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Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk Essay

In a letter to his wife Alma, Gustav Mahler wrote, “There are only [Beethoven] and Richard [Wagner]- and after that nobody. Mark that! ” (Comini,390) Just as Beethoven revolutionized symphonic repertoire, playing a pivotal figure in the transition from classicism to romanticism, Wagner played a pivotal role in revolutionizing opera, taking it from a frivolous and ridiculous source of entertainment to a constantly evolving art-form which adopted an almost religious following.

Beethoven paved the way for Wagner’s art-work of the future by rejecting the intellectualized Classical Period with its pretty music and delving into more intuitive music which had the power to articulate the inner turmoil of the psyche more-so than any other composer ever had. For Wagner Beethoven’s emotionally driven music culminated into the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, where a choir is used to create an even more precise articulation of Beethoven’s psyche. It is this synthesis of music and poetry that Wagner uses as his starting point believing that the only next logical step is his art-work of the future.

Before Wagner, opera was a completely superficial. It was used as an opportunity to provide discontinuous, self-contained catchy tunes and provide entertainment, with the plot of the drama serving the music. The orchestra, which functioned as the accompaniment, often was under-rehearsed and only knew the parts enough to get through the music without any major mishaps. Traditional opera was about action and how the characters dealt with conflicts, traditional opera was about what went on outside of people.

Wagner came along and posed an entirely new theory of what opera should be, calling for a complete reappraisal of German Romantic opera. Wagner believed that up until that point Greek tragedy was the apotheosis of art and human achievement. Wagner cited five reasons for this:

1) Greek tragedy represented a ‘successful combination of the arts-poetry, drama, costumes, mime, instrumental music, dance, and song and as such had greater scope and expressive powers than any of the arts alone. (Magee, 5) Wagner believed that opera was the greatest and most fulfilling of all arts as it had the potential to bring together all of the arts, exactly in the way Greek tragedy had done.

2) Greek tragedy took its subject matter from myth. Wagner had the idea that myth was the most universal situation, that everyone could identify to, due to their archetypal situations. By using mythological situations, Wagner was spared from having to use social and political contexts which would take away from the purity of the drama. Wagner’s operas were about ’emotionalizing the intellect’ (Magee, 9), not satirizing situations. The unique thing about myth is that it is true for all time; and its content, no matter how terse or compact, is inexhaustible for every age. ” (Magee, 5)

3) In Greek tragedy both the content and occasion of the performances had religious significance. Wagner came to believe that his work was not just an art-form but a new religion. In Act 1 of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, Gurnemanz quietly prays onstage, during this time nothing at all on stage is happening and all of the sudden it is as if the audience is in the Church of Richard Wagner praying alongside Gurnemanz. ) Greek tragedy was a celebration of life, a religion of the ‘purely human’. Wagner wanted his subject matter to be as human as possible so it could be about the deepest, most emotional, experiences in life. After all, Wagner’s music-drama would be about the insides of his characters, it would be about their inner conflicts much like how Beethoven’s symphonies were about his own inner turmoil. As Brian Magee says in Aspects of Wagner, “Wagner’s characters are subjects only of feeling; of action they are objects. (Magee, 15)

5) The entire community was involved in Greek tragedy. If Wagner’s new art-form was a summation of the living and celebration of life then what a better way to express this than by involving everyone, than by exhibiting the highest form of their achievement, art? Greek tragedy, and for Wagner, opera was the ideal art-form as it was ‘all-embracing; its expressive means embraced all the arts, its subject matter embraced all human experience, and its audience embraced the whole population. ‘ (Magee,6)

With the passage of time, the Greek tragedy and its all-encompassing synthesis of the arts dissipated leaving the individual art-forms to evolve on their own. There are a few theories as to why this happened, but one of the most interesting is Bryan Magee’s. In talking about the dissolution of the symbiotic nature of the arts he says: In any case its available content dissolved when Greek humanism was superseded by Christianity, a religion that divided man against himself, teaching him to look on his body with shame, his emotions with suspicion, sensuality with fear, sexual love with feelings of guilt.

This life, it taught, is a burden, this world a vale of tears, our endurance of which will be rewarded art death, which is the gateway to eternal bliss. in effect this religion was, as it was bound to be, anti-art. The alienation of man from his own nature especially his emotional nature; the all-pervading hypocrisy to which this gave rise throughout the Christian era; the devaluation of life and the world and hence, inevitably, their wonderfulness; the conception of man as being not a god but a worn, and a guilty one at that; all this is profoundly at odds with the very nature and existence of art.

