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There’s some kind of strange revolutionary aspect of Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. There are modernist artistic facets that transcend the confines of traditional visual art and bleed through other forms of expression as well. Prevailing is the concept of breaking down the claustrophobic barriers we call “rules” and simply doing whatever the artist calls for. Some called it progressive. Others called it disgusting. However, we aren’t here to discuss such issues, but rather, we will discuss said opera’s prelude, as well as said rules and which ones are figuratively violated. This prelude is a beautiful, wonderful, spectacular piece of music that in its time presented new styles and came to inspire generations to come. If dissertations could be written on one opera, essays could be written on single movements, so this will be cut short.
It is clear from the very beginning that walls are already beginning to crack, with the presentation of one of the most famous chords in music history: the so-called “Tristan Chord,” the note puzzle that settles, and yet unsettles. It is called the Tristan Chord not just because it comes from Tristan und Isolde, but because the notes that make it as well as the preceding notes are commonly thought to symbolize Tristan and his longing. The chord seems to carry this idea of an ever-present and unquenching thirst for love, a theme prevalent in the opera itself., and it is immediately followed by a set of rising, slightly dissonant notes that are commonly thought to represent Isolde and her desire, which itself becomes what is known as a “leitmotiv.”
Leitmotivs are reoccurring phrases of music that represent an item, a person or an idea. They will be played, often by the orchestra, when that item, person or idea presents itself. For instance, Isolde’s desire is presented by an action or a series of words, and the same set of rising dissonant notes are played. Another, more famous example is John Williams’ score for the movie Star Wars, wherein the character Darth Vader is usually coupled with a series of marching, rhythmic thuds from the score. This concept was invented and championed by Wagner, and the concept reappears in many of his operas. The leitmotiv of Isolde reappears several times in the prelude alone: four times within the first minute and thirty seconds; again at 6:33, 6:42, 6:51, and doubled over at 7:00; twice more at 7:55 and 8:16; slightly at 8:35; and finally once last time at 10:20 to end the piece before the transition into the opera proper. This symbolizes a never-ending and unsatisfiable desire for love that cannot be; the concept of which is repeated through the use of chords and passages that never settle, never bring cadence and are rarely truly, emotionally melodic.
That said, much of this piece is emotional, but for reasons other than melody. The non-settling dissonant cadence of the Tristan Chord, as well as the rest of the piece, creates a rather dark, extraordinary emotional response that unconventionally spawns the very love and longing of Tristan in the listener, and when this feeling boils over and explodes at 1:34-1:46, followed by a resting retreat, the listener can’t help but be light-headed for the experience. The piece destroys rhythmic conventions to instead focus solely on what is happening in the notes and harmonies, and the piece teeters on the cusp of atonality with its chromaticism. Both of these elements lead directly into the experimental music of Webern and Schoenberg, whose atonal, arrhythmic noise dealt more damage than dexterity to early 20th century music, in this student’s opinion.
Still, the piece succeeds in being amazing, though its origins of modernist composition be slightly damning. Tristan und Isolde may not be the best opera ever conceived, or even the best opera by Wagner, but its prelude is perhaps his most famous, if not the most famous. No other operatic prelude so perfectly embodies the events and musical conceptions that are to come, and no other accomplishes these effects quite so beautifully despite the non-conventions it advocates. Even though these new rules, or lack thereof, can seem detestable, there is one concept that is desirable, admirable and perhaps even real: true love never dies.
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