4 Wagner and the Art-work of the Future

The term Gesamtkunstwerk is generally attributed to Richard Wagner.[13] Spurred by his political commitment as a barricade fighter during the Dresden Revolution in 1849, he called for a fundamental shift in the role of the arts in society. In his essay Art and the Revolution, which was published that same year, Wagner, like Schelling before him, considered ancient drama to be the highest imaginable work of art.[14] According to Wagner, the political decline of the Athenian state also marked the beginning of the cultural decline of the tragedy: So, when all national solidarity had split into a thousand egoistic severalities, did the separate art-branches cut-off themselves from the proud and heaven-soaring tree of Drama.[15] Wagner encountered the disintegration of the drama into constituent parts, a process that had gone on for two thousand years, with a longing for a perfect work of art: the great united utterance of a free and lovely public life.[16] Not until a revolutionary change of humanity would the Greek tragedy be allowed to be reborn: If the Grecian Art-work embraced the spirit of a fair and noble nation, the Art-work of the Future must embrace the spirit of a free mankind, delivered from every shackle of hampering nationality.[17] Wagner sensed this time approaching.

The second essay written during the revolutionary years, The Art-work of the Future (1849), expands on these utopian thoughts on the Gesamtkunstwerk — thoughts which are charged with political wishful thinking. Wagner demanded that egoistic ambitions be overcome by means of a collectively generated Art-work of the Future.[18] He called for a return to the trinitarian utterance of human Art: dance, tone, and poetry.[19] For Wagner, the musical drama embodies the highest union of the individual arts: But only where eye and ear confirm each other’s sentience of him, is the whole artistic Man at hand.[20] He regarded the poet — both the poet of language as well as the poet of sound — as the artist of the future. Yet only several years later, after reading the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), did Wagner change his attitude toward music — quite to the anger of his longtime admirer Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who accused him of betraying the old ideals and who saw in Wagner’s propagated appropriation of all the arts a means of reaching the masses.[21] Wagner’s ambitions received their final impulse through Schopenhauer’s conclusion that music is the true universal language which is understood everywhere.[22] In 1870, Wagner announced in a Festschrift: Through this musician Beethoven, who speaks in the purest language of all peoples, the German spirit redeemed the spirit of man from profound disgrace.[23]

Furthermore, through Richard Wagner, theoretically formulated ideas on the Gesamtkunstwerk were for the first time extensively converted into practice. With the building of the Bayreuth Festival Theater (1872–1876), Wagner succeeded in creating a permanent site for the performance of his works. One of the most important structural requirements for the adequate realization of his operas is the hidden orchestra pit, which allows a novel, almost cinematographic experience of the stage drama and opera music. Music could be perceived as something that transcends empirical reality.