Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Online



The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is making available a performance of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde on YouTube.  The first act is online now.  Act 2 will be released on August 31, and Act 3 will be released on September 14.

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde had a substantial effect on Western music. Some consider it the first “modern” music. Even if you’re not an opera (or Wagner) fan, I hope you’ll take time to listen to the overture.

So much has been written on the “Tristan chord” used in this opera.  Wagner defies our expectations of what should come next, using chords that do not resolve in a traditional way.  The effect is one of unease, longing.  It was shocking at the time; it is still beautifully disquieting now.

Here is a short discussion of the Tristan chord by Antonio Pappano of the Royal Opera House.

Here is a brief explanation that features Wagner’s own Steinway piano.

See the opera performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra here.


Image attribution:  Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


2 thoughts on “Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Online

  1. Hi! Good fun. Pappano and these guys understand (who doesn’t?) the underlying psychological drama of the piece. Unfortunately the celebrated “Tristan chord” isn’t a chord, not until the very end of the bar; the whole point is the very long non-harmonic tones and very short resolutions (which are the source of the tension throughout the Prelude (and indeed the opera). That whole opening 16 or so bars merely serves to prolong the tonic triad, and the section ends in that equally celebrated deceptive resolution; as Pappano points out, the opening doesn’t truly resolve until the end of the opera. the overriding harmonic motion is, essentially, a: ii – V; C: ii – V; e: ii-V (like jazz, where ii – V is the essential progression). As in jazz, those ii’s are altered, but in a very conventional way. I don’t like making any music more complicated and mysterious than it is. The point, of course, is the long dissonances and lack of final resolution (which also “explains” a good deal of Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg…)

    Thanks- basically good stuff. Wish I had time to see the whole thing- maybe I’ll just stay up some night and watch! Fabulous music/drama/psychology, of course.




    • Thank you for your generously detailed comment, Tom! I think everyone will learn something from it. It is fascinating to me how altering even one note in a combination of notes can profoundly change the psychological perception of the music.


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