Such a religion, based as it is on the celebration of death and on hostility to the emotions, repudiates both the creative impulse and its subject matter. Art is the celebration of life, and the exploration of life in all its aspects. If life is unimportant-merely a diminutive prelude to the real Life that is to begin with death- then art can be of only negligible importance too. ” (Magee, 6)

Wagner didn’t want to just bring back Greek tragedy, instead he wanted capitalize on what the Greeks had accomplished while looking toward the future, he wanted to combine the likes of Shakespeare and Beethoven, and he believed that he was the only one who could mange such a feat, “The subject becomes more interesting to me daily, because it is a question here of conclusions which I am the only person able to draw, because there never has been a man who was a poet and musician at the same time as I am and to whom therefore insights into inner processes were possible such as are not to be expected from anyone else. ” (M. W. 81)

In the final movement of Beethoven’s last symphony a triumphant chorus joins the full orchestra, creating a synthesis of two great forms which Wagner used as a starting point in his own work. However, in Beethoven’s symphonies Beethoven took the course dictated by music even when using a choir with text. (Magee, 10) For example, Beethoven’s music followed sonata form with an exposition of themes, modulation to relative keys, followed by a development and recapitulation. As emotional and intuitive that Beethoven’s music was Beethoven was still confined by the parameters already set in place by generations before him.

Wagner strove to take all of the intellectualism out of his music. As a young man Wagner realized that he had somehow come to an outlook that was too intellectualized and rational creating a disparity between his personality and career. His musical compositions were intellectual exercises which inhibited his development as an artist and created a schism between his work and consciously- held views. Upon realizing this for six years Wagner did not compose at all and instead worked to form a new theory of composition.

In the midst of this six year sabbatical Richard Wagner discovered the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work, Thomas Mann says, “… freed his music from bondage and gave it courage to be itself. ” (Magee, 76) Wagner wrote this upon discovering Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, “Seldom has there taken place in the soul of one and the same man so profound a division and estrangement between the intuitive or impulsive part of his nature and his consciously or reasonably formed ideas.

For I must confess to have arrived at a clear understanding of my own works of art through the help of another, who had provided me with the reasoned conceptions corresponding to my intuitive principles. ” (Magee,77) It was Schopenhauer who, amongst many other views, reaffirmed Wagner’s view that music alone was the voice best used for describing the inner nature of the world. Schopenhauer paid special attention to music, of which most other philosophers wrote nothing, saying that music was the sui gereris, or super-art. Magee,77) With this Wagner knew for certain that his art-form of the future would be a music drama concerned with what happens inside the character. It would examine their psyche, being mostly focused on their emotions while exploring the ultimate reality of existence and experience. He would not be concerned so much with the action of the drama so much as the unchanging aspects of the situations. (Magee, 8) Wagner’s new music drama would delve into the heart and soul of his characters as a completely intuitive work, based on the examination of reactions rather than actions.

Traditional opera used drama as a framework to include catchy tunes, Richard Wagner’s music drama would use drama as a means for music, which would be his ends. As was mentioned earlier, Beethoven’s music, as intuitive as it was, still followed the sonata form and had modulations going to relative keys. Wagner’s music relied on the requirements of the drama. Magee gives us this example: If the line is ‘Love gives delight to the living’ Wagner will stay in the same key throughout the line because love and delight are congruent concepts.

However, if the line is ‘Love brings delight and sorrow’ Wagner will modulate between the two incongruent words, delight and sorrow. Wagner does this with each line creating an ever changing, ever moving ‘symphonic web of infinite plasticity’. (Magee, 10) With the advent of Wagner’s text- music relationship came leitmotifs. To clarify, Wagner never used the term leitmotif and it was only after his death that Hans von Wolzogen coined the term. Stein, 74) In Wagner’s book Opera and Drama these leitmotifs were called reminiscences. Jack Stein in Richard Wagner & The Synthesis of the Arts says that Wagner’s most creative theory for the orchestra is Wagner’s advent of presentiments and reminiscences. Wagner thought of presentiments and reminiscences as two complementary and equally important functions of the orchestra. A reminiscence was a motif that had already sounded in the opera and after a first hearing of this motif the motif would become property of the orchestra.

