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The Tristan Chord Wagner and Philosophy Brian Magee, 2000, MacmillanA book review by Peter McKenzie BrownTristan und Isolde is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner to a libretto he wrote himself I m not sure how well you know Wagner A lot of opera lovers, including my wife, find his operas difficult and only listen to them under duress Personally, I love his work Today, I want to talk about the evolution of a revolutionary chord in this opera I m not going to push your musical skills The Tristan Chord Wagner and Philosophy Brian Magee, 2000, MacmillanA book review by Peter McKenzie BrownTristan und Isolde is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner to a libretto he wrote himself I m not sure how well you know Wagner A lot of opera lovers, including my wife, find his operas difficult and only listen to them under duress Personally, I love his work Today, I want to talk about the evolution of a revolutionary chord in this opera I m not going to push your musical skills too far my own are not up to the task, in any case.Wagner s compositions stress musical themes, and his operas are quite long Our version of Tristan isthan four hours in length In effect, Wagner made the orchestra the prima donna in his opera, and this innovation affected other German composers According to Bryan Magee, because of the weight and seriousness of his work Wagner is widely supposed to have been someone of a ponderous and humourless disposition, but this is not so at all For instance, we have this account of his behaviour during rehearsals for the first performance of Tristan if a difficult passage when particularly well he would spring up, embrace or kiss the singer warmly, or out of pure choice stand on his head on the sofa, creep under the piano, on to it, run into the garden and scramble joyously up the tree Standing on his head was something he did quite often, usually as an expression of delight So was climbing Once, arriving at a friend s house, the first thing he did was climb up the front of the house On another occasion, visiting a friend for lunch, he immediately clambered to the top of the tallest tree in the garden and this at the age of 57 He was always much given to sliding down the banisters again well into middle age It would be considered extraordinary if someone behaved in this way now, but it was a great dealextraordinary in the middle of the 19th century There was something not only of the theatre about Wagner but of the circus, something of the acrobat or clown McGee, 236 237 Wagner wrote the opera including its libretto in the late 1850s its first performance was in 1865 It is one of the great works of opera, and broke new ground in its use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension In a letter to his lover the wife of a businessman who had befriended the composer, and funded his work Wagner wrote the following There is no country, no town, no village that I can call my own Everything is alien to me and I often gaze around, yearning for a glimpse of the land of Nirvana But Nirvana quickly turns back into Tristan you know the Buddhist theory of the origin of the world A breath clouds the clear expanse of heaven it swells and grows denser, and finally the whole world stands before me again in all its impenetrable solidity Elsewhere in that letter, Wagner cited a musical passage a young composer named Hans von B low had written, and offered a bit of constructive criticism He did not criticize von B low for writing dissonances but for emphasizing them Rather, he said, composers should conceal their dissonances.Wagner did not take his own advice, for soon he would be emphasizing a dissonance himself, using a chord that he possibly discovered first in the score of von B low s opera Nirwana Although it could with justification be called the Nirwana chord, it has become known as the Tristan chord First, let s get the story out of the way Tristan is a nobleman from Breton, and the adopted heir of Marke, the king of Cornwall Tristan s job is to accompany Isolde, an Irish princess, to Cornwall to marry King Marke With the aid of a love potion, Tristan and Isolde fall in love aboard ship This causes a great deal of commotion in the story By the end of Act III King Marke has shown himself to be an honourable man, but Tristan is dead.The Tristan chord includes the notes F, B, D , and G It is the opening phrase of the opera, and is a leitmotif a theme relating to Tristan I read somewhere that it contains within itself not one but two dissonances, creating in 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, thus providing resolution but not resolution It is not until we reach the opera s closing notes that the chord finds resolution.When it came to promoting his work, Wagner was an almost hyperkinetic genius For example, he promoted and personally supervised the design and construction of a theatre in Bayreuth, which contained many architectural innovations to accommodate the huge orchestras for which Wagner wrote as well as the composer s particular vision about the staging of his works It was there, in fact, that American humourist Mark Twain heard Tristan I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away, he wrote after the production I feel strongly out of place here Sometimes I feel like the one sane person in the community of the mad sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven Some years ago the Calgary Philharmonic Opera dealt with the Tristan chord in an extraordinary way The philharmonic didn t play the opera, obviously Rather, it played a composition that began with the opera s overture and travelled through its orchestral finale This was an extraordinary way to hear the Tristan Chord, which gradually went from unresolved to full resolution.Note I used many sources for this book besides Bryan Magee s extraordinary book A useful online source is available here The Tristan Chord was the first piece of music that actually gave me chills the first time I heard it It still has the power to stop me in my tracks No matter what I may be doing when I hear it, I am stunned into the romantic crisis that Wagner penned Those four little notes, just few seconds of air time, changed the world of music The boldness of Wagner s music is mirrored in his philosophical pursuits This book is an excellent study of the the development and influences of Wagner as com The Tristan Chord was the first piece of music that actually gave me chills the first time I heard it It still has the power to stop me in my tracks No matter what I may be doing when I hear it, I am stunned into the romantic crisis that Wagner penned Those four little notes, just few seconds of air time, changed the world of music The boldness of Wagner s music is mirrored in his philosophical pursuits This book is an excellent study of the the development and influences of Wagner as composer, and Wagner as a brilliant, flawed man One thing that has always fascinated about Wagner fans myself included is the Hitler connection that unease one gets about admiring a man that Hitler also admired It is the first time that many people find themselves with a common bond with Hitler To me, that bond is the Tristan Chord in our lives that