Tristan chord

From Academic Kids

The Tristan chord is a chord made up of the notes F, B, D# and G#. More generally, it can be any chord that consists of these same intervals (from the bottom up, an augmented fourth, a major third, and a perfect fourth).

The chord is named after the very first motif that is heard in Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, tempo langsam und schmachtend (dotted quarter note = 35):

Missing image
Image:Wagner Tristan opening.png

Sound samples

The motif also appears in measures 6, 10, and 12, several times later in the work and at the end of the last act. Much has been written about its possible harmonic functions or voice leading (melodic function), and the motif has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Vogel (1962, p. 12) points out the "chord" in earlier works by Guillaume de Machaut, Carlo Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Louis Spohr (Vogel 1962: 12), as in the following example from Beethoven, tempo allegro (quarter note = 160):

Missing image
Beethoven's Sonata Op. 31, No. 3 with Tristan "chord"

What makes the Tristan motif different in the eyes of many analysists is its duration; in the Beethoven example the Eb resolves to D in approximately a quarter of the time it takes the G# to "resolve" to the A in the Wagner. In Beethoven the simultaneity may be considered to consist partly of nonchord tones and is not a chord or harmonic entity in itself. Traditional theory does not or is not able to classify the pitches as a chord. Thus the Tristan chord is often taken to be of great significance in the move away from traditional tonal harmony and even towards atonality; with this chord, Wagner actually provoked the sound or structure of musical harmony to become more predominant than its function, a notion which was soon after to be explored by Debussy and others.



Although at the same time enharmonically sounding like the half-diminished chord F - Ab - Cb - Eb, it can also be interpreted as the suspended altered subdominant II: B - D# - F - A (the G# being the suspension in the key of a-minor). Jean-Jacques Nattiez writes that musical analyses are determined by analytical situations especially in regards to the tripartition, plots, and transcendent principles. In regards to the Tristan chord the situations discussed here include what the analyst believes happens with the chord later in Tristan and Isolde, possible belief in only three harmonic functions or in functional successions determination by the circle of fifths.

As a motif

According to J. Chailley (1963, p.40), "it is rooted in a simple dominant chord of A minor [E major], which includes two appoggiaturas resolved in the normal way": Missing image
Tristan chord as dominant with appoggiaturas

Thus in this view it is not a chord but an anticipation of the dominant chord in measure three. He explains (1963, p.8): "Tristan's chromaticism, grounded in appoggiaturas and passing notes, technically and spiritually represents an apogee of tension. I have never been able to understand how the preposterous idea that Tristan could be made the prototype of an atonality grounded in destruction of all tension could possibly have gained credence. This was an idea that was disseminated under the (hardly disinterested) authority of Schoenberg, to the point where Alban Berg could cite the Tristan Chord in the Lyric Suite, as a kind of homoage to a precursor of atonality. This curious conception could not have been made except as the consequence of a destruction of normal analytical reflexes leading to an artificial isolation of an aggregate in part made up of foreign notes, and to consider it--an abstraction out of context--as an organic whole. After this, it becomes easy to convince naive readers that such an aggregation escapes classification in terms of harmony textbooks."

As a chord

He also (1990, p.219-29) distinguishes between functional and nonfunctional analyses.

Functional analyses

Functional analyses include interpreting the chord's root as on:

  • the fourth scale degree (IV) of a-minor (D, according to Arend "a modified minor seventh chord" F-B-D#-G#→F-Cb-Eb-Ab→F-B-D-A = D-F-A, according to Lorenz an augmented sixth chord F-A-D#) (Arend, Riemann, D'Indy, Lorenz, Deliège, Gut), based after Riemann on the transcendent principle that there are only three functions, tonic, subdominant, and dominant (I, IV, and V);
  • the second degree (II) of a-minor (B) (Piston 1941, Goldman 1965), as a french sixth (F-A-B-D#), based on the transcendent principle of closeness on the circle of fifths with IV being farther than II, or
  • as a secondary dominant (V/V=B, five of five, A=I,V=E), and thus also with a root on B (Ergo 1921, Kurth 1920, Distler 1940), favoring the fifth motion B to E and seeing the chord as a seventh chord with lowered fifth (B-D#(DTemplate:Unicode)-F#-A).
D'Indy (1903, p. 117), who analyses the chord as on IV after Riemann's transcendent principle (as phrased by Serge Gut: "the most classic succession in the world: Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant" (1981, p.150)) and rejects the idea of a added "lowered seventh", eliminates, "all artificial, dissonant notes, arising solely from the melodic motion of the voices, and therefore foreign to the chord," finding that the Tristan chord is
"no more than a subdominant in the key of A, collapsed in upon itself melodically, the harmonic progression represented thus:
Missing image
D'Indy Tristan chord IV6 in IV6-V

This is the simplest in the world,"
just a sophisticated sixth chord.

