What is a leitmotif?
A leitmotif is a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a person, place or concept. The word is an anglicized version of the German Letimotiv, meaning ‘main motive’. Often used in opera, but also in symphonic poems and more recently in film scores, the musical device is used to support the narrative, provide psychological context, recall past events and point to ideas related to the drama. Usually a melodic phrase, the leitmotif can also be a chord progression or rhythmic device and can be developed through changes in rhythm or pitch, instrumentation, adding new material, or building up fragments of ideas. .
The Valhalla leitmotif of Wagner’s Das Rheingold
When did the leitmotif first appear?
The use of a short recurring motif in music dates back to works from the early 17th century, such as Monteverdi The Orfeo. mozart used the four-bar phrase ‘Cosi fan tutte‘ (“Thus do they all”), in his eponymous opera, and in the early 19th century Carl Maria von Weber used recurring themes in association with his characters in operas such as Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”), premiered in 1821. However, it was not until 1871 that critic Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns used the term to describe Weber’s works.
How did Wagner use leitmotifs?
The composer most often associated with the leitmotif (although he never used the term to describe his works) is wagner. its famous Ring Cycle of four operas (written between 1863 and 1869) uses hundreds of leitmotifs to signify characters, objects, ideas and situations. Not only do the short themes function as a tool for musical identification, but they also signify psychological transformation and serve to unify the plots and scores of the four operas. Wagner also used leitmotifs in his operas Tristan and Isolda and Die Meistersinger.
Leitmotif of Siegfried in Wagner’s Die Walküre
Did composers after Wagner work with leitmotifs?
After Wagner, many composers used the device, including Richard Strauss in his symphonic poems and operas, Debussy in his opera Pelléas and Mélisande, Arnold Schoenberg in his choral work Gurre-Lieder and Alban Berg in his opera Wozzeck.
How did film composers use leitmotifs?
The leitmotif has proven particularly effective in film scores as a way to create continuity, heighten drama, and create an emotional connection between characters and audience. One of the most famous leitmotifs is the “shark theme” in John Williamsthe score of Jaws, comprising only two alternating notes in the low register to signify the menacing approach of the shark. Williams also used Wagnarian-style leitmotifs in his soundtracks for the star wars and Harry Potter franchisees. In his score for The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore uses an array of interconnected leitmotifs to signify characters and places, and composers such as Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and James Horner used leitmotifs to similar effect.
The shark leitmotif from John Williams’ soundtrack to Jaws
Main photo: Valkyrie and a dying hero © Getty Images