Sunday morning, November 15, 10–10:50 CST

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Apropos Wagner and Strauss

Alexander Rehding (Harvard University), Chair

Precursors of the Tristan Chord and the “Till sixth” in Fétis’s Traité complet (1844)

Marie-Ève Piché  (McGill University)


Fétis’s treatise, known for its historical approach to tonalité, is also a visionary work that anticipated some of the most iconic sonorities of the late nineteenth century. Fétis acknowledged that the extensions of tonality he illustrated “generate a large number of new chords not yet employed by composers.” Among these new chords are “half-diminished” augmented sixths that have gone largely unremarked in the Fétisian literature (Christensen 2019, Campos 2013) and that closely resemble Wagner’s Tristan chord (1865) and Strauss’s “Till sixth” (1895). How did Fétis manage to theorize these chords that were only composed decades later?

Fétis wrote extensively about Wagner in later publications but never discussed harmony specifically (Christensen 2019). His treatise nevertheless gives insight into how the Tristan chord might be accommodated within his tonal theory: for Fétis, the augmented sixth did not constitute a genuine harmony since it results from two simultaneous suspensions. In contrast, he regarded the “Till sixth” as a legitimate chord (V7) where ♭6 and ♯2 replace 5 and 2. Although these modifications occur in earlier treatises, Fétis appears to be the first to combine them.

Early twentieth-century theorists––Louis and Thuille, Schoenberg, Vinée––became increasingly interested in explaining new, non-standard augmented sixths; unsurprisingly, they recognized a wider range of resolutions than Fétis. His accomplishment in the Traité complet is nevertheless remarkable. It is precisely because he based his tonal theory on abstract principles rather than contemporaneous practices that he managed to predict extensions of tonality that became commonplace in the late Romantic era.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Common-Tone Transformation System, and His Analyses of Wagner’s Magic Sleep Motive

David Byrne (University of Manitoba)


In treatises published in 1930 and 1931, German composer and theorist Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877–1933) presented a complete system of harmonic transformations involving triads and dominant (or half-diminished) seventh chords. His transformations emphasize retention of common tones, as in the PLR operations of “neo-Riemannian” theory. Karg-Elert’s system was inspired by Hugo Riemann’s Schritte and Wechsel (1880), which relate major and minor triads without regard for tonality or function. A crucial difference is that while Riemann’s transformations implicitly assume equal temperament and enharmonic equivalence, Karg-Elert’s system operates in a three-dimensional just intonation space defined by the pure fifth, major third and harmonic seventh, spanning a potentially infinite number of distinct pitches. While Riemann (1880) invariably explains a motion from C major to E major as Terzschritt (“major third step”), Karg-Elert provides multiple interpretations, reflecting the specific pitch-space locations of each triad.

After summarizing the principal features of Karg-Elert’s transformational system, I examine his 1931 discussion of the Schlafakkorde (the “Magic Sleep” leitmotif) from Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre. He first considers the passage from a middleground perspective, focusing on the mediant transformations that link its key areas; this analysis presents notable similarities with Brian Hyer’s 1995 investigation of the Schlafakkorde, and also prefigures David Lewin’s “arrow” notation for transformational networks. Karg-Elert then provides a foreground interpretation of each chord-to-chord motion that illustrates his concept of comma-free modulation. His two contrasting analyses demonstrate how harmonic transformations can reflect both local and global perceptions, and can reveal a sense of tonal hierarchy.

Lyric Forms as “Performed” Speech in Das Rheingold

Craig Duke (Indiana University Bloomington)

Craig Duke is a Doctoral Candidate in Music Theory at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. His main research interest is in the analysis of temporal organization and continuity in music that is combined with other media, and his most recent work studies conventions and innovations in techniques for combining music with dramatic action and dialogue in mid-19th-century opera. Currently, he is writing a dissertation on Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle from this multimedia-oriented perspective. In the future, he plans to study similar aspects of modern multimedia genres such as film and television music and video-game music. He has also presented research on Schenkerian analysis in Wagnerian music drama and on English folk-inspired music of the early 20th century. This paper was previously presented at this year’s virtual conference of the Music Theory Society of New York State and will also be presented at next year’s International Conference on Musical Form in Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.


There is growing recognition that Richard Wagner’s mature music dramas owed much to earlier 19th-century opera, but many of the analytical implications of this knowledge remain to be explored. This paper examines one specific generic connection: lyric form (AABA or AABC), an Italian model for short, unified, expressive monologues. As I show through three examples, Wagner continues to use lyric form in Das Rheingold in a largely traditional (albeit flexible) way. While many of Wagner’s own writings emphasize his departure from the genre of opera, lyric form is actually compatible with the radical aesthetic of the Gesamtkunstwerk because it is, by its very generic identity, a synthesis of musical and rhetorical organization. The novelty of Wagner’s usage comes in part from his vigorous commitment to dramatic verisimilitude: every lyric-form monologue is “realistically” integrated into a conversation (i.e., it is not a soliloquy), in order to maintain a strong sense of dramatic continuity.

Seen from this perspective, the overarching music-dramatic function of a lyric form lies mainly in the communicative aims of its speaker. In all three of the examples I discuss, the monologue is performative in J. L. Austin’s sense: its communicative purpose extends beyond its verbal content. Drawing from work by Edward Cone and Peter Kivy, I call these situations semidiegetic because the music can be heard as a representation of the performative dimension of a character’s speech, even when that character is not “literally” singing within the story.