Tristan chord

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Tristan chord
Component intervals from root
augmented second
augmented sixth
augmented fourth (tritone)
root[clarification needed]
Forte no. / Complement
4-27 / 8-27

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: augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented ninth above a bass note. It is so named as it is heard in the opening phrase of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde as part of the leitmotif relating to Tristan.


The notes of the Tristan chord are not unusual; they could be rearranged to form a common half-diminished seventh chord. What distinguishes the chord is its unusual relationship to the implied key of its surroundings. When Tristan und Isolde was first heard in 1865, the chord was considered innovative, disorienting, and daring.[citation needed] Musicians of the twentieth century often identify the chord as a starting point for the modernist disintegration of tonality, and the future widespread use of atonal musical composition.[citation needed]


This 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 the Tristan chord's possible harmonic functions or voice leading (melodic function), and the motif has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Arnold Schering traces the development of the Tristan chord through ten intermediate steps, beginning with the Phrygian cadence (iv6-V) (Schering 1935,[page needed]).

Martin Vogel points out the "chord" in earlier works by Guillaume de Machaut, Carlo Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Louis Spohr (Vogel 1962, p. 12, cited in Nattiez 1990[page needed]) as in the following example from Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, tempo allegro:

Beethoven's Sonata Op. 31, No. 3, with notes of Tristan chord

According to L.Hoffman-Engl Wagner stole his motif from Fryderyk Chopin's Mazurka Op.68.4. What's interesting Wagner never mentioned Chopin in his autobiography, in spite of his influence[1].

What makes the Tristan motif different from earlier appearances of the same notes, in the eyes of many analysts, is its duration. In the Beethoven example, the E resolves to D in approximately a quarter of the time it takes the G to "resolve" to the A in the Wagner. In Wagner, the resolution is used merely in passing to a further chromatic dissonance (the A in the following measure), rather than as a resting point in itself. In Beethoven, the notes' simultaneity may be considered to consist partly of nonchord tones; it is not a chord or harmonic entity in itself.[citation needed]

The Tristan chord's significance is in its 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 explored by Debussy and others. In the words of Robert Erickson, "The Tristan chord is, among other things, an identifiable sound, an entity beyond its functional qualities in a tonal organization" (Erickson 1975, p. 18).


Although at the same time enharmonically sounding like the half-diminished chord F-A-C-E, it can also be interpreted as the suspended altered subdominant II: B-D-F-G (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 regard to the tripartition, plots, and transcendent principles.[citation needed] Regarding the Tristan chord, the situations discussed here include what the analyst believes happens with the chord later in Tristan and Isolde, and relate to the possible belief in only three harmonic functions, or in functional successions determined by the circle of fifths.


According to Jacques Chailley (fr) (1963, p. 40), discussing Dommel-Diény 1965 and Gut 1981, 149, cited in Nattiez (1990,[page needed]), "it is rooted in a simple dominant chord of A minor [E major], which includes two appoggiaturas resolved in the normal way":

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. "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 homage 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" (Chailley 1963, p. 8).


Nattiez (1990, pp. 219–29), distinguishes between functional and nonfunctional analyses of the chord.

Functional analyses[edit]

Tristan chord analyzed as a French sixth with appoggiatura and dominant seventh with passing tone in A minor (Benward and Saker 2008, p. 233)

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-C-E-A → F-B-D-A = D-F-A, according to Alfred Lorenz and others, an augmented sixth chord F-A-D) (Arend,[citation needed] Riemann,[citation needed] d'Indy, Lorenz,[citation needed] Deliège,[citation needed] Gut[full citation needed]), 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,[page needed], Goldman 1965,[page needed], Schoenberg 1954,[page needed], Schoenberg 1969, p. 77), 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, with G seen as an accented passing tone, or
  • as a secondary dominant (V/V=B, five of five, I=A, V=E), and thus also with a root on B (Ergo 1912,[page needed], Kurth 1920,[page needed], Distler 1940,[page needed]), favoring the fifth motion B to E and seeing the chord as a seventh chord with lowered fifth (B-D(D)-F-A).
  • F or B in A: Considering the G as an appoggiatura, the chord can be interpreted as a type of augmented sixth, specifically the French sixth (Ellis 2010, pp. 29–32, 211–14). (F A B D = F B D (G-)A).

