Friday, 13 June 2014

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Well not entirely: the title was suggested by a friend in an effort to get people to at least look at the blog.

I was saying recently that Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ is a four-hour erotic wind-up, but also that Wagner’s genius did not express itself in words or stage action. All he had was music. How did he use music to express mounting, almost unbearable tension? Like this:



That, in a much simplified reduction for piano, is the first few bars of ‘Tristan’. (Incidentally I rather think they’ve got Wagner’s death year wrong.) And there, that first big chord, at (not counting the up-beat) bars 3 and 4, is the notorious ‘Tristan chord’: from the bottom up, F, B, D#, G#. If you can get to a piano or guitar or other instrument capable of playing four notes at once, try it.

Sounds like nothing ever heard before. It scandalized its first hearers 150 years ago. It still sounds pretty disturbing, even after we have heard Webern, Stockhausen, Duke Ellington and Black Sabbath.

Chords are any combination of two or more notes, and are usually divided into concords — the ‘nice-sounding’ ones — and discords, which sound nasty. So you’re saying, quite rightly, ‘Well what sounds nice to me might sound nasty to you’; we need something a touch more objective. There are complex ways, involving such things as the harmonic series, of accurately if arbitrarily defining concord and discord, but as they say they ‘Need not detain us’:

Somewhere between the technical definition, and talk of ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’, comes the notion of ‘resolution’: a discord, we say, is a chord that ‘needs resolution’: one on which you can’t just stop, say ‘That’s all folks!’ and shut the piano lid. The audience will feel, and perhaps react, like a man whose girlfriend flirts provocatively with him all evening then suddenly gets up and goes home.

The Tristan chord cries out for resolution. Looking with the eye and hearing with the mental ear of one who has studied a bit of formal harmony, I’d say our best bet for releasing the tension of the Tristan chord is to raise the top voice to an A. Rules of counterpoint (made to be broken, but this one is still useful I think) say that in that case at least one of the lower voices should move down. Wagner does indeed lift the top note — the ‘tune’, in so far as there is one — and takes the other three down, but he sees, or hears, that going up to A in the top voice is not quite far enough to release the tension, so just as he hits us with the new notes in the lower voices, he takes the upper voice one little chromatic step higher, to A#.

But we’ve still got a discord: E, G#, D natural, A#. The tension remains unreleased, unresolved. We, or rather Wagner, take(s) the A# up one step further still, and this in one way increases the tension still further, as upward steps in melody tend to, but in another way there’s a slight decrease: only slight, because what we have now is still a discord; just a rather more acceptable one because it’s been around since before Bach; it’s the (dis)c(h)ord known as a dominant seventh, in this case E7th, which has for hundreds of years been standardly resolved onto the nice comfortable chord of A major or perhaps A minor.

So that’s what Wagner ‘ought’ to give us at this point, and I need hardly say he doesn’t: he leaves us hanging; he does ‘nothing’, but it’s a highly-charged nothing, like the uncanny calm before a thunderstorm. For seven beats in slow time, not a note is played. Those seconds of silence are among the most brilliant bits of composition in the history of western music.

To be continued, after a break to allow any remaining readers to recover.

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