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Tristan chord


Tristan chord

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.


  • Background 1
  • Analysis 2
    • Motif 2.1
    • Chord 2.2
      • Functional analyses 2.2.1
      • Nonfunctional analyses 2.2.2
    • Mayrberger's opinion 2.3
  • Responses and influences 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


The notes of the Tristan chord are not unusual; they could be respelled enharmonically to form a common half-diminished seventh chord. What distinguishes the chord is its unusual relationship to the implied key of its surroundings.

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, ).

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, p. 219) 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

The chord is found in several works by Fryderyk Chopin, from as early as 1828, in the Sonata in C minor, Op. 4. It is only in late works where tonal ambiguities similar to Wagner's arise, as in the Prelude in A minor, Op. 28, No. 2, and the posthumously published Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68, No. 4 (Gołąb 1987, ).

The Tristan chord's significance is in its move away from traditional 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).

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 (1963, p. 40), discussing Dommel-Diény 1965 and Gut 1981, p. 149, cited in Nattiez (1990, p. 220)), "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

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 1901, , Riemann, D'Indy 1903, , Lorenz 1924–33, , Deliège 1979, , Gut 1981, ), 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, , Schoenberg 1954, , 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, , Kurth 1920, , Distler 1940, ), 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 goes from an enharmonic half-diminished seventh (F A C E = F G B D) to another chord that 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 (Gut 1981, p. 150): "the most classic succession in the world: Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant" ) 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, as shown in Nattiez 1990, p. 224

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

Célestin 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. (Deliège 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, 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, 2: 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 (1988, p. 328) first identifies the chord as an atonal set, 4-27 (half-diminished seventh chord), 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 describes it as a "wandering chord [vagierender Akkord]... it can come from anywhere" (Schoenberg 1911, p. 284).

Mayrberger's opinion

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),), 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, ). 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. Arthur Sullivan uses the chord (re-spelling it as an F half-diminished seventh) 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, when he drinks it, the chord "runs riot through the orchestra and recurs irreverently to accompany his hiccups" (Howard 1969, pp. 57–58). 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).

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, some of Gould's rare recordings from the Romantic Period. The prelude of Wagner's opera is also prominently used in the film "Melancholia" by Lars von Trier.

