Tristan und Isolde is the most symphonic of Wagner’s operas. The drama is played out not so much on the stage but in the orchestra. Leitmotifs are stated, combined, recombined and contrasted in a whirl of continuous motion. The motives, feelings, and desires of the characters are explained and underlined in the orchestra. The solo voices are part of the overall fabric.
They are all part of an endless stream of melody which flows from the singers and the orchestra. Harmonically, the music is never at rest. Through the use of chromaticism and dissonance Wagner plays out the psychological tensions of the lovers, not finding musical resolution until the lovers themselves are at peace. The first chord of the opera is the most famous single chord in the history of opera. It is known simply as the “Tristan chord.” It contains two dissonances, doubling the desire for resolution in the ear of the listener. Resolution never comes completely while the drama is being played out. Every resolution of a dissonance is incomplete in some manner so that musically the listener is in a constant state of tension, replicating the condition of the lovers. Resolution is not achieved until the end of the opera, on the very last chord, after Isolde joins Tristan in death.
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