sense of tension and caution and maybe shame that makes a beautiful composition a little uneasy to listen to Wagner, in Magee s words, was the only major composer who seriously engaged with philosophy , so any book looking at the philosophers he read is bound to be interesting And so it is where Magee follows Wagner s early interest in Feuerbach, his earth shattering discovery of Schopenhauer, as well as the real reasons for Nietzsche s break with the master namely the fapping advice incident.However, the book has a major glaring omission Arthur de Gobineau Gobineau s influence may have arrive Wagner, in Magee s words, was the only major composer who seriously engaged with philosophy , so any book looking at the philosophers he read is bound to be interesting And so it is where Magee follows Wagner s early interest in Feuerbach, his earth shattering discovery of Schopenhauer, as well as the real reasons for Nietzsche s break with the master namely the fapping advice incident.However, the book has a major glaring omission Arthur de Gobineau Gobineau s influence may have arrived too late to affect Wagner s music and libretti, but Wagner s fascination with his ideas was by all accounts a very strong one although he rejected Gobineau s pessimism, believing as he did in regeneration.So, it would have been interesting to read about Gobineau s ideas and how they affected the great man, but Magee dismisses Gobineau in a sentence or two as unimportant , when by all accounts he was W s greatest philosophical discovery after Schopenhauer himself Magee seems to have written this book as a justification to his liberal friends as to why he likes Wagner so much, trying to make the latter seem philosophically respectable , but at the expense of truth To be fair, Magee lives in the UK, where it would be illegal to objectively discuss Gobineau s ideas So, while this book sheds valuable light on Wagner s work, I can t award it very high marks 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, thus providing resolution yet not resolution And so the music proceeds in every chord shift something is resolved but not everything 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, thus 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 time frustrated And this carries on throughout a whole evening Only at one point is all discord resolved, and that is on the final chord of the work and that of course is the end of everything the characters and our involvement with them, the work and our experience of it, everything The rest is silence Bryan Magee s The Tristan Chord is an interesting and insightful analysis of the philosophical influences that helped shape the work of one of the most gifted and controversial composers I found the book to be comprehensive and yet accessible intellectual without being overly pedantic illuminating and absorbing and at all times beautifully written ( Kindle ) ☦ The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy ♩ Richard Wagner s devotees have ranged from the subtlest minds Proust to the most brutal Hitler The enduring fascination with his works arises not only from his singular fusion of musical innovation and theatrical daring, but also from his largely overlooked engagement with the boldest investigations of modern philosophy In this radically clarifying book, Bryan Magee traces Wagner s intellectual quests, from his youthful embrace of revolutionary socialism to the near Buddhist resignation of his final years Magee shows how abstract thought can permeate music and stimulate creations of great power and beauty And he unflinchingly confronts the Wagner whose paranoia, egocentricity, and anti Semitism are as repugnant as his achievements are gloriousAt once a biography of the composer, an overview of his times, and an exploration of the intellectual and technical aspects of music, Magee s lucid study offers the best explanation of W H Auden s judgment that Wagner, for all his notoriety, was perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived Wagner AND philosophy Yeah Pretty much one of the most awesome books ever One of the best chapters explore the impulse towards oblivion in Tristan und Isolde It absolutely transformed my experience of the opera as a whole, as well as the music and words on their own merit. This book says everything I have ever wanted to say about why I love the works of Richard Wagner Full stop If anyone wants to know why some people are so passionate for these works, the thoughts and feelings they evoke, for the transcendence they inspire, look no further than here There is nothingI can expand upon that Bryan Magee has not already so precisely, thoughtfully, and movingly captured about these works, their history, their creator, and their impact on those of us who they ha This book says everything I have ever wanted to say about why I love the works of Richard Wagner Full stop If anyone wants to know why some people are so passionate for these works, the thoughts and feelings they evoke, for the transcendence they inspire, look no further than here There is nothingI can expand upon that Bryan Magee has not already so precisely, thoughtfully, and movingly captured about these works, their history, their creator, and their impact on those of us who they have touched Part history, part biography, part philosophy, part art criticism, but all passionate homage to the genius of this controversial nineteenth century artist.An incredibly readable, all encompassing, accessible book on what is usually one of the most difficult, inaccessible realms in art I cannot recommend this enough, it will stay on my bookshelf and I will give it to only my closest of friends for years to come A must read for any Wagnerite Good writer Meets anyone at any level. Bryan Magee does a wonderful job, making the link between several philosophers mostly Schopenhauer and the ideas and music of Richard Wagner.Even for readers who have no background in philosophy, but who want to get to knowabout the ideas behind Wagner s masterpieces, this book is highly recommended.The ideas are stated clearly without referring to philosophical jargon Moreover Bryan Magee is an excellent writer with a gift for making difficult ideas accessible to everyone His admirati Bryan Magee does a wonderful job, making the link between several philosophers mostly Schopenhauer and the ideas and music of Richard Wagner.Even for readers who have no background in philosophy, but who want to get to knowabout the ideas behind Wagner s masterpieces, this book is highly recommended.The ideas are stated clearly without referring to philosophical jargon Moreover Bryan Magee is an excellent writer with a gift for making difficult ideas accessible to everyone His admiration for Kant, Schopenhauer and Wagner clearly shows in the book but it never becomes annoying Certainly worth the read for anyone interested in Wagner s music I know, I m still reading it and I already gave it 5 stars but it s so fascinating Some of this stuff I knew already, some of it is completely new to me.So far the only thing I don t like about it is his obvious idealization of Wager, which I feel influences his speculations a little too much sometimes hello literary bias , but whatev It s a small price to pay for a thoroughly interesting book