The opening three bars of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde may best be described in the composer’s own words. According to his program notes, Wagner writes of the Prelude that there is “henceforth no end to the yearning, longing, rapture, and misery of love: world, power, fame, honor, chivalry, loyalty, and friendship, scattered like an insubstantial dream; one thing alone left living: longing, longing unquenchable, desire forever renewing itself, craving and languishing; one sole redemption: death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking!” (Bailey, p. 47). “The Prelude [was] conceived as ‘one long succession of linked phrases’ in which ‘that insatiable longing swells forth from the first timidest avowal to sweetest protraction…’” (Newman, Wagner Nights, p. 219). The music’s resounding lack of resolution parallels the longing and agony suffered by Tristan and Isolde over the course of the opera.
Most Wagner scholars have divided this opening into two separate motives, as seen in the example above, labeled "Longing" and "Desire.". Other analysts have interpreted the opening as a single motive. For example, Hans Redlich has described this opening as a “tender feminine query,” that is later answered with the Glance motive (Redlich, p. 20).
Tristan und Isolde
, Prelude to Act I: mm. 1-3 read as a single motive:
“Tender Feminine Query” later answered in Motive 5 – (Redlich, p. 20)
“Liebestrank” or “Love Potion” – (Windsperger, p. 39)
“Yearning” – (Kobbé, p. 110)
“Sehnsucht” or “Longing” – (Pfohl, p. 213)
Tristan und Isolde
, Prelude to Act I: mm. 1-3 – Order of occurrence by Act and Scene
Act 1: Scene 1
"The Tristan Chord"
Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act I: m.2
Music analysts have labeled the opening chord of the Prelude to Act
I of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde the “Tristan
Chord.” In the opera, the chord’s lack of traditional
tonal resolution serves to prolong the yearning and longing suffered
by the ill-fated lovers.
One of the most famous chords in music history, its resolution changed
conventional music analysis forever. Composed as an enharmonically
spelled diminished seventh chord, the “Tristan Chord” does
not properly function or resolve according to the part-writing rules
of the Western art tradition. It was this chord that prompted
many later composers to push the tonal idiom to its limits and to abandon
tonality altogether for experimentation with 12-tone serialism and
the musical avant-garde.
This is the opening motive of Tristan und Isolde. Occurring
in mm. 1-2 of the Prelude to Act I, this example is most commonly referred
to as the “Tristan” motive. George Ainslie Hight
actually considers this to be a derivative of the Desire motive, which he refers
to as the “Love Motive,” but most Wagner scholars have
labeled this example as an independent motive, as seen below.
“Tristan Motive” – (Kobbé, p. 110)
“The Confession of Love” – (Lavignac, p. 283)
“Tristan’s Sorrow” – (Cleather)
“Grief or Sorrow Motive” – (Newman, in Bailey, p. 154)
“The Avowal Motive”
– Order of occurrence by Act and Scene:
Act I: Prelude, Scene 5
Act II: Scene 3
Act III: Scenes 2 & 3