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Leitmotif associated with Siegfried in Richard Wagner's opera (see below)

A leitmotif (pronounced /ˌlaɪtmoʊˈtiːf/) (from the German leitmotiv, lit. "leading motif", or perhaps more accurately "guiding motif") is a recurring musical theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea. In particular such a theme 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.[1] The term is notably associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, although he was not the originator of the concept.

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 extension, the word has also been used to mean any sort of recurring theme, (whether or not subject to developmental transformation) in music, 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'. Such usages typically obscure the crucial aspect of a leitmotif, as opposed to the plain musical motif or theme - that it is transformable and recurs in different guises throughout the piece in which it occurs.


Classical Music

Early usage in classical music

The use of characteristic, short, recurring motives in orchestral music can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. In French opera of this period (such as the works of Grétry and Méhul), "reminiscence motives" 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. Sammael in Der Freischütz is coupled with the chord of a diminished seventh).[2] Indeed, the first use of the word "leitmotif" in print was by the critic F. W. Jähns in describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871.[3] Motives were also important 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.


The 'Siegfried' leitmotif from Act III of Wagner's opera, the third of his 'Ring' cycle; the theme is broader and more richly orchestrated than its earlier appearances (see above), suggesting the emergence of Siegfried's heroic character

Richard Wagner is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, uses dozens 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.[4]

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' [5].

The word became controversial among Wagnerians because of its early association 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 motives in the cycle (the motive of "Servitude", the "Spear" or "Treaty" motive, etc.), often leading to absurdities or contradictions with Wagner's actual practice.[6] 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!'.[7] In fact Wagner himself never publicly named any of his leitmotifs, preferring to emphasise their flexibility of association, role in the musical form, and emotional effect. The practice of naming leitmotifs nevertheless continued, including in the work of prominent Wagnerian critics Ernest Newman, Deryck Cooke and Robert Donington.[8]

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.[9].

After Wagner

Since Wagner, the use of leitmotifs has been taken up by many other composers. Richard Strauss used the device in many of his operas and several of his symphonic poems. Despite his sometimes acerbic comments on Wagner, Claude Debussy utilised leitmotifs in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). Arnold Schoenberg used a complex set of leifmotifs in his choral work Gurre-Lieder (completed 1911). Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (1914–1922) also utilises leitmotifs.

Literature, drama and film

Leitmotif is also used in the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce (chapter 11). Critics argue that there are recurring themes of music that begin at the beginning of the chapter and continue throughout the rest of the chapter, and also the book.

The "leitmotif" is also present in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The themes of the Virgin Mary, the Greek myth of Stephen's namesake, Daedalus, are some of the more noticeable leitmotifs throughout the work. The leitmotif in this novel provides unity as the character of Stephen matures.

Other writers who have used the technique include Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, and Julian Barnes in his 1989 novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Contemporary author Chuck Palahniuk also commonly utilizes leitmotifs in his work.

Leitmotif can refer to the significant repetition of any element in a book, play, novel, film, or other artistic works. In literature, a leitmotif is used as a recurring event, image, object or character in a story, poem or play. Leitmotifs (or motifs) become significant to the meaning of the overall work when they develop thematic importance. In film, a motif is most frequently a plot device, image, character trait, or element of the mise en scène.

Samuel Beckett uses leitmotifs throughout his body of works, within his use of language in his plays and works of fiction. Beckett uses repetition a great deal and explores complex sentence structures, where he chooses to cut short a statement before its presumed conclusion, or the opposite can be the case with a stream of words running into each other with, in some cases no coherence, in others complete lucidity. Beckett uses "voices" as musical instruments travelling through the (specific) combined, language structure, repetitions and a gamut of emotions displayed in the text that cause changes in pitch and tone, unless the playwright has chosen a monotonous speech pattern as he does for particular characters in his plays.

In popular culture

Leitmotifs occur in movie scores; well known examples are the Star Wars piece "The Imperial March" associated with Darth Vader in the Star Wars series of films[citation needed] and the Superman theme from modern film[citation needed], composed by John Williams.