Deliège, independently, sees the G# as an appoggiatura to A, describing that
"in the end only one resolution is acceptable, one that takes the subdominant degree as the root of the chord, which gives us, as far as tonal logic is concerned, the most plausible interpretation...this interpretation of the chord is confirmed by its subsequent appearances in the Prelude's first period: the IV6 chord remains constant; notes foreign to that chord vary."
—(1979, p.23)

Nonfunctional analyses

Nonfunctional analyses are based on structure (rather than function), and are characterized as vertical characterizations or linear analyses. Vertical characterizations include interpreting the chord's root as on the:

  • seventh degree (VII) (Ward 1970, Sadai 1980), of f#-minor (E#) (Kistler 1879, Jadassohn 1899)

Linear analyses include that of Noske (1981: 116-17) and Schenker was the first to analyse the motif entirely through melodic concerns. Schenker and later Mitchell compare the Tristan chord to a dissonant contrapuntal gesture from the E minor fugue of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (cf. Schenker 1925-1930 II: 29).

William Mitchell, from a Schenkerian perspective, does not see the G# as an appoggiatura because the melodic line (oboe: G#-A-A#-B) ascends to B, making the A a passing note. This ascent by minor third is mirrored by the descending line (cello: F-E-D#, English horn: D), a descent by minor third, making the D#, like A#, an appogiatura. This makes the chord a diminished seventh (G#-B-D-F).

Serge Gut (1981, p.150), argues that, "if one focuses essentially on melodic motion, one sees how its dynamic force creates a sense of an appoggiatura each time, that is, at the beginning of each measure, creating a mood both feverish and tense...thus in the soprano motif, the G# and the A# are heard as appoggiaturs, as the F and D# in the initial motif." The chord is thus a minor chord with added sixth (D-F-A-B) on the fourth degree (IV), thought it is engendered by melodic waves."

Allen Forte, who (1988, p.328) identifies the chord as an atonal set, 4-27 (half-diminished seventh chord) but then, "elect[s] to place that consideration in a secondary, even tertiary position compared to the most dynamic aspect of the opening music, which is clearly the large-scale ascending motion that develops in the upper voice, in its entirety a linear projection of the Tristan Chord transposed to level three, g#'-b'-d"-f#"."

Schoenberg (1911, p.284) describes it as a "wandering chord [vagierender Akkord]... it can come from anywhere."


After summarizing the above analyses Nattiez indicates that the context of the Tristan chord is a-minor, and that analyses which say the key is E or Eb are "wrong". He privileges analyses of the chord as on the second degree (II). He then supplies a Wagner approved analysis, that of Czech professor K. Mayrberger (1878), who "places the chord on the second degree, and interprets the G# as an appoggiatura. But above all, Mayrberger considers the attraction between the E and the real bass F to be paramount, and calls the Tristan chord a Zwitterakkord (a bisexual or androgynous chord), whose F is controlled by the key of A minor, and D# by the key of E minor." According to Hans von Wolzogen, Wagner, "with considerable delight believed he had found in this heretofore unknown man from faraway Hungary the theorist he had long been waiting for."

Responses and influences

The chord and the figure surrounding it is well enough known to have been parodied and quoted by a number of later musicians. Debussy himself parodies it in "Golliwog's Cakewalk", the last movement of his solo piano suite Children's Corner. More recently, American composer and humorist Peter Schickele crafted a tango around this same figure, a chamber work entitled Last Tango in Bayreuth.


  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0691027145.
    • Vogel (1962).
    • Chailley, J. (1963). Tristan et Isolde de Richard Wagner. Paris: Centre de documentation universitaire. Discussed Diény (1965) and Serge Gut (1981: 149)

Further reading

  • Vogel, Martin (1962). Der Tristan-Akkord und die Krise der modernen Harmonielehre. Titled in response to:
  • Kurth, Ernest (1920). Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners "Tristan".
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Wagner androgyne. Contains discussion of the Tristan chord as "androgynous".

de: Tristanakkord


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