“Gesamtkunstwerk” (Total Work of Art) – Richard Wagner



Gesamtkunstwerk (German for "Total work of art") is the unification of varying mediums of art in an effort to synthesize and utilize all the artistic senses (such as the musical, the dramatic, the theatrical, dance, etc. in an opera) to culminate the supreme work of art. Gesamtkunstwerk is most commonly associated with the German opera composer, Richard Wagner's sense of aesthetic interpretation, who first used the term in his essays elaborating on artistic theories. Looking to the dramatic ancient Greeks’ similar practice of synthesizing the arts, Wagner realized an effective presentation style to influence his idea.[i] Thus, like the ancient Greek theater (where poetry, music, and dance were combined), Wagner proposed combining past and present by fusing many different art forms (namely poetry and music in opera), to further develop art.[ii] Wagner introduced his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk in his Zurich writings of 1849-57, namely The Artwork of the Future, in which Gesamtkunstwerk consists of three fundamental arts (dance, tone, and poetry), and the ultimate goal of this is not simply artistic expression, but also to cultivate harmonious social relationships[iii]. Wagner's social as well as artistic concept of Gesamtkunstwerk is expressed by his sentiments that "the artist of the future is not the individual poet, actor, musician, or sculptor, but the Volk itself" (Goebel, 474). It is this precise attitude that has been adopted beyond Wagner's initial intentions of the artistic domain of the opera into many other realms of artistic expression such as Theater, Architecture, and Literature.

Gesamtkunswerk in Practice


· Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride – this Italian opera sees a unity of lyrics and music. It reuses Gluck’s own music from previous compositions, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and borrows from ancient Greek theater, the story of Agamemnon following the Trojan War. In 1847, Richard Wagner revised this drama by creating new music to it, thus applying his ideas about gesamtkunswerk[iv]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1yJqTTrW5I


· Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior of the Robie House (Chicago, 1909) - Gesamtkunswerk can be applied to the field of architechture, as this example illustrates. With this field, the Gesamtkunswerk approach encouraged architects to be craftsmen, and be comfortable working with different mediums. Thus, architects using the Wagnerian Gesamtkunswerk application on their projects would frequently use elements from music, theater, industrial design,
Falling Waters by Frank Lloyd Wright
as seen in much of Lloyd’s work

· The restoration of Dresden following WWII is a prime exemplification of how Gesamtkunstwerk was adapted as not just an aesthetic goal but additionally a driving force behind construction and design. Constructed with the desire to commemorate "(inter-)national identity and historical memory" (494), Dresden was rebuilt in a manner that sought to redeem the city from its recently ruined past and integrate the arts with social identity through the "auratic" Dresden would become a shining exemplification of the social aspect of Gesamtkunstwerk in which the Volk, or general populace, come to embrace a work of art, architecture in this case, as something which synthesizes the most important aspects of not only the individual senses but the collective identity as well.[vii]


Relates to class readings (Eliot TWL):
· WH Auden (author of funeral blues) – called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived[vi]”, though his work did not explicitly show this “total work of art”.
· T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland: In his 1922 poem, TS Eliot made numerous references to other works of art including jazz, nursery rhymes, operas, epics, Shakespearean form, psalms, and natural music. He created a work seemingly out of bits and pieces of ideas taken from Greek and Norse mythology, contemporary music and literature, and eventually even Indian mysticism. Eliot went out of his way to create a contrast between the high-brow references such as that of mythology, Shakespeare, and poetry, and that of the low-brow, most notably the line from the popular song "The Shakespearean Rag". To unify these otherwise unrelated subjects, Eliot utilizes a loosely flowing narrative within the poem about a young man's traumatic childhood that leads into an exploration of modern London and the Thames River from shifting perspectives, presented in different acts as if part of an epic or a theatrical work. To further create this impression, Eliot tries to engage the reader's senses through frequent use of descriptive imagery and exchanges of dialogue between unspecified characters or merely himself. Particularly noteworthy examples of these include the first two stanzas of part 1, lines 75 - 140 of part 2 in which descriptive imagery leads into a frantic exchange of dialogue, and lines 257 to 313 which also include a reference to Wagner's Ring opera cycle in the midst of Eliot's theatrical prose. These sections are contrasted with the disjointed stream of consciousness stanzas that feature heavy use of classical mythology and in part 5, Indian holy texts. The Waste Land follows the requirements of the gesamtkenswerk by synthesizing these wholly different genres and thematic elements within the framework of a poem, using countless allusions and pieces of classical works to provide context for the rambling that the narrators engage in.

The Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright


[i] http://www.faqs.org/faqs/music/wagner/general-faq/section-10.html
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_the_Future
[iii] The Total Work of Art by Matthew Wilson Smith
[iv] http://1001classical.blogspot.com/2008/07/134-christoph-willibald-gluck-iphignie.html
[v] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gesamtkunstwerk#Gesamtkunstwerk_in_architecture

[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_the_Future

[vii] "Gesamtkunstwerk" Dresden: Official Urban Discourse and Durs Grünbein's Poetic Critique
Rolf J. Goebel.The German Quarterly .Vol. 80, No. 4 (Fall, 2007), pp. 492-510.Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German.http://www.jstor.org/stable/27676108