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Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act 1

Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act 1

The Prelude to Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde serves more to set an emotional climate than to describe the actual course of events, as the more traditional overture form tends to do. There, however, the similarity stops. Never has hopeless longing been more clearly expressed than in the opening bars of the Prelude, nor has it ever been done with greater economy of means. Three modules too closely interrelated to be called themes, yet too distinct to be granted motivic status constitute the substances of the piece; a mainly descending, strongly chromatic phrase played, unsupported, by the cellos, an answering, rising phrase, equally chromatic, in the oboes and, at the junction of these two, the famous Tristan chord, whose remarkable harmonic colouring dominates the Prelude totally.

The question of its resolution, or lack thereof is the main factor in the creation of the desperate sense of yearning in this work. The tonic chord of A minor is never explicitly heard, although frequently approached, and the unsettled feeling this provokes is further enhanced by the presence of enharmonically altered tones, even within the same parts of the orchestra. The pitch alterations this entails create both an uneasy tension and an apparent uncertainty as to the tonal base of the work, emphasized by the many suspensions. The Prelude rises to a bleakly feverish climax some two-thirds of the way through, only to subside very rapidly still unfulfilled.

Kate Lang

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