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Timeline: Wagner's 'Total Art'

U.S. Public Domain
An 1876 etching of the Festival House in Bayreuth. Wagner built this theater to surround the audience in the drama, art and music of his operas.

It only takes a few notes to recognize the main theme of John William's score to the film “Star Wars." The Star Wars franchise has become a cultural touchstone all around the world. The original 1977 film is a marriage of a universal mythological tale, told with fantastic artistry.

The sets, costumes, characters, special effects and (of course) the music all work together to create one experience. The film has truly become a prime example of the aesthetic ideal championed by Richard Wagner, “Gesamtkunstwerk” or total, universal art.

Wagner first used this term in an 1849 essay entitled “The Artwork of the Future."

He believed that “Art” (with a capital A) was originally one thing. Music and dance, word and image were all unified in harmony, exemplified by the theater of the ancient Greeks.

He argued that ever since then, “Art” had been fragmented into disparate disciplines, robbing each of their combined affect. Wagner’s vision was to put “Art” back together again. His means of performing this feat was through the opera stage.

For Wagner, 19th century opera was extremely lacking. He saw it as nothing more than pieces of vocal music strung together on a loose thread of a story. The music was the goal and the drama was just an excuse.

"The artist of the future is not the individual poet, actor, musician or sculptor, but the work itself." — Richard Wagner

Wagner sought an expression of opera where the drama dictates the music. In his works, “Tristan and Isolde," “Parsifal” and “The Ring Cycle” he sought to model a form of opera where all of the different elements; the music, the libretto, the gestures, the sets and the costumes combine to create one experience for the audience. He even had a new theater built in Bayreuth called the Festival House, which was designed to immerse the audience in the sights, sounds and feel of the drama.

This concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk," where different elements of art come together to make something greater and unified, has made its way into the aesthetic ideals of literature, the visual arts and even architecture. Of course, that was the whole point! As Wagner stated, “The artist of the future is not the individual poet, actor, musician or sculptor, but the work itself.”

Credit US-PD
A portrait of Richard Wagner, dated 1853.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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