A leitmotif or leitmotiv is a "short, constantly recurring musical phrase" associated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or motto-theme. The spelling leitmotif is an anglicization of the GermanLeitmotiv (IPA: ['la?tmo?ti:f]), literally meaning "leading motif", or "guiding motif". A musical motif has been defined as a "short musical idea ... melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three", a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity."
In particular, such a motif should be "clearly identified so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances" whether such modification be in terms of rhythm, harmony, orchestration or accompaniment. It may also be "combined with other leitmotifs to suggest a new dramatic condition" or development. The technique is notably associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, and most especially his Der Ring des Nibelungen, although he was not its originator and did not employ the word in connection with his work.
Although usually a short melody, it can also be a chord progression or even a simple rhythm. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.
By association, the word has also been used to mean any sort of recurring theme, (whether or not subject to developmental transformation) in literature, or (metaphorically) the life of a fictional character or a real person. It is sometimes also used in discussion of other musical genres, such as instrumental pieces, cinema, and video game music, sometimes interchangeably with the more general category of theme.
Early instances in classical music
The use of characteristic, short, recurring motifs in orchestral music can be traced back to the early seventeenth century, such as L'Orfeo by Monteverdi. In French opera of the late eighteenth century (such as the works of Gluck, Grétry and Méhul), "reminiscence motif" can be identified, which may recur at a significant juncture in the plot to establish an association with earlier events. Their use, however, is not extensive or systematic. The power of the technique was exploited early in the nineteenth century by composers of Romantic opera, such as Carl Maria von Weber, where recurring themes or ideas were sometimes used in association with specific characters (e.g. Samiel in Der Freischütz is coupled with the chord of a diminished seventh). The first use of the word leitmotif in print was by the criticFriedrich Wilhelm Jähns in describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871.
Motifs also figured occasionally in purely instrumental music of the Romantic period. The related idea of the musical idée fixe was coined by Hector Berlioz in reference to his Symphonie fantastique (1830). This purely instrumental, programmatic work (subtitled Episode in the Life of an Artist) features a recurring melody representing the object of the artist's obsessive affection and depicting her presence in various real and imagined situations.
Though perhaps not corresponding to the strict definition of leitmotif, several of Verdi's operas feature similar thematic tunes, often introduced in the overtures or preludes, and recurring to mark the presence of a character or to invoke a particular sentiment. In La forza del destino, the opening theme of the overture recurs whenever Leonora feels guilt or fear. In Il trovatore, the theme of the first aria by Azucena is repeated whenever she invokes the horror of how her mother was burnt alive and the devastating revenge she attempted then. In Don Carlos, there are at least three leitmotifs that recur regularly across the five acts: the first is associated with the poverty and suffering from war, the second is associated with prayers around the tomb of Carlos V, and the third is introduced as a duet between Don Carlo and the Marquis of Posa, thereafter accentuating sentiments of sincere friendship and loyalty.
Siegfried's horn call leitmotif from the prologue to Act I of Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung, the fourth of his Ring cycle The theme is broader and more richly orchestrated than its earlier appearances, suggesting the emergence of Siegfried's heroic character.
Richard Wagner is the earliest composer most specifically associated with the concept of leitmotif. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (the music for which was written between 1853 and 1869), uses hundreds of leitmotifs, often related to specific characters, things, or situations. While some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many recur throughout the entire cycle. Wagner had raised the issue of how music could best unite disparate elements of the plot of a music drama in his essay Opera and Drama (1851); the leitmotif technique corresponds to this ideal.
Some controversy surrounded the use of the word in Wagner's own circle: Wagner never authorised the use of the word leitmotiv, using words such as Grundthema (basic idea), or simply Motiv. His preferred name for the technique was Hauptmotiv (principal motif), which he first used in 1877; the only time he used the word Leitmotiv, he referred to "so-called Leitmotivs".
