Tristan’s Chord and his Friend

“Save yourself, Tristan!” cries Kurwenal, trying to save his friend’s life as Tristan and Isolde begin to make love.

In The World as Will and Representation (1818, 1844), German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pays special attention to suspension, a technical device in harmony.  “Suspension does indeed create suspense.  In its ordinary use it comes as the penultimate chord of a piece of music, when we have just heard what we thought was going to be the penultimate chord.  This is nearly always a discord.”  But instead of moving to resolution on to a concord, “the discord we have just heard moves to another discord” (Magee, The Tristan Chord, p. 207).   Richard Wagner, a great admirer of Schopenhauer, based an entire opera on this device, keeping love in suspension as it moves from discord in search of resolution, of the final chord, which comes after four hours of unremitting longing and the death of the lovers.

“The first chord of Tristan, known simply as ‘the Tristan chord,’ remains the most famous single chord in the history of music.  It contains within itself not one but two dissonances, thus creating within the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution.  The chord to which it then moves resolves one of these dissonances but not the other, this providing resolution-yet-not-resolution.  And so the music proceeds:  in every chord-shift something is resolved but not everything; each discord is resolved in such a way that another is preserved or a new one created, so that in every moment the musical ear is being partially satisfied yet at the same frustrated.  And this carries on throughout a whole evening” (208-9).

Throughout the night’s suspension and the love’s deferral Kurwenal remains Tristan’s devoted friend.

At the end of Act II of the opera the wounded Tristan falls into Kurwenal’s arms.
Near the end of Act III the wounded Kurwenal dies at the feet of the dead Tristan.

From beginning to end Kurwenal stands by Tristan because he is listening to his chord and understands that his friend is caught between two dissonances, haunted by a yet-unresolved desire.

August 4, 2014

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