Wagner’s Harmonic Game Plan for the Composition of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Every compositional process is a mind game that the composer plays with himself. Every game has an objective, game pieces, rules, and moves. The intellectual joy of every theorist is to postulate about what kind of game plan a certain composer may have employed in the act of writing a particular piece. Few works in the canon of our music history have tempted theorists more than Tristan und Isolde, especially the Prelude and the Liebestod. I would like to believe that each one of those theorists felt humbled by the genius and beauty of this very special piece and that their explanations fell short of completely unearthing the mystery of its creation.
Before I add my “two cents” to the myriad papers written by musicians who, at least momentarily, thought they were as smart as Wagner, let me suggest that music is very much like magic––it is based on illusion. The magician leads us to believe that we understand the reality we are presented with and then proceeds to fool us, much to our delight and fascination. The act the magician performs is called a “trick” and when it is finished we immediately try to figure out how it was done. In most cases, only those in the audience who wish to become magicians themselves will pursue the secret behind the trick. The rest of us just go home in a state of delighted ignorance. But magic, like music, is more than just a trick––its power to delight depends on style and form. The act must have a structure that is coherent and purposeful. Its sense of continuity must build to a climax and a final resolution that profoundly affect the emotional condition of the audience. The music of Tristan is certainly magical. It is filled with tricks and illusions and that is why so much effort has been expended to try and explain it.
What, then, went into the making of the Tristan Game? The following discussion will focus on the technical evidence in an attempt to understand what may have occurred in the composer’s mind as he struggled to produce this work. The purpose of this paper is to explain how the genius of Tristan may be found in its details. It is an attempt to supplement the already burgeoning literature that has dealt with large form structures and motivic development. There has been much argument about just exactly what Wagner was doing and why he was doing it, but few, if any, theorists have recounted the entire harmonic story on a note-by-note and chord-by-chord basis--the way we hear it in actual performance. Regardless of how perfect the grand scheme may be, it is still the individual notes that attest to the brilliance of the creator who chose them, one at a time. And, when performed at the tempo indicated, we have plenty of time to relish every note and every chord and wonder just what it is that makes this music so strangely beautiful.