Vincent d'Indy (1903, p. 117, cited in Nattiez 1990, p. 224), who analyses the chord as on IV after Riemann's transcendent principle (as phrased by Serge Gut (fr): "the most classic succession in the world: Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant" (1981, p. 150)) and rejects the idea of an 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:

D'Indy Tristan chord IV6 in IV6-V, (d'Indy 1903,[page needed]) as shown in Nattiez 1990,[page needed]

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

Célestin Deliège (fr), 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. (Deliège 1979, p. 23)

Nonfunctional analyses[edit]

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, pp. 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: p. 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 appoggiatura. 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 appoggiaturas, 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), though it is engendered by melodic waves.

Allen Forte, who identifies the chord as an atonal set, 4-27 (half-diminished seventh chord) (1988, p. 328), 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"[this quote needs a citation],[clarification needed]

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

Mayrberger's opinion[edit]

After summarizing the above analyses Nattiez asserts that the context of the Tristan chord is A minor, and that analyses which say the key is E or E 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 Carl Mayrberger (1878,[page needed]), 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 (an ambiguous, hybrid, or possibly bisexual or androgynous, chord), whose F is controlled by the key of A minor, and D by the key of E minor" (Nattiez 1990,[page needed]). 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."[citation needed]

Responses and influences[edit]

The chord and the figure surrounding it is well enough known to have been parodied and quoted by a number of later musicians. Berg also quotes it in his Lyric Suite for string quartet, deriving the figure from his twelve-tone compositional material.[citation needed] Arthur Sullivan uses the chord (re-spelling it as a chord of F seventh with a flattened fifth) during a recitative in his operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, and Debussy includes the chord in a setting of the phrase 'je suis triste' in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy also jokingly quotes the opening bars of Wagner's opera several times in "Golliwogg's Cakewalk" from his piano suite Children's Corner. Benjamin Britten slyly invokes it at the moment in Albert Herring when Sid and Nancy spike Albert's lemonade and then again when he drinks it. More recently, American composer and humorist Peter Schickele crafted a tango around this same figure, a chamber work for four bassoons entitled Last Tango in Bayreuth.

The Brazilian conductor and composer Flavio Chamis wrote Tristan Blues, a composition based on the Tristan chord. The work, for harmonica and piano was recorded on the CD "Especiaria", released in Brazil by the Biscoito Fino label (Anon. 2006). Flavio Chamis found an intriguing relation between the Tristan chord/resolution and the blues scale—much used in jazz—in which all have practically the same notes.[citation needed]

In 1993, the opening theme was used in the film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould in the scene on Lake Simcoe as performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini (recorded 1952). Gould had been a fan of Wagner and adapted some of his music to piano, one of Gould's rare recordings from the Romantic Period. The chord is also prominently used in the film "Melancholia" by Lars von Trier.

See also[edit]


