it managed to help obliterate 19th century conventions. It does not fit into these past ideas of what one may call “harmony.” It instead decides to run with a broken rule, and boy does it run. This concept of broken rules, somewhat prevalent in the piece, helped pave the way for modernist composers, albeit multiple decades later.

To continue in a logical direction, the next topic should be the piece’s tonality, or here, a slight case of atonality. (To be clear, many modernist elements of the Tristan und Isolde Prelude are slight.) Atonality is the term we use to describe a piece that is released from any kind of constraint of a musical scale, to the point that it can no longer be called chromaticism and, instead, just rhythm. While it never comes so close to atonal as the work of, say, Webern or Schoenberg, there exists such a large amount of chromaticism, much more so than normally found in romantic compositions, that one might say it is taking itself on the road to atonality. The result is a beautiful otherworldly experience that contributes heavily to the themes of never-settling longing and desire presented by the Tristan Chord.

The chromaticism in the Prelude spares no quarter in its omnipresence, leaving the listener dazzled, with his hair blown back as if having just been on a wild ride. There is no relaxation, no settling chord, no lull in the music to allow any kind of respite. From about 1:35 to eight minutes in the piece, there is only a building frustration and agitation at the lack of any settling feeling, and yet it builds with such a grace (1:43-3:00, 6:35-8:00) as to leave an unprepared person with tears. The chromaticism, as well as the resulting tension, dynamics and tonality reflect the content of the libretto, wherein the love of Tristan and Isolde is never satisfied, and in the end the couple can join only in death. This perfects the Prelude, or rather, the Prelude perfects the libretto and the opera, serving its purpose so well that it stands out as the most notable piece, and arguably the most beautiful (a case can be made for the “Liebestod” finale.)

As stated before, atonality is a trait of modernist music, and chromaticism can be considered something of a stepping stone (or a gateway drug, depending on the person asked) toward that destination. Also stated above, those who made use of said trait include Webern and Schoenberg. It can be surmised, then, that the Tristan Prelude could be considered an honorary member of the modernist group, due in part to its heavy use of chromaticism as well as the Tristan Chord, which has its own explanation.

Let us take a break here and discuss another far-reaching effect of the prelude, and of the opera itself: leitmotifs. When a phrase of music within a larger piece consistently accompanies a person, a place, a thing or an idea, it is called a leitmotif. Often played by the orchestra, leitmotifs are designed to keep the audience’s focus through a large work, especially an opera. Though the concept of musical phrases being coupled with on-stage events is by no means original to Wagner’s music, he popularized the idea and was the first to use it famously. After all, when one creates a sprawling musical phenomenon like The Ring of the Nibelung, which is often estimated at 15-18 hours in length, one needs a little more than just good drama to keep the listener’s attention.

Though Tristan und Isolde premiered before The Ring, its prominent leitmotif concept is not absent. There are at least two in the Prelude alone, presented for the first time at the very beginning: Tristan’s “Longing,” followed by the Tristan Chord at 0:10, and then Isolde’s “Desire” at 0:14. “Desire” occurs the most often, appearing in the Prelude thirteen times. A modern example of a leitmotif can be found famously in the film scores by John Williams, the most well-known of which being those from Star Wars. In these films, leitmotifs accompany almost every major character and idea, from Princess Leia’s floating theme, to the Empire’s marching plod, and the sweeping Love motif found in Empire Strikes Back. Like Williams, Wagner had many leitmotifs to go with his themes, characters and ideas, and this popularized method led to a staple of film scoring.

Finally, the last important element found in the Prelude is the way rhythm is treated. However, “treated” is not the right term here, because modernism does not treat rhythm. Rather, it abandons rhythm, like it abandons the chromatic scale. The above composers, Schoenberg and Webern, both commit this in their music by practically removing rhythmic guidance for their notes, and the result is messy. Combine this with their atonality and it’s as if there’s nothing left but noise. Strangely, this is not the case with the Prelude. Though there is little rhythm to drive the piece forward, as there should be little, it instead becomes graceful.

Why, then, is the distance between little rhythm and no rhythm so small, and yet so significant? Perhaps it is because there is still an orderly flow of notes through time when there is little or loose rhythmic treatment in a piece like the Tristan Prelude, but if it were stripped of its rhythm, we would end up with a mess that is neither graceful nor emotional (at least, incorrectly emotional and simply shocking) because it lacks the order it requires to convey its message. Little rhythmic treatment is still a modernist concept (though with its roots in romanticism, which is why it does not stand out as much in the Prelude), but this piece manages to balance between a modernist approach to rhythm and a romantic one, creating another beautiful element of the masterpiece.

The Tristan und Isolde Prelude seems to have found a happy medium between two vastly different musical eras. Its impact is romantically, emotionally valid rather than shocking, and it does this through the use of elements that were incredibly progressive for its time, leading into what is now called modernism. Wagner’s masterful work was created from the inspiration of Mathilde Wesendonck, but eventually their relationship fell apart, and it was not long before he had to find another impresario for support. One wonders, though: if Mathilde had not been married, Wagner also had no wife at home, would their relationship have continued to marriage and true love? Would Wagner’s inspiration have come true, with him living out his own opera until death? We can never find out, but we know that Wagner was not fruitless: he produced one of the most classic operas ever.

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An Analysis of the Opera, Tristan Und Isolde by Richard Wagner. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
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