Wagner 2. RHYTHM


The rhythm of climax


Please write music like Wagner’s.

Only louder.

– Samuel Goldwyn


CHAPTER AIM: Thinking about the shape of our piece


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Light and Softly

Wagn_P_Isol_TrisMild und leise” are Isolde’s first words here, light and softly, and the music tells us the same thing. There’s an ethereal, airy quality to this sound, as if we are floating upwards through gentle clouds.

Certainly not much evidence of a strong and repetitive beat. So where is the rhythm?


All music, of course, has a rhythm. There is a rhythm to this piece, but it’s so slow and languorous, you hardly feel it. That’s certainly true at the start of the piece, where the sparseness of instruments gives our ear little to hold onto in terms of rhythm. The over-lapping of instruments adds to a quality of an overall pulse, rather than individual strokes or beats.

All of which gives the music a spiritual, other-worldly quality. It’s similar to the effect Beethoven achieves in the central section of his piece (as explored in  Beethoven 1  HERE ). It’s as though we are pushing through the constraints of an earthly-bound rhythm, to hint at something lying above or beyond everyday existence.


Wagner was a master of employing rhythm, of unleashing its raw effect into his music. Listen to this clip from his opera, The Ring of the Nibelung:

Ring clip  

The music follows our descent from the surface of the earth, deep down, to the underground mines where the Nibelung dwarves toil for wealth in the rock. The music is bursting with rhythmic force and intensity, even before those anvils start to clank…

You always get a rich texture of sound with Wagner. Texture, in music comes, from layering different notes and rhythms together.



That Trembly Feeling

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Let’s return to our Liebestod, and examine more closely the texture of the sound.

Dali's 'Mad Tristan'

Dali’s ‘Mad Tristan’

At the same time as our slow almost imperceptible beat, there’s a very different rhythmic texture in action, which becomes increasingly obvious as the music builds.

I’m talking about the almost constant use of tremolo in the strings, a technique explained last chapter here. The tremolo gives the music a pulsating throbbing intensity, a trembling that is too fast to be an actual beat.


So rhythmically, we have two opposite forces happening at the same time. That languorous beat that gives the music its ethereal quality. And at the same time – driving the rhythm from the opposite end – that quivering intensity of tremolo, that throbs the music with a rapid sensuality.

It’s exactly this kind of cross-layering that makes Wagner’s music sound so lush, so rich and textured. This is not simply an effect for the sake of an effect: these two sets of rhythms make total emotional sense within the drama. Isolde is reaching towards a state of death/transfiguration, and that requires music with a spiritual other-wordly quality. But at the same time, this is her own emotional response to this transfiguration, and the throbbing music conveys that restless and very personal ecstasy.




Shape of the Music

So far we’ve been looking close up at the rhythmic fabric of the music. But let’s take a step back, and look at the overall piece. Remember, rhythm is more than the individual beats in the bar. A piece of music has an overall shape, a reflection of its larger rhythmic proportions.

If we think of our Liebestod in this way, how do we describe it? It seems to flow in a continuous direction, but there are rises and falls to the music. Let’s try to follow them…

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  • 0.00     It is dawn. The music appears to emerge from the shade from…until…
  • 0.48     The music swells leading us to…
  • 1.08      …a climax.
  • 1.16       A rest, or the beginning of a new set of ascents.
  • 1.45       A series of small rises and falls, ebbs and flows…
  • 2.42       ….again another wave…until…
  • 3.51      A clear climax. This is a series of climaxes rather than a single conclusion…
  • 4.03     In this exquisite section, we are restlessly probing, upwards, until-
  • 4.34     We soften. But we continue our ascent (follow the violins) until…
  • 4.59    THE climax. Not just of this piece, but the entire opera.
  • 5.24     Coda, falling away so gently…


So the music seems to be made from a series of rises and fulls, ebbs and flows. It’s very different from, say, our Mozart, as I can show with a dynamic audio graph of both pieces (which basically plots the loudness of each piece).

The Mozart is at the top, the Wagner underneath:


How different the two sets of music are! Notice how the Mozart (top) is clearly made of sections of louder blocks, with softer linking parts between. You can see the structure of the music very clearly, with cadences between separating the sections, like chapter headings.

