The Tristan Chord

By Glenn Skwerer

Based on the true story of Adolf Hitler’s best friend of adolescence and his roommate in Vienna

Adolf had been a demanding friend and with his leaving I had more time to fill than I expected.

It was not hard to keep busy. My father was receiving more commissions from those who could afford to redecorate entire houses, and there was a steady flow of sofas and chairs to be reupholstered. I went to the opera. I had become more proficient at the viola – a beautiful, melancholy instrument and somehow trickier to play the better one got – and I joined an amateur chamber group at the Music Society in Linz which practiced two evenings a week. As Adolf had asked me, I kept tabs on the construction of the new mortgage bank on the Hauptplatz, and once a week I took up my post on the bridge from Urfahr to make sure Adolf's beloved Stefanie was still taking her evening constitutional with her mother (and an occasional officer, usually a real “peacock”).

After a few weeks, I noticed something. Life had become flat, stale, routine, without depth, without purpose. Music could relieve this sensation of drab everydayness, but only for short periods of time. At first, I thought this had to do with my being busier, going from one thing to the next to the next. But it did not. It had to do with Adolf’s absence. And it was not just that I missed being whisked from the shop at the end of the day, followed by an impassioned account of whatever he had dreamed up since our last meeting, the new sketches, new resentments, attacks on the Empire. It had to do with the way my friend saw the world. He saw the world as fallen, disgraced, filled with oppressors and fools, cracking under the strain and spinning towards some cataclysm out of which it would emerge redeemed and renewed, or perhaps utterly destroyed. This view had cast its dramatic shadow over my inner life for three years, perhaps longer. It had created suspense – literally a world suspended over an abyss – and it had rescued me from the tyranny of the mundane.

This is one reason, despite the absence of a father and with the indulgence of his mother, that Adolf did not work. Work, any job, would have buried him in the details of the everyday and would have become a prison, like the “iron cage’’ of the civil service of which his father had been so overbearingly proud and against which Adolf never tired of railing. It would have depressed him terribly.

For the same reason, I think, he never married or had children; the details of domestic life would have been overwhelming, fatal. This was also the reason he was so attracted to German myth and legend, to war, to the lives of Frederick the Great and others, and to his god, Wagner, whose stories often involved the cataclysmic struggle for control of a kingdom, or the world, or simply one’s life and deepest love. There is a chord Wagner uses in the opening phrase of the prelude to Act I of Tristan (I know what you’re thinking: More German bombast! Everything bloated with significance! Wait.), also as part of the Tristan motif, and again in the prelude to the third act, after the wounded and dying Tristan flees to France. It consists of an augmented 4th, an augmented 6th, and an augmented 9th, above a base note. There were critics at the time who considered it “the beginning of the end of tonal harmony” and a “descent into chaos”! One of my professors in the Conservatory in Vienna would later tell me he considered it the most significant chord in all of music. It is the so-called “Tristan Chord” – a chord in no particular key and which contains two internal dissonances, creating a powerful feeling of brooding anticipation, of suspense, of gathering doom. I can see Adolf listening to it alongside me, pressed against the railing of the Landestheater mezzanine; his eyes are pale and glistening; he is stunned, as if by a miracle some inner tension of his own nature had been turned into engulfing, spectacular sound. Hearing it in my mind still makes me shiver, a distantly remembered thrill – even here, in this bleak, empty room they have given me to use as my “writing study,” with its long bare table, concrete floors, and whitewashed brick walls.

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