“GESAMTKUNSWERK”

EPISODE 5 MUSIC IN PHASE SPACE

An experiment in decentralized media

“Gesamtkunstwerk”

This post is a riff: an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) based on a piece by Professor Ursula Rehn Wolfman

In many of Wagner’s writings, such as Art and Religion — 1849), The Artwork of the Future — 1849 and Opera and Drama — 1852, the idea of the’Gesamtkunstwerk’ — total art — became the central focus , which Wagner made the basis for his compositions. According to Wagner the Split between the Arts had happened in Ancient Greece with word, music and dance were existing in perfect harmony. At first, in Greece, Tragedy clearly shown this harmony, but with the fall of Athens, the arts started to diverge. For Wagner one should hope to create a perfect community in which the perfect harmony of the work of art could again exist.

Focusing specifically on opera, Wagner criticized many of the traditional opera libretti, in which, he said “the action is a roughly constructed framework interspersed with arias which only exists to poorly motivate pathetic situations. For him, opera and drama had to be re-united. Here, he approached Baudelaire’s concept of ‘synesthesia where all of the senses, acting in harmony, are awakened and lead to more profound appreciation and experience. In the beginning of the 19th century, the Romantic movement in literature and the arts, which influenced Wagner’s ideas of the ‘Musikdrama’, had already diverged from the 24 hour rule, the unity of time, action and space. In his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner saw it as his mission to reunite the arts — music and fiction, enhanced by dance and gesture, to be fully developed, and on an equal basis.

The music of the orchestra should express messages appealing to the listener’s subconscious which then elicits emotional reactions, enhanced by the sensuality of accompanying gestures and dance. Music and word are then unified in what Wagner called, “Versmelodie” (melody of verse), i.e. the unification of spoken elements and poetic, musical creation. Whereas spoken language alone addresses the intellect and music evokes feelings, the “Versmelodie” creates a synthesis between both, “… specifically between absence and presence, between intellect/thought and feeling” Wagner then created musical ‘leitmotifs’, specific to characters and situations which create a unity within the work and other works to follow. A good example is the leitmotif for Tristan in ‘Tristan und Isolde’, where the so-called ‘Tristan accord’, bitonal in character, constantly changes from major to minor keys, and so reflects the ambivalence and changes of Tristan’s subconscious feelings.

We can consider Wagner’s ‘leitmotifs’ as acoustic controls, in that they evoke in the listener the foreboding of actions to come or remembrances of actions which have already occurred Wagner’s ‘leitmotifs’ create emotional guideposts throughout his operas and seem to construe action in an internally motivated fashion — this applies particularly to his ‘Ring’cycle. It is in this sense that we can make the connection to Marcel Proust’s writing, and specifically to his epic work ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ (In Search of Lost Time). Proust was an ardent admirer of Wagner and we find many references to Wagner in his novels. (‘Swann’s Way’) is the leitmotif for Swann’s love for Odette, but later reappears as the leitmotif in the relationships between the narrator and Albertine, and Gilberte, Swann’s daughter. Here too, the distinction is made between intellect and feelings: (And the pleasure which music gave him (…) at those moments resembled in effect the pleasure with which he would experiment in scents/perfumes, to enter into contact with a world (…) which seems to us without form, because our eyes do not perceive it, without meaning, because it escapes our intelligence…)
For Proust, just as for Baudelaire and Wagner, this distinction between intellect and feelings had to be overcome through the appeal to the senses, which allows him, and in turn the reader or listener, to access this other world — the world of art, music, painting and literature. Whether it is the ‘Sonate de Vinteuil’, the ‘Madeleine steeped in the cup of tea’, the ‘paintings of the Impressionist painter, Elstir’ (who proclaimed like Monet, “not to paint the object, but the effect it produces”), the ‘uneven steps in the street recalling the beauty of Venice’, their very essence and recurring memory (leitmotifs) become the search and recovery of lost time — which then in turn, for Proust, becomes the act of writing — the act of creation. The recurring themes/leitmotifs in Proust’s cyclical novel replicate those in Wagner’s Ring cycle, ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’.

The working out of Wagner’s vision in these essays led directly to the Ring cycle — he was sketching Siegfried as he wrote them — in which he gave up writing operatic “numbers” and sought to integrate music and drama. “Wagner claimed that in traditional opera, music, which should be the means, had become the end, while drama, which should be the end, was merely the means, It was this integration of music and drama that George Bernard Shaw, one of Wagner’s most influential early proselytisers, most admired. “There is not a single bar of ‘classical music’ in the Ring … that has any other point than the single direct point of giving musical expression to the drama,” he wrote in The Perfect Wagnerite. Shaw said Wagner was not striving for musical effect “any more than Shakespeare in his plays is driving at such ingenuities of verse-making as sonnets, triolets and the like.” There could be no higher praise.

There is a history of artists designing sets and costumes for the stage: After Jean Cocteau introduced himself to Picasso in 1915 to collaborate on the design of Parade (1916), But these collaborations never approached the idea of an all-encompassing work of art, possibly because full control of the show still lay in the hands of the establishment.

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