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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Chords That Bind

Superconductor explores a connection between Tristan und Isolde and Siegfried. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Left: Ludwig and Maria Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde.
Interrupting them: Jean de Rezke as Siegfried. Most rude of him. Equally rude photoshop by the author.
In the operas of Richard Wagner, there is a sort of musical interconnectivity that exists: not just between the leitmotifs of the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen but between the other operas too. Certain themes recur in operas with similar ideas. (A famous example is the "Dresden Amen") which appears in both Tannhäuser and Parsifal.) This morning, while having a listen to the 2012 Decca remaster of the Georg Solti/Vienna recording of the Ring, I discovered another such musical connection. In the first act of Siegfried I found the Tristan chord.

Heard as the fourth note in Tristan und Isolde this  the distinctive chord that sparked a musical revolution whose reverberations are still being felt today. The notes are: F, B natural, D sharp, and G sharp (the intervals are an augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented ninth above a bass note.) It is dissonant and hangs in the air like a gossamer chandelier, begging for resolution. In Tristan it symbolizes the passion of the lovers, and has no resolution until the very end of the work.

This is the Tristan chord as it appears in the Prelude to Act I:
In Siegfried (for those of you with Dover scores, it is on page 34) in the first scene of the first act, the titular hero is attempting to interrogate his stepfather Mime about his origins. Eventually, this line of questioning leads to information about the identity of his parents. Finally, he asks the dwarf if he has a wife, so he may call her "Mother." At that point, the Tristan chord breathes slowly through the orchestra, carried on woodwinds and horns against an upward surge from the cellos and basses:

Here's the passage, photostatted from the score. The chord is marked in yellow:

I had to stop and listen to it twice. (iTunes is very useful for this.) There it was, right smack in the middle of the first act: the same dissonant interval that turned the music world on its ear when Tristan had its premiere in 1865. It forms almost ethereally out of three different leitmotifs and suddenly it appears, hinted in the surging cellos. It comes right before the lines:

"Wo hast du nun, Mime,
kdein minniges Weibchen,
daß ich es Mutter nenne?"

It is not the same exact chord. It is not the same key and not the same orchestral voicing. But it is the same sound, the dissonant interval that for a Wagnerian screams Tristan!

Wagner was rarely careless with his leitmotifs. Therefore, one  suddenly pressed to contemplate this and the connection between the two operas. Siegfried, raised in ignorance of such things, is grasping at his first idea of love between man and woman, and the possibility of children and childbirth. Raised by a cantankerous old dwarf, he is less experienced in such matters than a newly pubescent virgin, and this is the first inkling that he understands that nasty old Mime is not his "Vater und Mutter zugleich."

Now, this isn't the only moment when the famous Tristan theme appears in another Wagner opera. It is in the third act of Die Meistersinger when Hans Sachs, the cobbler who is the central character of the opera, politely (but firmly) rejects Eva Pogner's offer of a May-December marriage. "My child," he says, of Tristan und Isolde a sad tale I know well. At that point, the full chord, orchestrated much as it is in its titular opera, appears in the orchestra. However its presence in Siegfried is harder to explain.

Siegfried is the third chapter of the Ring cycle and the opera that gave the composer the most difficulty. Wagner wrote the libretto (originally Young Siegfried) in 1851, and started work on the music right after finishing Die Walker using a new method of composing sketch orchestration as he went. However, in 1857, he stopped work on it for twelve years. In the interim period, he gained the patronage of Ludwig II, married Cosima Wagner, and composed both Tristan and Meistersinger.

In 1870, with his patronage in Munich behind him (Ludwig had thrown him out of the city in 1865), Wagner had time to finish the opera. One can only speculate if the composer wrote the dissonant chord as part of his original intention, or if he went back and inserted the notes for reasons unknown. Given what is known of Wagner's working methods, the first explanation is more likely. So the question remains: is the mysterious chord a product of Wagner's first experimentation with this dissonant interval, or is it a nod-and-wink to Tristan and the controversy that surrounded its premiere?

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.