Wagner assumed that the audience would immediately be associated, by the audience, with what it originally occurred creating an automatically established necessary relationship between the past and present. (Stein, 74) For example: when the audience hears a lute in Die Meistersinger they should automatically assume that Beckmesser is the point of interest. These reminiscences are for the purpose of elucidation rather than to heighten dramatic interest and Wagner warns that ‘a single motif used without proper justification is sufficient to destroy the unity. (Stein, 76) Reminiscences are to ‘recede into the background when the emotional level of the melodic verse again rises… The sounding of a motif unites a non-present conditioning emotion with the present one conditioned by it. ‘ (Stein, 76) These motifs are devices used to bind together and tighten the structure of the opera.

Presentiments are motifs that act as an emotional preparation for the listener for what has not yet come to pass. Their main purpose is so when the listener hears the moment of arrival there is a connection of feeling and emotional attachment. All those moments when there is no gesture, and melodic speech is silent, when the drama is preparing its future course in the inner moods as yet unuttered, these still unspoken moods can be expressed by the orchestra in such a manner that their manifestation acquires the characters of a presentiment conditioned by the poet’s aim. ” (W. S. , IV, 186) In talking about the chorus in Opera and Drama Wagner eliminates choral singing absolutely; ensemble singing, even in a group of two, is excluded.

The orchestra is to act as the chorus in an exponentially more expressive manner yet, at one point, Wagner does say, “Only in the full tide of lyric outpouring, when all the participants have been led to a joint expression of feeling, can the composer make use of the polyphonic mass of voices, to which he may transfer the manifestation of the harmony. But even here it will remain the task of the composer to make the characters share in the outpouring of feeling, not as mere harmonic support for the melody.

In the harmonic texture, he must see to it that the individuality of the participants makes itself felt in definite melodic expression. ” (W. S. , IV, 164) In general though, the orchestra is to be considered as harmonic or melodic support rather than accompaniment, as in traditional opera. Voice and orchestra were on the same level to Wager and he believed them to be the supreme tools for conveying emotion on an innate and archetypal level, In the instruments the primal organs of creation and nature are represented.

What they articulate can never be clearly determined or stipulated because they render primal feeling itself, emergent from the chaos of the first creation, when there may even have been no human beings to take in into their hearts. The particular genius of the human voice is quite different from this, it represents the human heart and all its de-limitable, individual emotion. Because of this it is circumscribed in character, but also specific and clear. The thing to do now is bring the two elements together- make them one.

Set the clear, specific emotion of the human heart, represented by the voice, against the wild primal feelings, with their ungovernable toward the infinitude, represented by the instruments, it will appease and smooth the violence of those feelings and channel their cross-currents into a single, definite course. Meanwhile the human heart itself, insofar as it absorbs the primal feelings, will be infinitely enlarged and strengthened, and become capable of experiencing with godlike awareness what previously had been a mere inkling of things. (Magee, 36)

After writing Tristan und Isolde Wagner wrote the prose work Music of the Future which he intended to be a restatement of Opera and Drama but turned out to be a reworking of Gesamtkunstwerk in a way which was compatible with the theories of Schopenhauer. Wagner’s theory of Gesamtkunstwerk is an all-bracing art form that makes use of every form of art. Gesamtkunstwerk in Opera and Drama is a a synthesis of Feuerbach’s materialistic sensationalism and Romantic emotionalism based on the assumption that Gesamtkunstwerk can only communicate to the senses and, through them, to the emotions. The combining intellect must have nothing to do with the dramatic work of art. In the drama we must become knowers through feeling… this feeling, however, becomes unintelligible to itself only through itself it understand no other language but its own. ” (W. S. IV, 78) In earlier writings, after Rheingold, Wagner realized that his view of all the arts being equally important and used equally was a bit idealistic and decided that all of the arts had a variety of expressive potential with music possessing the most power to connect emotionally.

Bryan Magee says, “After Rheingold music makes up an ever-increasing proportion of the substance of each work until the last two, Gotterdamnerung and Parsifal, the orchestra rather than any of the characters is the protagonist. ” (Magee, 76) In Music of the Future Wagner begins to move away from his theory that there must be a three-fold union of music, visual action, poetry and instead accepts a dual synthesis of drama and music with a strong emphasis of music. And still, even after all of this Wagner was not yet done reworking the whole of German Romantic opera!

