"The German composer Richard Strauss wrote that Wagners music would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of [its] hideous dischords. Interestingly, Strauss later recanted this early assessment and became an ardent admirer of Wagners music."
The Prelude to Wagners Tristan and Isolde opens with a brief
three-note melodic passage in the cellos, followed by the following much-celebrated
chord, the so-called Tristan chord, in the cellos and woodwinds:
The opera, and this one chord in particular, have generated a remarkable
amount of celebration, commentary, and controversy among musicians over
the past century and a half.
Monsieur Scudo of Paris LAnneé Musicale dismissed
the Tristan chord as a monstrous piling of discordant sounds,
while the noted critic and aesthetician Eduard Hanslick condemned Wagners
melodic writing as incoherent and musically undermining. Tchaikovsky
wrote that Wagners music left us tormented and exhausted,
and the German composer Richard Strauss wrote that Wagners music
would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear
of [its] hideous dischords. Interestingly, Strauss later recanted
this early assessment and became an ardent admirer of Wagners music.
Other musicians and musical thinkers reached Strauss belated appreciation
more quickly. They sensed immediately an important new form of musical
utterance when they heard Tristan and Isolde. Many have since studied
the work with awe and reverence, and have celebrated it for its forward-looking
creation and use of musical language. The focus of much of
this study and celebration has been the strange new sound-world brought
into being at the very beginning of the work through the Tristan chord.
It may seem strange that a single chord could generate such controversy
and interest, but the Tristan chord does represent a watershed moment
in musical history.
As the very first chord in the work, it would have surprised and perhaps
even confused listeners in Wagners day. It contains nothing but
dissonant intervals above the bass, and is particularly unstable. What
is even more remarkable is that from that opening chord, the upper voice
moves up, creating another dissonant chord, followed by yet two more dissonant
chords in the following measure. Nowhere in this passage do we hear a
stable, referential chord which would establish the key for us. Thus in
purely musical terms we are thrown into a confused and tormented state
mirroring that of the ill-fated lovers Tristan and Isolde.
In this opening musical gesture, twice repeated, Wagner distorted the
traditional, universal harmonic practices of earlier Western music and
made them submit to the musical/dramatic demands of the moment. He set
the stage for the non-universal (or contextual) harmony, which has informed
so much of the history of Western music since Wagner. It is for this reason
perhaps above all others that Tristan and Isolde incited such acrimony
from some, and such celebration from others.
Judd Danby is a composer, jazz musician, and assistant professor of music at Wabash. These remarks are excerpted from his C&T lecture.