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To the depths of musical emotion

The musical genre that is most associated with the German composer Richard Wagner is the opera. It is fair to say that Wagner transformed the musical landscape so much so that opera before Wagner and opera after Wagner were two completely different forms.

Much of this has to do with Wagner's perception of musical harmony. As his work developed, he increasingly applied the thinking that music could harmonically depict emotions and went further than previous composers had done in order to do so.

For example, Wagner's predecessors, when writing music for a sad scene in an opera, would set the music in a minor key, and have the protagonists sing a beautiful lyrical melody about the sadness experienced. In Wagner's mind, this was not musically accurate, and more like controlled emotion. Because the harmony and chords were bound by pre-existing notions of having to sound nice, the extent of the sadness was limited, and could not have been fully conveyed beyond controlled boundaries. If a character felt immense anguish, he or she might be singing about this and the words would have expressed this, but the music, by its nice sounding harmonies, would have been an unconvincing partner.

Over the previous centuries, harmonic structures had been governed by theoretical rules and reinforced in practice. These included rules such as:

(a) Cadences (brief pauses at the end of musical phrases) had to end on the first, fifth or sixth chords of the scale;
(b) They had to be approached from particular chords;
(c) Music had to modulate (change keys) to a related key;
(d) Cadences should not end on a seventh chord;
(e) Cadences should end on a minor or major chord;
(f) The third note of a major chord should never be doubled

The observance of these rules were judged to produce good examples of harmonic writing. And the chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach are often quoted as good examples for students to follow.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that the premiere of Wagner's work Tristan and Isolde were mixed.

Within the first phrase of the operatic overture, Wagner unabashedly broke many of the existing rules of harmony. If you are interested in the technical details, he approached a cadence chromatically, and moved from the diminished chord to resolve on a major seventh chord. Within the opening bars, Wagner had announced his rejection of the rules of harmony. But just in case the audience missed it and wondered if members of the orchestra had misplayed their notes, he did it twice more in the next two phrases. The accepted notion of the past of harmonic phrases resolving and ending nicely were no longer adhered to, and broken in the most unapologetic manner, as Wagner threaded one incomplete harmonic phrase into another and left the audience "hanging". To be fair, this unending lack of resolution was what clearly demonstrated the impossible love between Isolde, sworn betrothed to the King, and Tristan, knight and nephew of the king. Their yearning attraction to each other, unable to be fulfilled by their circumstances (she was to marry the King, who had looked after his nephew as if he were his own son), was musically conveyed in one unresolved cadence after another.

Wagner's Tristan and Isolde originated from a twelfth century Celtic tale, Tristan and Iseult. The latter tale influenced the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle and also has traditional retellings in various countries such as Italy, France, Spain and Denmark.

The reaction to Wagner's work was mixed, with some hailing its ideas, while others like Rossini proclaimed that Wagner's work "is not something I would get the first time around, but I have no intention of listening to it a second time".

The French composer Claude Debussy liked Tristan for its striking harmonies, and was sympathetic to the dissolution of harmonies that Wagner was trying to espouse. Like Wagner himself, Debussy was not accepting of the harmonic ideas of the past. However the latter found the extroverted emotionalism of Wagner, as well as his ideas and philosophy, a little too unrestrained for his liking, and preferred a subtler form of musical communication. Debussy had a little dig at Wagner in his Children's Corner suite, quoting the Tristan chord liberally throughout in one of the pieces (the unfortunately-named Golliwogg's Cakewalk). The central theme in the piece is based on the four notes that make up the "Tristan chord", and just as Wagner had hammered out one unresolved cadence after another in Tristan, Debussy kept referring to the Tristan chord in Cakewalk ... almost as if to say "What's the fuss?" and subjecting the theme to trivial treatment. In the middle section of the piece, the opening theme of Tristan is quoted in a quasi-romantic form, reminiscent of Wagner's opera, then immediately followed by short, mocking, staccato acciaccaturas - in what might be called passages of piano "Ha-ha-ha!"

Debussy may also have loathed Wagner for his anti-Semitic views. Think what you will of Wagner - he is a controversial character but music history accepts that by the scale of harmonic dissolution in his works, he was one of the composers responsible for the eventual breakdown of harmony. Wagner believed, and was prepared to demonstrate, that in order to fully convey emotion in the music, he would have to fully dismantle music itself to achieve that purpose.

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