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Harmonic Moments: The “AURELIA Chord”

In music history there’s a famous collection of notes known as the “Tristan chord,” found in the opening of the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner. Properly the Tristan chord contains the notes F, B, D# and G#, shown in red below.

Opening to Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

These notes simply form a half-diminished seventh chord in third inversion, but Wagner’s novel use of it has led to extensive musical analysis. The chord is usually associated with a sense of dread and is parodied in other classical music.

For me, there is a particular chord in hymnody that I jokingly call the “AURELIA chord”. Near the end of “The Church is One Foundation” there is a IVmaj9 chord on the word “bought” at the end of the first verse. It resolves to a ii6 chord, beginning an extended pre-dominant section.

The ending of “The Church is One Foundation”, showing the “AURELIA chord”

The name of the tune commonly “The Church is One Foundation” is AURELIA, written by Samuel Wesley, grandson of the great Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley. (The name AURELIA comes from the Latin “aurum” for “gold” in reference to “Jerusalem the Golden,” the original text for the tune.) While the standard harmonization of AURELIA contains its share of seventh chords, this is the only ninth chord in the tune. Major ninth chord are rare in 19th century hymnody. In particular, difficult to express a ninth chord since the chord in 4-part harmony because it must contain first, third, seventh and ninth scale degrees (only the fifth may be omitted to retain the chord quality).

Unlike the “Tristan chord”, the “AURELIA chord” does not instill dread, but a sense of anticipation. In particular, the voicing of the chord gives the melody line the seventh of the chord, creating a dissonance with bass note two octaves below. This feeling is not fully resolved until beat 4, with a IV chord, which leads to a ii7 chord, further delaying the inevitable V chord.

This chord is one my favorite harmonic surprises in hymnody. The subtle nature of major ninth chord offers a gentle moment of contemplation in an otherwise stately hymn.

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