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A Gesamtkunstwerk is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms
The arts
The arts are a vast subdivision of culture, composed of many creative endeavors and disciplines. It is a broader term than "art", which as a description of a field usually means only the visual arts. The arts encompass visual arts, literary arts and the performing arts – music, theatre, dance and...

 or strives to do so. The term is a German word which has come to be accepted in English as a term in aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...


The term was first used by the German writer and philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff
Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff
Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff was a German philosopher and theologian.He was born in Berlin. The son of a musician, from the age of twelve Trahndorff attended the school in Oels , where his father had been appointed chapel director by the Prinz von Brunswick-Lüneburg, Frederick August I...

 in an essay in 1827. The German opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

 composer Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

 used the term in two 1849 essays. It is unclear whether Wagner knew of Trahndorff's essay. The word has become particularly associated with Wagner's aesthetic ideals.

Before Wagner

Some elements of opera reform, seeking a more 'classical' formula, had begun at the end of the 18th century. After the lengthy domination of opera seria
Opera seria
Opera seria is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and "serious" style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to c. 1770...

, and the da capo aria
Da capo aria
The da capo aria is a musical form, which was prevalent in the Baroque era. It is sung by a soloist with the accompaniment of instruments, often a small orchestra. The da capo aria is very common in the musical genres of opera and oratorio...

, a movement began to advance the librettist
A libretto is the text used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical. The term "libretto" is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass, requiem, and sacred cantata, or even the story line of a...

 and the composer in relation to the singers, and to return the drama to a more intense and less moralistic focus. This movement, "reform opera" is primarily associated with Christoph Willibald Gluck
Christoph Willibald Gluck
Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck was an opera composer of the early classical period. After many years at the Habsburg court at Vienna, Gluck brought about the practical reform of opera's dramaturgical practices that many intellectuals had been campaigning for over the years...

 and Ranieri de' Calzabigi
Ranieri de' Calzabigi
Ranieri de' Calzabigi was an Italian poet and librettist, most famous for his collaboration with the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck on his "reform" operas....

. The themes in the operas produced by Gluck's collaborations with Calzabigi continue throughout the operas of Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic, one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school....

, until Wagner, rejecting both the Italian bel canto
Bel canto
Bel canto , along with a number of similar constructions , is an Italian opera term...

tradition and the French
French Opera
French opera is one of Europe's most important operatic traditions, containing works by composers of the stature of Rameau, Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen...

 "spectacle opera", developed his union of music, drama, theatrical effects, and occasionally dance.

However these trends had developed fortuitously, rather than in response to a specific philosophy of art; Wagner, who recognised the reforms of Gluck and admired the works of Weber, wished to consolidate his view, originally, as part of his radical social and political views of the late 1840s. Previous to Wagner, others who had expressed ideas about union of the arts, which was a familiar topic among German Romantics
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...

, as evidenced by the title of Trahndorff's essay, in which the word first occurred, "Aesthetics, or Theory of Philosophy of Art". Others who wrote on syntheses of the arts included Gottfried Lessing
Gottfried Lessing
Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing was a German lawyer, political activist and diplomat. Being Jewish, he was forced to migrate from Germany in 1938. First he sought refuge in Britain. Later he moved to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia . He worked as a lawyer in Salisbury 1941-1946...

, Ludwig Tieck
Ludwig Tieck
Johann Ludwig Tieck was a German poet, translator, editor, novelist, writer of Novellen, and critic, who was one of the founding fathers of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.-Early life:...

 and Novalis
Novalis was the pseudonym of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg , an author and philosopher of early German Romanticism.-Biography:...


Wagner's ideas

Wagner used the exact term 'Gesamtkunstwerk' (which he spelt 'Gesammtkunstwerk') on only two occasions, in his 1849 essays "Art and Revolution
Art and Revolution
"Art and Revolution" is a long essay by the composer Richard Wagner, originally published in 1849...

