Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk

Today let’s talk about a highly influential German opera composer: Richard Wagner. Wagner believed in the synthesis of music and drama into one “total artwork.” Detailing the staging, lighting, costuming, music, acting, etc. in his scores/librettos (yes he wrote the text and music to his operas!), Wagner coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total artwork) to describe his creations.

 
Another important musical term used in reference to Wagner’s operas is “leitmotif” (leading motive). This word is used to describe main themes throughout the opera that typically represent a specific person, object, etc. This theme occurs in various contexts throughout the opera, and though recognizable, it is varied or transformed in different ways to best depict the current point in the drama. Certain instruments, keys, or harmonies may also be used in connection with various leitmotifs in order to help the listener make the connection.

 
Wagner’s Ring cycle is an excellent example of a work using leitmotifs to connect music and drama in this Gesamtkunstwerk idea. During these four operas, Wagner introduces various leitmotifs that reappear throughout the cycle. Constantly using this thematic material, Wagner makes these musical ideas integral to the drama on stage. Take a look at this informative video by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra brass section in which they describe several uses of the leitmotif in the Ring cycle.
 
 
 
Wagner had an incredible influence on composers to come after him. His leitmotif ideas have even found their way into film and television scores, composers using certain musical ideas to depict specific elements on screen. One great example of this is the “shark theme” found in Jaws:
 
 

 
Do you have a  favorite Wagner opera? Have you noticed the use of leitmotifs in any of your favorite movies or television shows?

 

4 comments:

  1. Your mentioning your Classical Music Blog today at the WGUC advisory meeting prompted me to google search it . i found the posts interesting.Suggest there be a link to it on WGUC's Home Page.

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    1. Thank you for reading my blog! We do actually have a link on the WGUC homepage. For future reference, it is located just under the Cincinnati Spotlight section on the homepage. Thanks! It was nice meeting all of you yesterday at the meeting.

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  2. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=S5sB4B2lCaQ
    And I thought the Jaws leitmotif was from Dvorak. Interesting.

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    1. Great point! The Jaws theme is quite similar to what we hear in Dvorak's Symphony No. 9. Whether or not Williams was inspired by Dvorak when writing the score to Jaws, I am not sure. What I do know is that Williams' use of the Jaws theme to represent the shark is this same way Wagner used this leitmotif idea with various themes in many of his operas. Thanks for commenting!

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