The music of Richard Wagner marked a growing "crisis" in Romantic harmony marked by the so called, "Tristan Chord". This is the opening harmony of the prelude to Wagner's 1859 opera Tristan and Isolde. Never before has one group of four notes rocked the musical world so completely.
The Tristan chord is spelled, from the bottom, f – b – d# - g#. It is sometimes called a half-diminished 7th chord or a French augmented 6th with a long appoggiatura, but don't worry… those names aren't important. What is important is that theorists, musicians and composers have argued about these names, this chord and its significance for over a hundred and fifty years. It absolutely defies convention.
This wasn't the first time this harmony was used. You can find examples of it in the works of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, J.S. Bach and even all the way back to the Renaissance in the music of Guillaume de Machaut. What makes Wagner's Tristan chord so unique is that he had no intention of using it correctly. It's not meant to resolve from dissonance to consonance, according to the rules. It's just meant to be there; a moment of tension without the expected release. In other words, the Tristan chord marked the first time that a harmony's sound became much more important than its function.
For Wagner, this sound was about longing, an existential cry for peace. In his writings he talks about his feelings of isolation and disquiet and also a deep spiritual longing in his soul for what he called Nirvana. All of these feelings, everything came back to Tristan and that sound of unhinged, unrealized desire. From the moment these four notes are heard together they become tied to Wagner, the character of Tristan and the story of the opera and this is true even after the opera is long over. Today every time we hear this harmony it is forever tied to this one moment in history.
You can hear the Tristan chord quoted in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Debussy and Benjamin Britten. It has been parodied countless times, but the power of this chord goes beyond just parody. Composers of the next generation saw the Tristan Chord as a license to explore sound for its own merit. They began to explore the boundaries of functional harmony that governed music for centuries and then eventually, discarded those rules altogether.
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