See also


  • Anon. 2006. "Especiaria CD: Flávio Chamis". Biscoito Fino website (archive from 24 August 2011, accessed 16 May 2014).
  • Arend, M. (1901). "Harmonische Analyse des Tristan-Vorspiels", Bayreuther Blätter. No. 24: 160-69. Cited in Nattiez 1990, p. 223.
  • 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 (1979)
  • D'Indy, Vincent (1903). Cours de composition musicale, vol. 1. Paris: Durand.
  • 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.
  • Forte, Allen (1988). New Approaches to the Linear Analysis of Music. Journal of the American Musicological Society 41, no. 2 (Summer): 315–48.
  • Gołąb, Maciej. 1987. "O 'akordzie tristanowskim' u Chopina". Rocznik Chopinowski 19:189–98. German version, as "Über den Tristan-Akkord bei Chopin". Chopin Studies 3 (1990): 246–56.
  • Gut, Serge (1981). "Encore et toujours: 'L'accord de Tristan'", L'avant-scène Opéra, nos. 34–35 ("Tristan et Isole"): 148–51.
  • . Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1899.An Analysis of the Fugues and Canons Contained in Joh. Seb. Bach's "Art of fugue". Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. English as, Erläuterungen der in Joh. Seb. Bach's Kunst der Fuge enthaltenen Fugen und Kanons. 1899a. Jadassohn, Salomon
  • Jadassohn, Salomon. 1899b. A Manual of Harmony. New York: G. Schirmer.
  • Jadassohn, Salomon. 1899c. Ratschläge und Hinweise für die Instrumentationsstudien der Anfänger. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.
  • Jadassohn, Salomon. 1899d. Das Wesen der Melodie in der Tonkunst. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. Das Tonbewusstsein: die Lehre vom musikalischen Hören. English as, A Practical Course in Ear Training; or, a Guide for Acquiring Relative and Absolute Pitch, translated from the German by Le Roy B. Campbell. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1899.
  • Jadassohn, Salomon. 1899e. Zur Einführung in J.S. Bach's Passions-Musik nach dem Evangelisten Matthaeus. Berlin: Harmonie.
  • .
  • Kurth, Ernst. 1920. Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners "Tristan". Bern: Paul Haupt; Berlin: Max Hesses Verlag.
  • Lorenz, Alfred Ottokar. 1924–33. Das Geheimnis der Form bei Richard Wagner, in 4 volumes. Berlin: M. Hesse. Reprinted, Tutzing: H. Schneider, 1966.
  • 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.
  • Noske, Frits R. (1981). "Melodic Determinants in Tonal Structures". Muzikoloski zbornik Ljubljana / Ljubljana Musicological Annual 17, no. 1:111–21.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1872. "Über Tonalität". Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 68:.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1875. Die Hülfsmittel der Modulation: Studie von Dr. Hugo Riemann. Kassel: F. Luckhardt.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1877. Musikalische Syntaxis: Grundriss einer harmonischen Satzbildungslehre, revised edition. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1882. "Die Natur der Harmonik". In Sammlung musikalischer Vorträge 40, revised edition, edited by P. Graf Waldersee, 4:157–90. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. English translation, as "The Nature of Harmony", by John Comfort Fillmore, in his New Lessons in Harmony, 3–32. Philadelphia: Theodore Presser, 1887.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1883a. Elementar-Musiklehre. Hamburg: K. Grädener & J. F. Richter.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1883b. Neue Schule der Melodik: Entwurf einer Lehre des Kontrapunkts nach einer neuen Methode. Hamburg: K. Grädener & J. F. Richter.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1887. Systematische Modulationslehre als Grundlage der musikalischen Formenlehre. Hamburg: J.F. Richter.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1893. Opern-Handbuch, second edition, with a supplement by F. Stieger. Leipzig: Koch.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1895. Präludien und Studien: gesammelte Aufsätze zur Ästhetik, Theorie und Geschichte der Musik, revised edition, vol. 1. Frankfurt: Bechhold.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1900. Präludien und Studien: gesammelte Aufsätze zur Ästhetik, Theorie und Geschichte der Musik, revised edition, vol. 2. Leipzig: Seemann.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1901a. Präludien und Studien: gesammelte Aufsätze zur Ästhetik, Theorie und Geschichte der Musik, vol. 3,. Leipzig: Seemann. Reprint (3 vols. in 1), Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1967. Reprint (3 vols. in 2), Nendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1976.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1901b. Geschichte der Musik seit Beethoven (1800–1900) . Berlin and Stuttgart: W. Spemann
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1903. Vereinfachte Harmonielehre oder die Lehre von den tonalen Funktionen der Akkorde, second edition. London: Augener; New York: G. Schirmer.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1905. "Das Problem des harmonischen Dualismus". Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 101:3–5, 23–6, 43–6, 67–70
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1902–13. Grosse Kompositionslehre, revised edition, 3 vols. Berlin and Stuttgart: W. Spemann.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1914–15. "Ideen zu einer 'Lehre von den Tonvorstellungen'”, Jahrbuch der Musikbibliothek Peters 1914–15, 1–26. Reprinted in Musikhören, edited by B. Dopheide, 14–47. Darmstadt: [s.n.?], 1975. English translation .by ? in Journal of Music Theory 36 (1992): 69–117.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1916. "Neue Beiträge zu einer Lehre von den Tonvorstellungen". Jahrbuch der Musikbibliothek Peters 1916: 1–21.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1919. Elementar-Schulbuch der Harmonielehre, third edition. Berlin: Max Hesse.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1921. Geschichte der Musiktheorie im 9.–19. Jahrhundert, revised edition, 3 vols. Brlin: Max Hesse. Reprinted, Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1990. ISBN 9783487002569.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1922. Allgemeine Musiklehre: Handbuch der Musik, ninth edition. Max Hesses Handbücher 5. Berlin: Max Hesse.
  • Riemann, Hugo. 1929. Handbuch der Harmonielehre, tenth edition, formerly titled Katechismus der Harmonie- und Modulationslehre and Skizze einer neuen Methode der Harmonielehre. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel
  • 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 (1954). Die formbildenden Tendenzen der Harmonie, translated by Erwin Stein. Mainz: B. Schott's Sohne.
  • 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: Titled in response to Kurth (1920).
  • 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.

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Contains discussion of the Tristan chord as "androgynous". 1997 English edition (translated by Stewart Spencer) ISBN 0-691-04832-0.
  • Stegemann, Benedikt (2013). Theory of Tonality. Theoretical Studies. Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel. ISBN 978-3-7959-0963-5.

External links

  • Some occurrences of the Tristan chord in the scores of Petrucci Music Library
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