" and "The Artwork of the Future
The Artwork of the Future
"The Artwork of the Future" is a long essay written by Richard Wagner, first published in 1849 in Leipzig, in which he sets out some of his ideals on the topics of art in general and music drama in particular....

", where he speaks of his ideal of unifying all works of art via the theatre. He also used in these essays many similar expressions such as 'the consummate artwork of the future' and 'the integrated drama', and frequently referred to 'Gesamtkunst'. Such a work of art was to be the clearest and most profound expression of a folk legend, though abstracted from its nationalist particulars to a universal humanist fable.

Wagner felt that the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus
Aeschylus was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides, and is often described as the father of tragedy. His name derives from the Greek word aiskhos , meaning "shame"...

 had been the finest (though still flawed) examples so far of total artistic synthesis, but that this synthesis had subsequently been corrupted by Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

. Wagner felt that during the rest of human history up to the present day (i.e. 1850) the arts had drifted further and further apart, resulting in such 'monstrosities' as Grand Opera
Grand Opera
Grand opera is a genre of 19th-century opera generally in four or five acts, characterised by large-scale casts and orchestras, and lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events...

. Wagner felt that such works celebrated bravura singing, sensational stage effects, and meaningless plots. In "Art and Revolution" Wagner applies the term 'Gesamtkunstwerk' in the context of Greek tragedy. In "The Art-Work of the Future" he uses it to apply to his own, as yet unrealised, ideal.

In his extensive book Opera and Drama
Opera and Drama
"Opera and Drama" is a long essay written by Richard Wagner in 1851 setting out his ideas on the ideal characteristics of opera as an art form...

(completed in 1851) he takes these ideas further, describing in detail his idea of the union of opera and drama (later called music drama despite Wagner's disapproval of the term), in which the individual arts are subordinated to a common purpose.

Wagner's own Ring cycle, and specifically its components Das Rheingold
Das Rheingold
is the first of the four operas that constitute Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen . It was originally written as an introduction to the tripartite Ring, but the cycle is now generally regarded as consisting of four individual operas.Das Rheingold received its premiere at the National Theatre...

and Die Walküre
Die Walküre
Die Walküre , WWV 86B, is the second of the four operas that form the cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen , by Richard Wagner...

represent perhaps the closest he, or anyone else, came to realising these ideals; he was himself after this stage to relax his own strictures and write more 'operatically'.

Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture

The use of the term Gesamtkunstwerk in an architectural context signifies the fact that the architect is responsible for the design and/or overseeing of the building's totality: shell, accessories, furnishings, and landscape. It is difficult to make a claim for when the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk was first employed from the point of view of a building and its contents; already during the Renaissance, artists such as Michaelangelo saw no strict division in their tasks between architecture, interior design, sculpture, painting and even engineering. A later example occurs in the Baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

, for instance the work of the Austrian Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach
Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach
----Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, born Johann Bernhard Fischer was probably the most influential Austrian architect of the Baroque period....

, who was an architect and sculptor, as well as an architectural historian. "His buildings can be considered total works of art in which architecture and the figurative arts are united to express a predominant idea—the glorification of God or the patron saint in ecclesiastical architecture or the allegorical glorification of the ruler or of the noble patron in secular buildings... All of his works are composed of several different elements or contrasting features that are harmonized in a unified whole and in reference to their natural and artistic environment".
The idea of Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture in the era following Romanticism is synonymous with the Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau is an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts—that were most popular during 1890–1910. The name "Art Nouveau" is French for "new art"...

; for example in the works of Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner in Austria, Henry van de Velde
Henry van de Velde
Henry Clemens Van de Velde was a Belgian Flemish painter, architect and interior designer. Together with Victor Horta and Paul Hankar he could be considered one of the main founders and representatives of Art Nouveau in Belgium...