The word gained currency with the overly literal interpretations of Wagner's music by Hans von Wolzogen, who in 1876 published a Leitfaden (guide or manual) to the Ring. In it he claimed to have isolated and named all of the recurring motifs in the cycle (the motif of "Servitude", the "Spear" or "Treaty" motif, etc.), often leading to absurdities or contradictions with Wagner's actual practice. Some of the motifs he identified began to appear in the published musical scores of the operas, arousing Wagner's annoyance; his wife Cosima Wagner quoted him as saying "People will think all this nonsense is done at my request!". In fact Wagner himself never publicly named any of his leitmotifs, preferring to emphasize their flexibility of association, role in the musical form, and emotional effect. The practice of naming leitmotifs nevertheless continued, featuring in the work of prominent Wagnerian critics Ernest Newman, Deryck Cooke and Robert Donington.
The resulting lists of leitmotifs also attracted the ridicule of anti-Wagnerian critics and composers (such as Eduard Hanslick, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky). They identified the motif with Wagner's own approach to composing, mocking the impression of a musical "address book" or list of "cloakroom numbers" it created.
The leitmotif associated with Salome herself in Richard Strauss's opera Salome
The critic Theodor W. Adorno, in his book In Search of Wagner (written in the 1930s), expresses the opinion that the entire concept of the leitmotif is flawed. The motif cannot be both the bearer of expression and a musical "gesture", because that reduces emotional content to a mechanical process. He notes that "even in Wagner's own day the public made a crude link between the leitmotifs and the persons they characterised" because people's innate mental processes did not necessarily correspond with Wagner's subtle intentions or optimistic expectations. He continues:
The degeneration of the leitmotiv is implicit in this ... it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmotif is to announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily.
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The main ideology behind leitmotif is to create a sense of attachment to that particular sound that evokes audiences to feel particular emotions when that sound is repeated through the film. Leitmotifs in Adorno's "degenerated" sense frequently occur in film scores, and have since the early decades of sound film. One of the first people to implement leitmotif in early sound films was Fritz Lang in his revolutionary hit M. Lang set the benchmark for sound film through his use of leitmotif, creating a different type of atmosphere in his films.
In the Saw franchise, the theme "Hello Zepp" is used throughout all of the films in all of the scores, as the series leitmotif, to indicate panic, fear, and to end the film on a more heroic but fearful note as the theme is used in all of the ending scores.
Touhou character Sakuya Izayoi's original theme, 'Lunar Clock ~ Luna Dial', possessed a short melody that would later become the basis for her new theme, 'Flowering Night'.
Composer Jeremy Soule famously used a variation of the main motif from the intro theme to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind game in both the in-game music, and all his subsequent soundtracks for The Elder Scrolls series games, thus creating a characteristic Elder Scrolls motive, although, equally notably, other composers hired to do work on the games from the franchise have not followed up on this practice (even drawing some critique from the older players).
Toby Fox's cult classic RPG Undertale was praised for its use of leitmotifs in relation to characters, emotions and locations. Of 101 tracks on the official soundtrack, Game Score Fanfare on YouTube mentioned that only 12 were isolated, 'without a trace of any other music used in the game'. Fox's later game Deltarune had newly written leitmotifs and recurring ones from Undertale in its soundtrack.
Robert Donington, Wagner's "Ring" and Its Symbols, London:[full ], 1979
William Drabkin, "Motif", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London 1995,[clarification needed] vol. 12
Donald Jay Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams (2003). A Short History of Opera (4th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN0-231-11958-5
H. Rosenthal and J. Warrack (eds.), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979
Michael Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN978-0-19-311320-6.
Barry Millington (ed.), The Wagner Compendium, London:[full ] 1992
Alexander Rehding, review of Christian Thorau, "Semantisierte Sinnlichkeit: Studien zu Rezeption und Zeichenstruktur der Leitmotivtechnik Richard Wagners" in Opera Quarterly vol. 23 (Oxford, 2007) pp. 348-351
Christian Thorau, "Guides for Wagnerites: Leitmotifs and Wagnerian Listening", in T. Grey, (ed.), Richard Wagner and his World, (pp. 133-150) Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009 ISBN978-0-691-14366-8