Wagner on the other hand, is a series of sections that ebb and flow, that get louder and quieter. But not only does each section build, then retreat, but the overall piece climbs to a final large climax two thirds of the way through in that thick blob of blue around the 5 min mark. After that the music has a long gentle landing.

The music, in other words, follows a number of rises and falls, rather than a series of sections or chapters. This is quite typical of romantic music, where it is the heart that leads us on, rather than our head.

A fitting Romantic metaphor for such a rhythmic structure would be climbing a mountain, each time scaling a peak, before taking on the next higher hill. That means when we have ascended to the highest peak, we cannot simply end there, but must come back down to ground level. Hence the gentle 2 minute coda at the end of the piece.



Sex & Sexuality

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There’s a sexual aspect to all this there’s no escaping from. Tristan & Isolde is after all a love story, specifically about adultery and the passion of love. And Wagner built that into the very fabric of the opera. This is music that is about desire.

Mathilda Wesendonck 1850

Mathilda Wesendonck


While writing the opera, Wagner was having a tempestuous affair with a married woman and big fan, Mathilde Wesendonk. Mathilde’s husband Otto (also a big fan) had lent Wagner a beautiful cottage on his estate in Zurich, the house where the opera was composed. It was all a rather strange situation, very Bohemian, but then Wagner’s life had never been humdrum. He was himself was married, but had already had a number of affairs.

We’re not sure to this day of the exact nature of Wagner’s relationship to Mathilde. They wrote a lot of passionate letters to one another, but there’s no evidence the relationship was ever consummated.

Was it a full-blooded extra-marital affair? Or was Wagner playing love games, to subsume himself in the passions he needed to write this opera? Was he keeping the object of his desire close enough so he could express it through music, deliberately keeping himself on tenterhooks like a boxer with an ice bucket?


Whatever the details, Mathilde was intimately tied up with the creation of Tristan & Isolde. Wagner wrote her hundreds of letters, constantly updating her with his progress on the work. In a letter from 1859, as he neared completion of the work, he wrote her:

This Tristan is becoming something terrible….I fear the opera will be forbidden unless the whole is turned into a parody by bad production : nothing but indifferent performances can save me ! Completely good ones are bound to send folk crazy, I can see nothing else for it.


Musical love-making

Musical adultery

Wagner was astute. The opera took another six years to be performed. And from that first premiere on, there were many many shocked reactions to the opera’s subject matter and music.

Here is the pianist and composer Clara Schumann (wife of Robert) writing in here diary after seeing the opera in 1875:

It was the most repulsive thing I have ever seen or heard in my life. To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not just the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted—that is the saddest thing I have experienced in my entire artistic life .”


There’s always a rich voluptuousness to Wagner’s music, an almost tactile sensuality. But Tristan und Isolde goes well beyond that, towards a tangible sexuality. In the opera, Wagner attempts musically to depict the passion of love and desire, the actual frenzy of love-making, physical as well as metaphysical.

Here’s a clip from that love duet, where you can certainly hear the blood pumping:

Clip from Act II

The composer Virgil Thomson claimed the love duet of act II contained seven simultaneous ejaculations, each clearly marked in the music.

That may be a push, but this is music that is depicting the physical aspect of sexuality. This is no chocolate-box version of love, but something much more real. Wagner is trying to convey an intense love affair, and that includes sexual desire and congress.

His music is trying to tell what desire feels like.



Coming in Waves

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And so, when we think about the rhythmic structure of this piece, when we think specifically about climax, we actually have something that ressembles a female orgasm.

That is not as ridiculous as that may at first seem. Music, traditionally, would be a process of coming to a big climax and finishing, what you might call a ‘male’ conception of a climax. But Wagner does something very different here. A series of gentle semi-climaxes that come in waves, leading to a large final one, that then dies away softy and slowly into sleep. Or death.

It is only when we take a step backwards, that we can start to see these very different rhythmic patterns emerging from the music.



To think about the structure of our Liebestod as relating to sexuality – and specifically a female orgasm – is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Indeed, it is probably what Wagner intended. Love, Death, Climax, Transfiguration: welcome to the world of Wagner!


Next chapter, we’ll look at melody, and ask ourselves specifically what Wagner meant by “endless melody“?