Wagner 4. HARMONY


Chromatic Wagner


I’ve been told that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds

 – Mark Twain


Liebestod whole track  


Changing Key

Wagner’s harmonic palette is different from the music we’ve heard so far on this course. Richer, perhaps more lush? More ambiguous, more exotic? If you want to know more about harmonic relationships, and their relative nature, check out  meet the Relatives).

What is clear, is that the harmonic language is more extended than any of the music we’ve looked at so far.


Let’s turn practical and listen from the start of our piece, and follow the key changes:

Liebestod whole track  

  • 0.00     We begin in the key of Ab major.
  • 0.07     We move through Eb to take us to…
  • 0.11     Bb major
  • 0.14     Now we move to Cb
  • 0.21     D major now takes us like a hinge into
  • 0.25     C# major
  • 0.28     Back to D major
  • 0.35     Now to F major
  • 0.41     Back to Ab…etc

That’s 8 changes of key. In barely 40 seconds of music!

Mozart happily uses a key change to inject dynamism into his music. Or signal a change of section. But he basically changes key barely half-a-dozen times in all 8 minutes of the Jupiter symphony finale. And here are 8 changes of key in a fraction of that time.


And it isn’t just the rapidity of the key change, but the harmonic distance traveled each time. These key changes leap more distant harmonic relationships. Remember the family analogy we’ve used for key ( meet the Relatives). Forget your brothers and sisters. Suddenly with Wagner you’re introduced to a great aunt-in law you hardly knew!




Liebestod whole track  

We can get more specific in our harmonic examination.

For example at 0.14 when we switch from a Bb to a Cb (the same as a B natural). That’s only a semi-tone difference. And the same at 0.28, when we go from a C# major to D major. Each of these are only a small semi-tone move on a piano keyboard, the smallest distance possible. But harmonically the distance is huge.

The 12-note chromatic scale


The word used to describe these close harmonics – the closest distance you find between each note on the piano – is ‘chromatic’. The word suggests colour, and there’s truth to that. Playing keys in their closest proximity brings out the intensity of difference between keys. It gives them a bright contrast, it gives the music vibrancy.


And this is a hugely important relationship for the music of Wagner’s age, music we usually term Romantic. Chromatism really defines the harmonics of the romantic age.

Part of the reason was the adoption of ‘equal temperament’, a fascinating subject covered in the Science of Harmony. From Bach’s time onward, a language of tuning had become accepted that allowed instruments to play in different keys together. But it was only by the time of Wagner that this system was defined by exact and equal divisions in the octave. Rather than more approximate tuning systems, like for example anything favouring the dominant-tonic harmonic relationship that was the staple of Mozart’s Classical age.

That meant music was by Wagner’s time was being played by instruments in a tuning system that suited music composed around the semi-tone. And that meant music from Beethoven to Wagner shifted towards a chromatic expression of harmony.


And it also pushes the harmonic system established and followed by Bach Mozart and Beethoven to its absolute limits. There’s an other-worldly beauty Wagner finds at these harmonic extremes, a voluptuousness that is almost decadent.

Here is a section that resonates with chromatic colour. Semitone relationships dictate so much of the harmonic action in the section:

Libestod 0.30-1.15

Caricature of Wagner's lofty pretensions

Caricature of Wagner’s lofty pretensions


The effect is sharp, pointed and bright.  This is music that shimmers, harmonically.

The chromatic texture is typical of Wagner, and very typical of this opera. So many rapid and dizzying changes of key to contend with.


There is no tonal centre. We are drifting, floating with freedom in the harmonic universe. This isn’t music searching for home: it’s just searching for rest.




Liebestod whole track  

It’s not just the changes of key. Even within a particular key, even within a particular chord, Wagner constantly creates texture and ambiguity.

In Tristan & Isolde, you hear chords played with pieces chopped out, or spliced with strands from different chords. That means we have harmonics that are incomplete, or hang suspended. We have harmonics that cross over one another, and ones that tug us towards different harmonics. It’s like being in a harmonic vortex, without any borders or boundaries.


The opening Prelude to this opera contains the most famous example of suspended music of all time, the so called ‘Tristan Chord’:

Prelude clip 1  


The whole sequence is actually made up of two separate leitmotifs that join together across two separate chords. The melody in other words links that first ‘Tristan’ chord (0.09) to a new but no less ambiguous chord (at 0.16).

This is not a clean harmonic sound. These are suspended, incomplete harmonics, hanging in the air like a question mark.


Another example comes just moments later in the Prelude:

Prelude clip 2  

It’s a wonderful sinewy chord, that throbs with desire and possibility. The strings pull upwards through the chord (again chromatically ie through semitones). That stretches the harmonics with all sorts of quivering potential, before that exquisite change of key (0.08). Which just also happens to be a chromatic relationship again (E major to F major).

It’s very Wagnerian and very beautiful.


If we return to our Liebestod, to the climax of our piece, you can hear a similar process taking place:

4.03-4.35   Liebestod near end 1  


The music is unstable, harmonically. Firstly we have a number of changes of key, as we push upward.

But also within each key, there’s a harmonic ambiguity that only seems to increase the tension as we climb upwards. Listen to many of the notes carved out by the violins, creating all kinds of edgy and equivocal relationship to the background harmonics.

It gives the music a throbbing intensity, as if we sit constantly at the edge of harmonic clarity, without quite resolving that doubt.


Upwards we climb…

4.34-4.56  Liebestod near end 2  


It is only when we reach the summit that we can rest, harmonically, and admire the stunning view.

4.56-7.08  Liebestod climax  

Harmonically, we are on stable ground, feet firmly planted.

The relationship is one of the closest in the harmonic family, the fourth (known technically by the  unwieldy term sub-dominant). It’s a very stable and secure relationship to our home key. Think of the amen at the end of a hymn, that’s a sub-dominant.
It enters at 0.01, 0.14, and 0.26, leading each time to our home key (at 0.09, 0.20 and finally at 0.54 respectively).

What’s more, there’s no indeterminate factors here, no 9ths or minor 6ths, or diminished or suspended versions of our key. These are straightforward and open major keys (E major and  B majors to be specific).


Tristan and Yseult (1887)

Tristan and Yseult (1887)

It’s so utterly simple, after so much harmonic complexity. Everything has been building to this moment of ecstatic release. After so much highly textured harmony, the climax comes like a blast of heavenly amens, in a blast of bright light.


It’s only now that we can gently sink to rest, settled finally in our home key. It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire four hours of Tristan & Isolde is – in musical terms – a search for conclusion and rest. And that’s what we eventually find at the end of this piece in the chord of B major (1.42-2.16 above).

To travel through different keys like this – as with so many of Wagner’s journeys – becomes an inward voyage of discovery.


When we come home after a long journey, we see our home with new eyes. Never knew my hometown, as Tom Waits sings it, till I stayed away too long.

This kind of exploration is expressed in Wagner’s music; restless, in search of a deeper understanding, and final acceptance.

As TS Eliot expresses it in his Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.