Examples of leitmotifs used in movies and television include:

An early use of leitmotifs in rock music is found in Tommy, the "rock opera" performed by The Who and written, for the most part, by the band's principal songwriter Pete Townshend in 1969. Townshend intentionally used four leitmotifs[citation needed] in The Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia to represent the four personalities of the album's fictional protagonist, Jimmy Cooper, a British youth with a multiple personality disorder. The four leitmotifs are also meant to represent the four members of The Who.

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978) uses leitmotifs[citation needed] to represent different elements of the story, such as the heat ray, the red weed and the invasion itself.

Mike Oldfield often uses leitmotifs[citation needed] on his albums.


  1. ^ New Grove Dictionary, Leitmotif
  2. ^ Oxford Concise, Leitmotiv
  3. ^ New Grove Dictionary, Leitmotif
  4. ^ Millington (1992), 234-5
  5. ^ Oxford Concise , Leitmotiv
  6. ^ See Thorau, 2009
  7. ^ Cosima Wagner,(1980), II, 697 (1 August 1881)
  8. ^ See e.g. Donnington (1979), passim
  9. ^ Rehding (2007), 348
  • R. Donnington, Wagner's 'Ring' and its Symbols, London, 1979
  • H. Rosenthal and J. Warracki (eds.), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford 1979
  • Barry Millington (ed.), The Wagner Compendium, London 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
  • Stanley Sadie, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Leitmotif (by John Warrack).
  • Christian Thorau, Guides for Wagnerites: Letimotifs and Wagnerian Listening, in T. Grey, (ed.), Richard Wagner and his World, (pp. 133–150) Princeton 2009 ISBN 9780691143668
  • Cosima Wagner, tr. Geoffrey Skelton, Cosima Wagner's Diaries (2 vols.), London 1980.

See also

Simple English

A leitmotif (pronounced [ˈlaɪːt.motif], “LITE-mow-teef”) (also spelled leitmotiv), is a German word meaning leading motif. It is a little musical theme that is often repeated in a piece of music, very often in opera. The leitmotif is linked in the musical story with a person or a thing or an idea. The leitmotif might be a short tune, but it can also be a rhythm or just a chord.

The word “leitmotif” is sometimes used in other things such as literature. In a book it might be an idea that keeps coming during the story. It can also be used in movies or video games.

The word “leitmotif” is particularly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner. The leitmotif helps to make the story dramatic and bind it together, because it makes the music easier to understand. Sometimes a leitmotif will change during an opera as the character changes. Various dramatic effects can be made with leitmotifs. For example, a leitmotif might be played before a character comes onstage, so the audience will know who is coming before the actor can be seen. Three examples of leitmotifs from Wagner's Ring Cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen are: the leitmotif for the chief god Wotan (a person), the leitmotif for the Tarnhelm, the invisibility helmet, (a thing), and the leitmotif for the Renunciation of Love (an idea).

The use of leitmotif was not completely new in the 19th century. For example: the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are used like a leitmotif during the whole symphony. It was, however, Carl Maria von Weber who first used it a lot in his operas. A music critic called F. W. Jähns used the word to describe Weber’s work. Hector Berlioz wrote a symphony called Symphonie Fantastique which has a tune which he called idée fixe (“fixed idea”) to represent the love between the two characters.

Wagner did not actually use the word “leitmotif”. He preferred to call such themes “Grundthema” (basic idea) or simple “Motiv”. Some people, such as Eduard Hanslick, who did not like Wagner’s music, thought that Wagner’s use of leitmotifs made the music too simple. Claude Debussy said the use of leitmotifs in operas was like having a world where crazy people would always use "visiting cards" to introduce themselves and then start singing their names to be sure everyone knew what was going on.

Many other composers used leitmotifs in a similar way to Wagner, e.g. Richard Strauss in his operas, Elgar in his oratorios The Kingdom and The Apostles or Alban Berg in his opera Lulu.

Leitmotifs or music themes are also used to dramatise movies. For example, the famous Jaws theme uses a leitmotif for the shark.

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