Tag Archive: opera

#459304: Maria Callas

I really don’t want to say much here. I think she should just do it for me. There are so many incredibly talented sopranos I love to hear but for me there will never be another “O mio babbino caro” like Maria Callas’s. I find myself crying every time the tender notes fill my ears and the pain in her face is before my eyes. Not great anguish or over-the-top acting. Not even a buildup of powerful high notes. Just the simple heartbreak of a woman in love and on the brink of bliss and agony. La Divina forever . . .



Classical music students and fans will probably be overly aware of all of this information but, just in case there’s someone out there who is unfamiliar with the International Music Score Library Project, I am writing a bit about it. I have become as fond of it as a person can possibly be. There are forums (which I’m not quite as into but I know a lot of people love them), a journal with a zillion topics, and free downloads of any classical music (for just about any instrument). I believe the only limitation pertains to copyright laws, so if there isn’t a copyright (or if it has expired) you can find it here.


The IMSLPDroid App is also fantastic! Be sure to check it out. You can search for sheet music by composer, age, nationality, type, instrument, etc. You can also download complete scores as .pdf files. As I am currently doing an extensive study on Don Giovanni, I am pretty much in love with this app.

It is a chord of mystery and enchantment.  Awe-inspiring, yes, but there is a not-so-subtle dissonance that characterizes the Tristan chord.  It is filled with a seemingly-perpetual unresolved tension that captivates its listener in the most literal sense: it leaves us spellbound – unable to draw our ears and emotions away from it – as we take in each tone and long for it resolution.

German composer Richard Wagner (whom pop culture has made famous by using his Ride of the Valkyries for a recurring Bugs Bunny theme) made extensive use of the chord in the opera Tristan und Isolde, using it as a leitmotif for Tristan.

While the use of unresolved tones (and even the use of a chord that consists almost entirely of augmented intervals) was not unique to Wagner, the composer made brilliant use of suspension in a way that surpassed those before him.  The general practice in using a suspended chord is to provide a resolution, and to provide it quickly.  Otherwise it’s just mean.  It is perhaps the most obvious way to convey tension musically.  There is just something about a suspended chord that is completely unsettling.  Until that blessed moment when resolution comes, it is positively maddening.  Think of the “amen” at the end of traditional hymns and imagine, instead of playing that final note, just holding out the one right before it for an undetermined period . . . exasperating, isn’t it? I’ll wait while you finish pulling out your hair.

Wagner’s use of the chord is unusual, for one, because it pretty much takes full advantage of the element of surprise.  It is full of tones that would not normally be found in the given key.  The most creative aspect, though, is simply its duration and resolution.  He draws out the suspension for maximum effect and then, when he finally decides to resolve it, he uses a passing tone to do so.

The nature of the passing tone shows how enticing this little melodic treasure truly is.  The whole purpose of the passing tone is to get us somewhere else.  It’s basically that little restaurant you stop at on a road trip to make the journey a little less arduous, but you don’t plan on setting down roots there.  It’s just a place to hang out until you get where you’re really going.  A passing tone is often a little note that provides some color and sets up the next tone.  So, when he decides not to give us that resolution for which we are pretty much salivating by this point . . . and then suddenly gives it to us in a passing tone . . . that leads into another suspended chord filled with tension . . . the major musical destinations in the piece are exceedingly complex and wildly unsettling.  Maddening!

There is something about the Tristan chord that still intrigues us to this day.  But – while I absolutely love opera – I am going to bring the discussion of the chord within Wagner’s masterpiece to a close here.  My next blog will focus on the chord itself: this breathtaking series of augmented intervals known, in other circles, as the half-diminished seventh chord.  I plan to discuss the chord in as much of its entirety as I can manage: its components, how to create it, why it works, examples throughout music and how to incorporate it into your own playing.

The half-diminished seventh chord is a strange place to start, I am aware, but it worked for Wagner, so I thought I would give it a try.  If anyone is interested on something on a much more basic level, please stay tuned.  I plan to write about simpler chords and concepts as well.  If you have any requests, please let me know!

Until next time, I leave you with a farewell, adieu and goodb-