, Victor Horta
Victor Horta
Victor, Baron Horta was a Belgian architect and designer. John Julius Norwich described him as "undoubtedly the key European Art Nouveau architect." Indeed, Horta is one of the most important names in Art Nouveau architecture; the construction of his Hôtel Tassel in Brussels in 1892-3 means that...

 and Paul Hankar
Paul Hankar
Paul Hankar was a Belgian architect and designer who, along with Victor Horta and Henry Van de Velde, is considered one of the principal architects to work in the Art Nouveau style in Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century.-Formative Studies: Hankar was born at Frameries. He began his...

 in Belgium, Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer, watercolourist and artist. He was a designer in the Arts and Crafts movement and also the main representative of Art Nouveau in the United Kingdom. He had a considerable influence on European design...

 in Scotland, Antoni Gaudí
Antoni Gaudí
Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was a Spanish Catalan architect and figurehead of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí's works reflect his highly individual and distinctive style and are largely concentrated in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, notably his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família.Much of Gaudí's work was...

 in Spain and Eliel Saarinen
Eliel Saarinen
Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen was a Finnish architect who became famous for his art nouveau buildings in the early years of the 20th century....

 in Finland. For example, Henry van de Velde built a house for his own family at Uccle near Brussels
Brussels , officially the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region , is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union...

 in 1895 in which he demonstrated the ultimate synthesis of all the arts, for apart from integrating the house with all its furnishings, including the cutlery, he even attempted to consummate the whole Gesamtkunstwerk through the flowing forms of the dresses that he designed for his wife. In another example, in the studio home of the architects Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen
Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen
Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen was a Finnish architecture firm in Helsinki. The firm was formed in 1896 and consisted of Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen. In 1905 Lindgren became head of the architecture school at Helsinki University of Technology and withdrew from the firm...

, Hvitträsk
Hvitträsk was designed to be a studio home for the members of the Finnish architecture firm Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen. It later became the private residence of Eliel Saarinen. It is located about west of Helsinki in Kirkkonummi, Finland....

 (1902) in Finland the architects designed their own studio homes, the interiors, furniture, carpets, artworks and the exterior landscaping. It has been argued by historian Robert L. Delevoy that Art Nouveau represented an essentially decorative trend that thus leant itself to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. But it was equally born from social theories born from a panic fear of the rise of industrialism—while at the same time determined to create a new style.

A distinctly modern approach to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk emerged with the Bauhaus
', commonly known simply as Bauhaus, was a school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for the approach to design that it publicized and taught. It operated from 1919 to 1933. At that time the German term stood for "School of Building".The Bauhaus school was founded by...

 school, first established in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
Walter Adolph Georg Gropius was a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School who, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture....

. The school specialised in design, art and craftsmanship (architecture was not introduced as a separate course until 1927 after it had transferred to Dessau
Dessau is a town in Germany on the junction of the rivers Mulde and Elbe, in the Bundesland of Saxony-Anhalt. Since 1 July 2007, it is part of the merged town Dessau-Roßlau. Population of Dessau proper: 77,973 .-Geography:...

). Gropius contended that that artists and architects should also be a craftsmen, that they should have experience working with different materials and artistic mediums, including industrial design, clothes design and theatre and music. However, Gropius did not necessarily see a building and every aspect of its design as being the work of a single hand. While certain architects have been known to be involved in other design aspects of design such as industrial design, painting and sculpture, it is rare for architects to concern themselves with a Gesamtkunstwerk approach. Exceptions are Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect, interior designer, writer and educator, who designed more than 1,000 structures and completed 500 works. Wright believed in designing structures which were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture...

 (1867–1959) and Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto
Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was a Finnish architect and designer. His work includes architecture, furniture, textiles and glassware...


Further reading

  • Finger, Anke and Danielle Follett (eds.) (2011) The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork: On Borders and Fragments, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Grey, Thomas S. (ed.) (2008) The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521644396
  • Millington, Barry (ed.) (1992) The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0028713591
  • Millington, Barry (n.d.) Gesamtkunstwerk, in Oxford Music Online (subscription only) (consulted 15.9.2010)
  • Warrack, John (n.d.) Gesamtkunstwerk in the Oxford Companion to Music online, (subscription only) (consulted 15 September 2010)
  • Wagner, Richard (1993), tr. W. Ashton Ellis The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works. Lincoln and London, ISBN 0803297521