Updated: Aug 1, 2022
By Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student in NYC
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
Richard Wagner was one of the most influential composers in the history of music, serving as an inspiration to later composers such as Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy. Wagner, known primarily for his operas, revolutionized musical theater through his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, which loosely translates to “complete work of art.” He defined Gesamtkunstwerk as the synthesis of many art forms into one cohesive oeuvre. Throughout his illustrious career, Wagner sought to conjoin musical, visual, and dramatic art into an all-embracing theatrical work that fit this idea.
Wagner wrote about Gesamtkunstwerk extensively, most notably in his essays “Art and Revolution” and “The Artwork of the Future” and his book Opera and Drama. In these texts, he argued that the ancient Greeks, particularly the tragedian Aeschylus, had come the closest to creating a Gesamtkunstwerk but insisted that even their works were still flawed. Wagner also laid out the foundation for his own plans for a Gesamtkunstwerk, presented his vision for the future of music, and highlighted the importance of bringing life to art, famously saying, “the purpose of art is to make the unconscious conscious.”
Wagner believed that only he could achieve this, and he was obsessed with doing so. He was one of the first composers ever to write the libretti for his operas in addition to the music, and he even went so far as to commission new instruments to be made for his operas, including the famous Wagner tuba. Towards the end of his life, he took his efforts a step further, building a new theater in Bayreuth, Germany, specifically designed to perform his operas.
One of the most critical elements in Wagner’s work is the leitmotif. Leitmotifs are short, recurring musical themes associated with people, places, or objects. They are essential to Gesamktkunstwerk because they bring life to the music and help harmonize it with the plot. A prime example of Wagner’s masterful and unique use of leitmotifs is the Tristan chord from Tristan und Isolde. This eerie theme frequently appears throughout the opera and constantly shifts from major to minor keys, reflecting Tristan’s changing feelings. The chord is first introduced in the prelude, representing Tristan’s pain and longing, and only resolves in the closing bars of the opera after Tristan’s death, bringing full closure to the piece. With the development of a simple theme, Wagner told a whole story through music.
Another good example of Wagner’s leitmotifs comes in Die Walküre. At this point in the story, Wotan punishes his daughter, Brünnhilde, for betraying him by laying her atop a mountain and putting her to eternal sleep. He surrounds her with magical flames and declares that “only he who fears nothing” shall be able to penetrate the fire and awake her. As he speaks these words, the orchestra prophetically plays the leitmotif for Siegfried, the man who will one day, later in the story, conquer the flames and wake Brünnhilde. Even though the characters on stage do not yet know who Siegfried is, Wagner, once again demonstrating his innate ability to tell a story with music, lets the audience know through his leitmotif. This powerful tool makes Gesamtkunstwerk all the sweeter.
Wagner realized his Gesamtkunstwerk dream in his magnum opus: the operatic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, also known as the Ring Cycle. This piece, over sixteen total hours in duration, took Wagner 22 years to complete. It is divided into four individual operas – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung – which are typically performed on four separate nights of a week-long festival. The Ring Cycle, especially when performed at the Bayreuth theater, is considered the epitome of Gesamtkunstwerk, combining music, theater, poetry, and drama in one cathartic experience. Nearly 150 years after Wagner’s death, fans still go to the Bayreuth Festival to see this masterpiece.
The Ring Cycle is notoriously difficult to stage due to its fantastical and imaginative plot. It was even more challenging in Wagner’s time, when presenting things such as giants, dragons, and flying horses was practically impossible. For this reason, many believe that if Wagner lived in the 21st century, he would have been heavily involved in film production. Film would add another dimension to Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk; after all, with the technology available today, there is no story that cannot be told through the screen. Furthermore, Wagner’s scores are incredibly cinematic – in fact, his music influenced film composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer.
Many prominent artists, thinkers, and musicians have expressed opinions on Wagner’s attempt at Gesamtkunstwerk. For example, Art Noveau artists during the 19th century were heavily influenced by the concept. Inspired by Wagner’s practice of taking control over all aspects of his work, many architects during this period also acted as painters, furniture designers, and interior designers in order to construct a comprehensive edifice. On the contrary, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose views on Wagner oscillated throughout his life, from deep admiration in his youth to hateful contempt in old age, argued that Wagner’s efforts to create such a work were egotistical and ineffective. A possible explanation for Nietzsche’s criticism is Wagner’s incorporation of religion into his plots, which Nietzsche, an ardent hater of religion, disapproved of.
The uniting factor between critics and admirers of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk endeavors is a shared respect for his music. Even Nietzsche, a fierce detractor of Wagner’s libretti, had a profound love for Wagner’s music. For example, although he lambasted the plot of Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, he admitted that the music was sublime, remarking, “on purely aesthetic grounds, has Wagner done anything better?” The great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler expressed similar acclaim for Wagner’s music, saying that he felt “spellbound” after a performance of Parsifal.
Love him or hate him, Wagner’s historical influence is undeniable. His music is undoubtedly genius, and his contributions to the philosophy of art are enormous. Wagner popularized the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, and the search for a complete work of art continues to this day.
Alkis Karmpaliotis is a 15-year-old opera enthusiast living in New York. He founded Appreciate Opera in 2019. You can support him by reading through some of his articles and interviews and subscribing!