Robert Gauldin, Tragic Love and Musical Memory

Example 7. Music which Wagner probably associated with memories of his own romantic relationship with Mathilde Wesondonk, emphasizing the key of Ab major.
  1. A preexistent associations of femininity and love with the key of Ab major in his earlier operas: Act II Love Duet in Tannhäuser, Elsa and her dream in Lohengrin, and the Rhinedaughters in Das Rheingold (and later portions of Der Ring).
  2. The Ab major Album Sonate (1853, dedicated to her). The opening melodic gesture of the sonata = Eb Ab G Bb may represent a possible origin of the motif for the "So stürben wir" duet in Act II of Tristan = Eb Ab G (Gb Ab) Bb.
  3. The Prelude to Act I of Tristan, composed in the heat of the "affair of the heart" between Richard and Mathilde at Aysl, especially the "Tristan chord" itself (Robert Bailey considers this sonority as an Ab minor triad with an added 6th) and its first twenty-one measures (to the D minor harmony).
  4. The Ab major "Träume" (December 1857) based on her text; especially the piano introduction (the "Tristan chord" outlined in a context of Ab) and coda, which most resemble the chromatic tonal language of Tristan.
  5. While working on Act II of Tristan in Venice (already begun at Asyl), Wagner employed a parody of the "Träume" material in its opening Ab major Love Duet. This Duet represents the crucial tonal shift in the opera toward a subsequent succession of ascending minor-third key centers (Ab - B - Dm / Fm - Ab - B).
  6. The two scenes in Meistersinger between Eva (= Mathilde) and Sachs (= Wagner) are both set primarily in Ab major and feature "Tristan-like" harmonies. Sachs's famous admonition to the two lovers (Act III, Scene 4) quotes the opening measures from the Tristan Prelude, transposed a half-step lower to Ab! These scenes (especially Act II, Scene 4) symbolize Wagner's personal renunciation of any further physical desire toward Mathilde.
  7. The "Tristan chord" (at its original pitch level and with implications of Ab) is related to sexual love and lust in the revised "Venusberg music" of Act I for the 1861 Paris production of Tannhäuser and the encounter between the young Parsifal and Kundry in Act II of Parsifal. The primary Ab major of this last music drama may represent complementary aspects of "love:" where eros = the Ab Flowermaidens' Chorus, Kundry, and sensual love versus agape = the Ab Knights of the Grail and Christ's redeeming spiritual love.