Five chords that changed classical music for ever

Who would think that one single chord in music could reveal a whole universe of intention, emotion and experience? Ivan Hewett reveals not just one chord, but five in their own way epoch-making groups of notes which continue to resonate down the centuries.

Beethoven: Symphony No.3, 'Eroica'

In 1804 Beethoven wrote his magnificent and epoch-making third Symphony, which we know today as the ‘Eroica’. About three quarters of the way through the first movement the music climbs to a point of high tension, and at that moment a chord rings out: it fixes something essential about the piece, the composer, and the era, in one blazing moment. It feels like Beethoven’s great call to revolution. He’d originally intended the symphony to be called ‘Bonaparte’, but eventually described it as a ‘Heroic Symphony to the memory of a great man’. Beethoven had hopes that this great Frenchman would inspire Europe to a humanist, libertarian, egalitarian revolution – imbued with Enlightenment ideals himself, he never met Napoleon in person but it’s clear that his life and his music were deeply influenced by him. Napoleon’s achievement was on a vast, world-transforming scale, and Beethoven’s symphony has a similar ambition. To me the ‘Eroica’ chord expresses a sense of fighting free from oppression, and in that chord the struggle reaches its climax. Listen to the full programme.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

The 'Tristan' chord shows something essential about chords in general, which is they get much of their meaning and flavour from their context. In itself the Tristan chord is not that unusual. It’s what jazz musicians call a half-diminished chord, but it’s how Wagner leads up to it and away from it that is so tantalising and strange. The chord’s top note moves upwards, and the bass note downwards, to a 7th chord – but in what key, and are those rising notes part of the chord or not? More ink has been spilled over these questions than any other harmonic progression in history. And the amazing thing is, by giving the chord such an interesting context, Wagner somehow managed to take possession of the chord itself. You only have to play it and everyone says 'ah, Tristan!’. But though it’s instantly recognisable, fixing the meaning behind that pregnant sound is not so easy: it raises the idea that an entire piece could remain unresolved, and that is indeed what happened in the hyper-romantic music that came a few decades later. Wagner himself didn’t go that far. At the very end of Tristan, having showed time and time again that the Tristan chord doesn’t need to be resolved, he finally resolves it. Isolde has expired over the body of the fatally wounded Tristan – the two lovers are united in death – and the endless longing of the music finally reaches its quiescence. Listen to the full programme.

Mahler: Symphony No.10

The next chord occurs about a third of the way into the first movement of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, It’s an amalgamation of three elements which on their own are unremarkable but which, when put together, seem like a cry of anguish. Why? Mahler certainly had plenty of reasons to be anguished. In 1907 he had lost his daughter Maria to diphtheria, he’d been forced to resign the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, and he’d learned of his own incurable heart disease. But Mahler’s resilience was astonishing: in 1910, the year of his 50th birthday, he retreated as usual to a composing hut in the Austrian countryside , and worked on his 10th Symphony. It went with amazing speed, and although he didn’t live to complete it, he left a complete sketch for all five movements. In the midst of this huge labour came the revelation of his wife’s affair with the architect, Walter Gropius. Just as Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ chord eventually finds a resolution at the end of Tristan und Isolde, so Mahler found a way to lead his own chord out of anguish into something like radiance, in the last movement of the Tenth. But there the resemblance ends: Wagner’s chord is not anguished in itself, and it’s not especially unusual. But the chord in Mahler’s Tenth is unique; it occurs nowhere else in Mahler, and no-one has ever used it since. Mahler uses that particular sound to make an anguished personal revelation, and that has put it out of bounds to any other composer. Listen to the full programme.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky said the idea of the The Rite of Spring came to him in a flash, in 1910: ‘I imagined a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the gods of spring.’ Stravinsky is telling a whopper – it was actually the painter and ethnographer Nicholas Roerich who suggested the scenario. And it was his scenario which contained the detail which inspired that famous chord: Stravinsky composed it to accompany the scene where young men encourage the earth to be fruitful by beating it with sticks. The music was written for the 1913 Paris season of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, with choreography by Nijinsky. The ballet famously caused a riot at its premiere largely because of the dance. As the curtain rose the disbelieving audience saw a row of ‘knock-kneed Lolitas in braided hair’ as Stravinsky called them, jumping up and down in a deliberately primitive way. But that first-night audience surely realised that the grinding tension we hear in that famous chord caught something in the air. The other chords under consideration here get their meaning from their harmonic context. This one needs no context – it simply exists in an eternal present. You could also say that about Mahler’s Tenth Symphony chord, but whereas that is a cry of personal anguish, this one is nothing but pure energy. That energy, if not the exact sound, was imitated in numerous later modernist pieces by Bartók, Varèse and Antheil. The Rite of Spring chord heralds the new age of the machine, and at a stroke banishes the soft-edged dreamy inner world of the romantics. As Stravinsky put it, ‘there are simply no regions for soul-searching in the Rite of Spring’. Listen to the full programme.

Terry Riley: In C

In C was composed in 1964 by the Californian composer Terry Riley – the piece changed the face of classical music. Riley showed that using nothing but the seemingly simple chord of C major was just the perfect way to turn on, tune in and drop out – in the Sixties, Riley was doing exactly that. After some time spent travelling the world, he ended up back in San Francisco. All this time he was busy experimenting with repeating phrases played on tape loops as a way of making music, and he’d also been playing in improvising groups. The two interests came together in what is still his best-known piece, In C. The music is printed on one sheet, and consistsof 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times by a group of players – Riley said that ‘about 35 is desired if possible but smaller or larger groups will work’. Jazz is implicated in this piece, and also pop music, and the stirrings of the counter-culture, with its worship of altered states of consciousness and all things mystical and Indian. The C major chord may be rudimentary compared to the other four we’ve been examining, but it’s just like them in the way it captures the complexity of an era and fixes it in one stunning aural image. It’s a useful reminder that chords are mostly common property. Once they come into the language, anyone can use them, and most of them come round time and time again in different patterns, like the chips of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope – even the humble chord of C major can vibrate with world-historical significance, if it’s used in the right way.

More Classical Music on Radio 4