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

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  • Topic: Richard Wagner, Film score, Gesamtkunstwerk
  • Pages : 3 (850 words )
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  • Published : October 15, 2011
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SCOTT D. PAULIN

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

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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...
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