Wagner even put his libretto under close scrutiny making sure that it communicated the most emotional, organic sounds possible. Wagner believed that the Golden Age of language was spoiled by the artificial rules and conventions that a later, more complex civilization imposed on the human language. He believed that language originated with the need to express one’s self and emotional reactions. (Stein, 70) To Wagner, vowel sounds were the most primitive sound a man could make as it was, “the involuntary expression of inner feeling. ” (WS IV 92) Consonances were later dded to articulate more concisely more, and different, objects than just vowels alone could. As civilization became more intellectualized and lost its capacity for involuntary emotion, speech lost its melody, alliteration broke down, and prose resulted. Today’s language is just a means for intellects to converse and therefore cannot be used as language for an ideal drama. (Stein, 70) Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk called for a poetic verse that was so intimately intertwined with the melody that the text could be considered as musical counterpoint, an indivisible unit to the music.

Wagner called this “die Versmelodie” or melodic verse (Stein, 71), a tool which would complete his original vow to complete exclusively to emotion. Jack Stein explains one of Wagner’s practices of creating ‘die Versmelodie’ as thus: “… when the precise quantitative relation between accented and unaccented syllables of the poetic verse is observed by the melodic line, the stronger rhythmic force of the music will strengthen the basic pattern of the verse, making possible the articulation of emotional subtleties otherwise impossible to record. (Stein, 72) Wagner further ensured that his ‘die Versmelodie’ was as emotionally appealing as possible by placing accents on different beats of the measure with beat one as the strongest, beat three as a secondary accent, beat two as completely unaccented, and beat four being the weakest. Wagner would also set words to more or less emphatic steps on the tonal scale and set certain words to higher or lower pitches. The devices Wagner used to create the most emotionally driven, melodic ‘die Versmelodie’ are numerous.

It is no wonder that after putting so much thought and detail into his ‘art work of the future’ that his later operas are amongst the most awe-inspiring works of art in the history of civilization. Wagner’s operas Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal are stunning examples of Wagner’s theories realized, and taken even further, with critics going so far as to say that Wagner’s later works remain its own sound-world throughout the entirety of the opera with each opera having a distinct and distinguishable exactitude from the others, with everything about it being contained and part of that one unique sound-world. Magee, 80) Of Tristan and Isolde, Wagner said that while writing the opera he experienced such freedom and lack of reflection that he had forgotten all theory and therefore experienced the most satisfaction and fulfillment out of this work than any other. (WS VII 119) This is so much so that within one year of finishing Tristan and Isolde Wagner was already back to work revising the theories that he had previously dictated while writing Opera and Drama.

This revised theory appeared in his prose essay “Music of the Future”. Wagner wrote this essay to review the principles and theory he outlined in Opera and Drama but instead used it to glorify the music as an independent art form. (Stein, 149) Wagner still employs many of the same techniques he discussed in Opera and Drama but accepts poetry and music as able to act as separate and legitimate forms of art.

Still, Wagner says that the strongest art lays in the synthesis of music and poetry, Just as the poet needs the musician so also the musician needs the poet, because the revelations of music cannot be brought to the listener as long as he is still bound to the laws of causality. The listener is moved emotionally but is still bound to the laws of causality. The listener is moved emotionally but is confused by the new values which are being revealed, and in his uncertainty he grasps for the support of those laws to which he is accustomed. He asks the question: Why?

He can receive no answer from the music. The dramatic poet, aware of his capabilities of the music, must here come to the listener’s aid. By casting his dramatic poem in a form in which it penetrates into the most delicate threads of the musical texture the poet can so completely capture the emotional sympathy of the listener by the visible performance of a life-like action that the listener is transported into an ecstatic state in which he no longer feels his connection with the causal world and submits himself to the new laws which are revealed to him by the music. (WS VII 112) The poem Wagner uses employs the tools of alliteration, rhyme, and assonance; although Wagner in Opera and Drama was adamant about not using rhymes as he believed it to place undue emphasis on the last syllable of the line, he is extremely careful about making the rhyming word the key word in the phrase.

The plot of Tristan and Isolde involves little external action which focused the center of attention to the inner psychology and emotions of the characters and Wagner takes special attention to match word and tone as they increase or decrease in emotional ntensity. For example: The first act of Tristan and Isolde involves a long narrative by Isolde relating the events which preceded the setting of the opera but are integral for the audience’s understand of the plot. In Act I, Isolde sings, “To raging storm’ wild whirlpool, drive from its sleep this dreaming sea, wake from the depths of its grumbling greed! Show it the booty I offer!

If it will shatter this defiant ship, the ruin’s wreckage it may consume! ” and through out the tone of the voice and the melody mirror one another up until the climax where Isolde sings “zerschlag” meaning ‘if it will’. The climax of the line is on the second syllable of zerschlag accentuating the extended vowel sound which also helps hold the climax of the section even longer.

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