In Zurich, Switzerland, in 1852, Richard Wagner met a woman named Mathilde Wesendonck. She was married to an entrepreneur who loved Wagner’s music. He eventually allowed the composer to stay at his home. Mathilde was immediately attracted to Wagner. Mathilde and Wagner’s relationship is not well documented, although there is evidence of a platonic affection. Mathilde, however, did not wish to endanger her marriage with the Silk Merchant. Wagner was also married during this time. This woman was the inspiration behind many of Wagner’s classic and amazing works over the next five-year period. Tristan und Isolde was the first of these works, a musical marvel that explores concepts such as love, passion and what one will do for their love. The prelude to the opera is the most well-known and most memorable of all the works that have been spawned by this story. This is due to the early modernist elements found in the work. The prelude is romantic and has an emotional impact. It achieves this with techniques that are not used today.
Beginning at the very beginning is a great place to start. The beginning is not the only place to start. It also contains the foundations for most of the music and the reasons why it has a modernist feel. At 0;10, the “Tristan Chord”, which appears repeatedly throughout the work, was the source of many a surprised look at the premiere. The chord brings about a sadness in the listener through the unquenched thirst for satisfaction. The chord is then accompanied by a rise, which gives the impression that the listener is so close to happiness, but yet so far from it, because he’s pulled back in the last moment. The feeling continues throughout the eleven-minute prelude and even up until the curtain rises.
Why does this create such a good feeling? What can it say that melody alone cannot? This is because it appears several times over the course of the first minute. The chord structure is more important. The chord’s structure is more important than the cadence.
Tristan Chord does a good job of setting the mood, but isn’t as interesting as a modern mood-setting example. The context in which it was created and first performed is what makes the piece notable. It may not do much for the 21st-century ear, but more than 150 years back, this piece helped to overthrow 19th-century conventions. This piece does not conform to the traditional notion of harmony. Instead it chooses a broken-rule approach and runs with it. This piece was notable for its use of broken rules.
In order to keep the logical flow going, we should now discuss the piece’s tone, or a very slight case of atonism. The modernist elements are not overly prominent in the Tristan und Isolde Prelude. Atonality refers to a piece which is completely free of any constraints of musical scales, and is now only a matter of rhythm. It may not be as atonal, like the works of Schoenberg or Webern, but it has a lot of chromaticism. This is more than you would find in most romantic compositions. This beautiful, otherworldly result contributes significantly to the themes and desires of the Tristan Chord.
The Prelude is awash with chromaticism, which leaves the listener blown away, his hair flying back like he’s just been in a roller coaster. The music is utterly devoid of any sort of relaxation, lull, or settling chord. The piece builds frustration and agitation from 1:35 until 8 minutes. It does so with grace that it can make an unprepared person cry. The chromaticism of the piece, along with the tensions created by the dynamics and tones, reflects the story of Tristan, Isolde, and their unfulfilled love. They can only join in death. The Prelude or the Libretto is now perfected.
Atonality, as stated above, is a characteristic of modernist music. Chromatics can be viewed as a stepping-stone (or gateway drug, depending who you ask) towards this destination. Webern was also mentioned as a composer who used chromaticism. Tristan Prelude’s heavy chromaticism combined with the Tristan Chord (which has its own explanation) could make it an honorary Modernist.
Let’s take this opportunity to talk about another impact of the opera and its prelude: leitmotifs. A leitmotif is a musical phrase that is used to accompany an individual, place, thing, or idea. Leitmotifs, which are often played by an orchestra, help to maintain the attention of the audience throughout a long work, such as an opera. Wagner popularized and used the idea of musical phrases synchronizing with stage events. When creating a musical spectacle like The Ring of the Nibelung which can last up to 18 hours, it is important that the audience remains engaged.
The Ring premiered first, but Tristan und Isolde’s leitmotif is present. Two of them are featured in the Prelude: Tristan’s “Longing” followed by The Tristan Chord (0:10) and Isolde’s “Desire”, which appears at 0 :14. The Prelude contains thirteen instances of “Desire”. John Williams’ scores for Star Wars are the best-known modern examples of leitmotifs. Leitmotifs appear in almost every film, including the scores for Star Wars. They accompany characters and ideas of all kinds, such as Princess Leia’s floating melody, the marching Empire, or the Love motif that appears in Empire Strikes Back. Wagner also used leitmotifs in his film scores to accompany themes, characters and ideas.
The Prelude also contains a final element of importance: the treatment given to rhythm. The term “treated” here is incorrect, as modernism doesn’t treat rhythm. The modernist movement abandons both rhythm and the chromatic system. Schoenberg, as well as Webern, have both done this to their music, removing all rhythmic guidance. The result? Messy. This, combined with the atonality of their music, makes it seem as if all that’s left is noise. Oddly, the Prelude is different. The piece is not as frantic and tense as it should be, but instead, becomes more graceful.
Why is there such a small difference between little rhythm and none? The Tristan Prelude is one example of a piece that has a rhythm that is loose or little. However, if the rhythm is removed, we get a piece of music which lacks any order and is therefore neither emotional nor graceful (at least not in the way it should be) as its message is lost. Although it still has romantic roots, little rhythmic attention is a concept that is very modernist. In the Prelude however, this does not come across as strongly.
Tristan und Isolde Prelude strikes a balance between two musical eras. The Tristan und Isolde Prelude is a work that is both romantic and emotional, but not shocking. It achieves this by using elements which were very progressive at the time, leading to what we now call modernism. Wagner’s masterpiece was created by Mathilde, who inspired him. However, their relationship ended and he needed to find a new impresario. It is interesting to wonder if Mathilde, who was married at the time, had remained unmarried, if Wagner would have had a wife living with him, he and Mathilde’s relationship could have continued into marriage. Wagner’s vision would have come to life, if he had lived his opera up until his death. Wagner produced one the most classical operas of all time. We will never be able to know.