  • Anon. 2006. "Especiaria CD: Flávio Chamis". Biscoito Fino website (archive from 24 August 2011, accessed 16 May 2014)
  • Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Nadine Saker (2008). Music in Theory and Practice, vol. 2. Boston: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  • Chailley, Jacques (1963). Tristan et Isolde de Richard Wagner. 2 vols. Les Cours de Sorbonne. Paris: Centre de Documentation Universitaire.
  • Deliège, Célestin (fr) (1979)[full citation needed]
  • D'Indy, Vincent (1903). Cours de composition musicale, vol. 1. Paris: Durand.
  • Distler, Hugo (1940). Funktionelle Harmonielehre. Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag.
  • Dommel-Diény, Amy. 1965. Douze dialogues d'initiation à l'harmonie classique; suivis de quelques notions de solfège, preface by Louis Martin. Paris: Les Editions Ouvrières.
  • Ergo, E. (1912). "Über Wagners Harmonik und Melodik". Bayreuther Blätter, no. 35:34–41.
  • Ellis, Mark (2010). A Chord in Time: The Evolution of the Augmented Sixth from Monteverdi to Mahler. Farnham: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6385-0.
  • Erickson, Robert (1975). Sound Structure in Music. Oakland, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02376-5. 
  • Forte, Allen (1988). New Approaches to the Linear Analysis of Music. Journal of the American Musicological Society 41, no. 2 (Summer): 315–48.
  • Goldman, Richard Franko (1965). Harmony in Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Gut, Serge (fr) (1981). "Encore et toujours: 'L'accord de Tristan'", L'avant-scène Opéra, nos. 34–35 ("Tristan et Isole"): 148–51.
  • Kistler, Cyrill (1879). Harmonielehre für Lehrer und Lernende, Opus 44. Munich: W. Schmid.
  • Kurth, Ernst. 1920. Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners "Tristan". Bern: Paul Haupt; Berlin: Max Hesses Verlag.
  • Mayrberger, Carl (1878). Lehrbuch der musikalischen Harmonik in gemeinfasslicher Darstellung, für höhere Musikschulen und Lehrerseminarien, sowie zum Selbstunterrichte. Part 1: Die diatonische Harmonik in Dur. Pressburg: Gustav Heckenast.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990) [1987]. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue). translated by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02714-5. 
  • Noske, Frits R. (1981). "Melodic Determinants in Tonal Structures". Muzikoloski zbornik Ljubljana / Ljubljana Musicological Annual 17, no. 1:111–21.
  • Piston, Walter (1941). Harmony. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Sadai, Yizhak (1980). Harmony in Its Systemic and Phenomenological Aspects, translated by J. Davis and M. Shlesinger. Jerusalem: Yanetz.
  • Schering, Arnold (1935). "Musikalische Symbolkunde". Jahrbuch der Musikbibliothek: 15–36.
  • Schoenberg, Arnold. 1911. Harmonielehre.
  • Schoenberg, Arnold (1954).[full citation needed]
  • Schoenberg, Arnold (1969). "Structural Functions of Harmony", revised edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Library of Congress - 74-81181.
  • Schenker, Heinrich (1925–30). Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, 3 vols. Munich: Drei Masken Verlag. English translation, as The Masterwork in Music: A Yearbook, edited by William Drabkin, translated by Ian Bent, Alfred Clayton, William Drabkin, Richard Kramer, Derrick Puffett, John Rothgeb, and Hedi Siegel. Cambridge Studies in Music Theory and Analysis 4. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994-1997.
  • Vogel, Martin (1962). Der Tristan-Akkord und die Krise der modernen Harmonielehre. Orpheus-Schriftenreihe zu Grundfragen der Musik 2. Düsseldorf:[full citation needed] Titled in response to Kurth (1920).
  • Ward, William R. (1970). Examples for the Study of Musical Style. Dubuque: W.C. Brown Co. ISBN 9780697035417.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1883). Erinnerungen an Richard Wagner: ein Vortrag, gehalten am 13. April 1883 im Wissenschaftlichen Club zu Wien. Vienna: C. Konegen,
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1888). Wagneriana. Gesammelte Aufsätze über R. Wagner's Werke, vom Ring bis zum Gral. Eine Gedenkgabe für alte und neue Festspielgäste zum Jahre 1888. Leipzig: F. Freund.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1891). Erinnerungen an Richard Wagner, new edition. Leipzig: P. Reclam.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (ed.) (1904). Wagner-Brevier. Die Musik, Sammlung illustrierter Einzeldarstellungen 3. Berlin: Bard und Marquardt.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1906a_. Musikalisch-dramatische Parallelen: Beiträge zur Erkenntnis von der Musik als Ausdruck. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1906b). "Einführung". In Heinrich Porges, Tristan und Isolde, with an introduction by Hans von Wolzogen. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1907). "Einführung". In Richard Wagner, Entwürfe zu: Die meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, edited by Hans von Wolzogen. Leipzig: C. F. W. Siegel.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1908). Aus Richard Wagners Geisteswelt: neue Wagneriana und Verwandtes. Berlin: Schuster & Leoffler.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1924). Wagner und seine Werke, ausgewählte Aufsätze. Deutsche Musikbücherei 32. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse.
  • Wolzogen, Hans von (1929_. Musik und Theater. Von deutscher Musik 37. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bailey, Robert (1986). Prelude and Transfiguration from Tristan and Isolde (Norton Critical Scores). New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. ISBN 0-393-95405-6. Contains complete orchestral score, together with extensive discussion of the Prelude (especially the chord), Wagner's sketches, and leading essays by various analysts.
  • Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X.[full citation needed]
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Wagner androgyne. ISBN 2-267-00707-X. Contains discussion of the Tristan chord as "androgynous". 1997 English edition (trans. Stewart Spencer) ISBN 0-691-04832-0.[full citation needed]
  • Stegemann, Benedikt (2013). Theory of Tonality. Theoretical Studies. Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel. ISBN 978-3-7959-0963-5.

External links[edit]

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