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I have been interested for quite some time in the harmonic progression in Brangane's warnings in the second act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. My question: how can one analyze the chord progression in this passage ?

Here's the link for the Brangane's first warning on Youtube. After a bit of time, here's what I have found:

  • From 0:00 to 0:34 in this link, I have difficulties identifying the chords. It does not seem to be triadic harmony, but instead tetrachords.
  • From 0:34 to 01:22, it seems easier. I have found the following chord progression: D, A, G, C#, Am, Em, C#m, Eb.

I am not used to analysis, and as such I don't know how to proceed with this progression, for which I see no apparent pattern. I have studied transformational music theory for some time, and I have written the transformations from one chord to the other using both the transformation/inversion (T/I) group, and the PLR group, but there does not seem to be any significant pattern here as well.

Any help would be appreciated...

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3 Answers 3

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OK, this is a tricky passage, but it's not impossible to analyze. The high level of dissonance is caused by a) the persistent Ab pedal; b) the long-held appoggiaturas. At the slow tempo Wagner is using, these two forces create sonorities that we try to hear as "chords," but which are not: they are conglomerations of chord and non-chord tones.

roughly (discounting the pedal and removing the appoggiaturas):

bar 1: Db7

bar 2-3: Dbdim7 (= Vb9/Ab)

bar 4-5: Ab7

bar 6-7: Eb7

bar 8-9: Db7

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  • Thanks for the help... How would you go to analyze this progression, or the triadic one I indicated ? What should I be looking for ?
    – OliverX1
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 12:12
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I would suggest looking up the score for the piece. (Here for example, starting at p. 361.) If you are having trouble hearing/transcribing the harmony why not go to the source? Unless your objective is to become a better transcriber there is no need to torture yourself...

Regarding the harmonic analysis I must confess I'm as much in the dark as you. One way of looking at it is this: how does it sound? It certainly does not sound like a simple "functional" harmonic progression (ie D -> T movement etc). Every time the ear expects a resolution something else happens. Perhaps there is something else that ties it all together, such as the melody.

Looking at the key signatures in the score the piece starts out in Ab and then moves to A natural. Since you seem familiar with neo-Riemannian theory why not take a look at the tonnetz and try to track the progression?

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The passage is very harmonically sophisticated and it captures the oneiric quality of the scene.

This video has a good harmonic analysis of the whole passage.

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  • While this is a good video, we try to keep the important part of answers within the site itself so that they'll still be worthwhile if the link goes dead. Please edit to add the information within the body of the answer. Commented May 31 at 19:40
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