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 Harmony: functional and dysfunctional

 by Professor Wilfrid Mellers

 Part IV (A): The legacy of Wagner's Tristan; and Debussy's perilous promise.

We have noted how a tendency to substitute dream for reality was tentatively emergent in the music of Schubert, who confessed that 'often I feel that I do not belong to this world at all'. This makes him his own Wanderer who - especially in the late, great song cycles, communes with solitude, seeking a world of the imagination that can soothe, and even satisfy, as real life cannot. Such an attitude, being an outcome of the individualism of capitalist society, grew stronger as commercialized industry made a world to which sensitive spirits were increasingly inimical. This is epitomised in the career of Wagner, who called himself 'an outlaw for life' and, as early as Lohengrin, dramatically mythologized the theme of the solitary Hero (himself) in an alien world; his treatment of the Siegfried story, on which he laboured for most of his life, is a vastly expanded version of the same legend. When Wagner said 'We two, the world and I, are stubborn fellows at loggerheads, and naturally whichever has the thinner skull will get it broken', he was heir to middle-period Beethoven; but his later egotism passes beyond Beethoven's self-assertion. 'I am not made like other people', he affirmed; 'I have finer nerves. The world owes me what I need ... Mine is a highly susceptible, voracious sensuality which must somehow or other be flattered if my mind is to accomplish the agonizing labour of calling a non-existent world into being'. Thus to materialize his dream became the essential task of his life, and he seriously believed that the function of society was to make that realization possible. It is Wagner's stupendous achievement that he brought it off; the myth became fact, if only through the agency of a young, rich, mad King.

Before embarking on the last opera in his Ring cycle Wagner took time off to compose Tristan und Isolde, his most profoundly subversive, and most intimately autobiographical, work. Listening to the Prelude to Tristan we immediately notice that the clear, sharp motives of Haydn or the explosive metres of Beethoven have disappeared. Instead, we have a continuous surge of sound that comes near to negating the structural principles - the exposition, development, and recapitulation - which had characterized classical sonata up to Beethoven's last works, in the process weakening the key-system on which that form had depended. Melody becomes intensely expressive motives (related to the Wagnerian leit-motiv), while 'form' is equated with the succession of different harmonic tensions (and nervous sensations) which the melodic 'gestures' have released. The effect of this on the diatonic key-system of the 19th century is similar to that of the violently chromatic madrigal on the modality of the sixteenth century.

The opening pages of the Tristan Prelude have been analysed in innumerable ways according to orthodox harmonic principles, the variety itself testifying to the music's disintegration of tradition. But what anyone can agree on is that the music's overwhelming potency derives from the fact that Wagner concentrates on the dissonant harmony at the expense of its resolution: the tense chord always falls on the strong beat. Moreover, the effect of the passage depends on the way the upward-aspiring phrase, underlined by its dissonance, is sequentially repeated at rising intervals, the mounting excitement leading one to expect a big climax when the dissonance will be finally resolved on the tonic. Instead, we get an unexpected chord, the submediant:

Richard Wagner
(1813 - 1883)

Tristan und Isolde
- opening bars of the prelude

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - opening bars

Richard Wagner

This build-up of tension, leading to only partial resolution, and therefore combining passionate yearning with frustration, is the heart of the Tristan story: between which and Wagner's own psychological make-up there is a more than usually direct connection, for the retelling of the old medieval love-story dramatises the situation currently existing between Wagner himself and Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. Wagner enjoys his renunciation (to be further expounded on in his final opera Parsifal) almost as much as he enjoys his erotic passion; since only death can complement a love at once so furious and so transcendental his yearning dissolves in the desire for oblivion - the oriental Nirvana which we come near to sharing with him at the 'infinitely' slow curtain to the final act.

Copyright © 1999 Wilfrid Mellers

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