(musTh212) Wagner Notes

First up on the business end, we’ll finish talking about Gauldin Ch. 39, Chromatic Voice Leading, on Monday. Bring your Gualdin, Burkhart, and the first couple of sheets from Ch. 39 of the Workbook (you can tear them out or bring your whole workbook…).

Notes on Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan and Isolde

Overall, the Prelude shows a high degree of sustained chromatic harmony and tonal ambiguity.

Tonal ambiguity results from several techniques.

  • Lack of tonal closure (dominant harmonies are rarely followed by tonic harmonies). This makes it hard to determine the key area at any given point in the music.
  • Harmonies can be enharmonically respelled to change their function and associated tonal areas.
  • Chromatic linear movement can create confusion as to what notes are chord tones and what notes are not.
  • Key signatures rarely reflect the tonal area in play.

As an example of lack of tonal closure, the first three statements of the opening leitmotif end in unresolved dominant seventh chords, outlining tonal areas of a minor/major, C major, and E major. These three tonal areas are the main tonal areas of the Prelude. The first resolution of a dominant seventh (in measure 16 leading to measure 17) is deceptive (V7 to VI). The first authentic cadence occurs in measure 24, in A major, which is somewhat weakened by the tonal movement away from A, with the tonic in 24 serving as a pivot chord to modulate.

The Tristan Chord, which first appears in measure 2, exemplifies ambiguity from enharmonic spellings of chords, and from linear chromaticism making it hard to determine what note notes belong to the chord. The notes on the downbeat of measure two (F – B – D# – G#) form an enharmonically spelled half-diminished seventh chord (F – Ab – Cb – Eb), although it doesn’t fit into the tonal area(s) at that point in the piece. If the G# is treated as a non-chord tone, the A that follows forms a Fr43 in a minor. The chord is labeled TC (TC1), since later appearances suggest the chord is a half-diminished harmony, but this harmony has no tonal function in a minor.

Review chapter 38 for more examples of the Tristan chord, lack of tonal closure, and enharmonic respellings, especially during the climax.


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