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A gesamtkunstwerk (often translated as universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form, total work of art, or total artwork [1]) is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so. The term is originally German and is commonly used as such in English, but it is often also translated or explained at first mention. It is often capitalised as in German, where all nouns are capitalised, but it is always lowercased when used with an English plural ("gesamtkunstwerks").

The term was first used by the German writer and philosopher Eusebius Trahndorff in an essay in 1827. The German opera composer Richard Wagner first used the term in his 1849 essay Art and Revolution. It is unclear whether Wagner knew Trahndorff's essay.


Wagner's ideas

In 1849, Wagner described the Attic tragedy as the "great gesamtkunstwerk". Soon after, in The Artwork of the Future written in the same year, he expanded the meaning of the concept. In his extensive book Opera and Drama (completed in 1851) he described 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 used the term "gesamtkunstwerk" to refer to a performance that combines all the arts, including the performing arts (for example music, theater, and dance), literature (including poetry), and the visual arts (for example painting, sculpture, and architecture). The gesamtkunstwerk was to be the clearest and most profound expression of a folk tale, though abstracted from its nationalist particulars to a universal humanist fable.

Wagner felt that the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus had been the finest (though still flawed) examples so far of total artistic synthesis, but that this synthesis had subsequently been corrupted by Euripides. 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. Wagner felt that such works celebrated bravura singing, sensational stage effects, and meaningless plots.

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, and the da capo aria, a movement began to advance the librettist 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 and Ranieri de' Calzabigi. The themes in the operas produced by Gluck's collaborations with Calzabigi continue throughout the operas of Carl Maria von Weber, until Wagner, rejecting both the Italian bel canto tradition and the French "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.

Other artistic uses of the term

Paul Valéry[2] argued that museums might be examples of gesamtkunstwerks, as they combined both the visual arts being displayed, constant background music, the design of the building and the presentation of the works of art, and the necessary ambience of the public place in which the viewers found themselves. The group Dopplereffekt also used the title Gesamtkunstwerk for their 1999 album.


  1. ^ "universal artwork" entry at ArtLex Art Dictionary
  2. ^ Valery, Paul. The Collected Works of Paul Valery: Degas, Manet, Morisot (Collected Works of Paul Valery, Degas, Manet, Morisot). Princeton Univ Pr. ISBN 0-691-09839-5.  

See also



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




German Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of the arts; attributed to the composer Richard Wagner


Wikipedia has an article on:



  1. an operatic performance that encompasses music, theatre and the visual arts.




  • IPA: /gəˈzamtˌkʊnstvɛʁk/


Gesamtkunstwerk n

  1. Gesamtkunstwerk

Simple English

Gesamtkunstwerk is a German word meaning "total artwork".

Richard Wagner used gesamtkunstwerk in creating his operas. In the Classical era, there was more emphasis on the music in an opera. But in the Romantic era, there was more of an emphasis on personal expression. Wagner made his operas into movie-like performances.


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