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The Idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the History and Theory of Film Music

SCOTT D. PAULIN The Idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the History and Theory of Film Music ( From early prescriptive writings on film-music practice to recent theoretical considerations of the status of music in cinema, the name of Richard Wagner has recurred with a regularity approaching inevitability. His sheer persistence as a figure in the literature has had a tendency to naturalize his position in the genealogy of cinema, making it difficult to assess the true nature and extent of his influence.

Wagner is cited as a model (or the model) for film-music composers and performers to follow, and concepts such as the Gesamtkunstwerk, unendliche Melodie, and the Leitmotiv circulate widely, frequently detached from Wagner’s name and from his own theoretical treatment of them. Occasionally his influence is decried; more commonly, however, film music practitioners have received criticism for not being Wagnerian enough.

In short, Wagner’s relevance is taken for granted, but the paths through which his influence was passed down to film are unclear. In most cases, the rather vague nature of the Wagnerist texts suggests that less rigorous routes were probably most prevalent. A critical step back is necessary to determine the meaning of this particular species of Wagnerism. My purpose in what follows is not to deny the existence of elements in film and film music that can be described as Wagnerian.

Rather, the pertinent question is “Why Wagner? ” On one level I ask why Wagner’s music was looked to as a model; but more interesting and potentially significant are the metatheoretical questions of why Wagner’s name is inescapable and what function the name and notion of “Wagner” serves within the discourses on film and its music. The status of “Wagner” here is that of a fetish object, invoked ritualistically as a means of disavowal.

Just as in classic psychoanalytic terms the fetish object functions to disavow a lack or absence (to repress the “knowledge” of castration), the fetishization of “Wagner” – the supposed unifier of the arts in Musikdrama – works to repress knowledge of the constitutional lack of unity in film, the material heterogeneity of the cinematic apparatus. From early prescriptive writings on film-music practice to recent theoretical considerations of the status of music in cinema, the name of Richard Wagner has recurred with a regularity approaching inevitability.

His sheer persistence as a figure in the literature has had a tendency to naturalize his position in the genealogy of cinema, making it difficult to assess the true nature and extent of his influence. Wagner is cited as a model (or the model) for film-music composers and performers to follow, and concepts such as the Gesamtkunstwerk, unendliche Melodie, and the Leitmotiv circulate widely, frequently detached from Wagner’s name and from his own theoretical treatment of them.

Occasionally his influence is decried; more commonly, however, film music practitioners have received criticism for not being Wagnerian enough. In short, Wagner’s relevance is taken for granted, but the paths through which his influence was passed down to film are unclear and disparate: Secondary and popular writings? “Common knowledge” about his practices? Live experience of the music dramas? Study of his scores?

Close reading of his theoretical writings? In most cases, the rather vague nature of the Wagnerist texts suggests that less rigorous routes were probably most prevalent. A critical step back is necessary to determine the meaning of this particular species of Wagnerism. My purpose in what follows is not to deny the existence of elements in film and film music that can be described as Wagnerian. Rather, the pertinent question is “Why Wagner? On one level I ask why Wagner’s music was looked to as a model; but more interesting and potentially significant are the metatheoretical questions of why Wagner’s name is inescapable and what function the name and notion of “Wagner” serves within the discourses on film and its music. A survey of the literature with these questions in mind reveals not only the ubiquity of Wagner but also the tendency among many theorists to overstate Wagner’s influence in a totalizing manner, to misread both his own practices and the work of film composers, and to reify “Wagner” as a coherent, stable sign.

The status of “Wagner” here is that of a fetish object, invoked ritualistically as a means of disavowal. Just as in classic psychoanalytic terms the fetish object functions to disavow a lack or absence (to repress the “knowledge” of castration), the fetishizarion of “Wagner” – the supposed unifier of the arts in Musikdrama – works to repress knowledge of the constitutional lack of unity in film, the material heterogeneity of the cinematic apparatus.

It is also crucial in the positing of film qua art, papering over the stain of cinemas status as nonauratic, mechanically (re-)produced, low-cultural mass medium. The claim of unity and totality represents more of an ideological neo-Wagnerism than any influence on the level of technique or aural surface. To the extent that film music is or has been Wagnerian, it has largely been as a sort of wish fulfillment.

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