Leitmotif

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Leitmotif associated with Siegfried's Horn Call in Richard Wagner's opera, Siegfried. Siegfried leitmotif.jpg
Leitmotif associated with Siegfried's Horn Call in Richard Wagner's opera, Siegfried.

A leitmotif or leitmotiv /ˌltmˈtf/ is a "short, constantly recurring musical phrase" [1] associated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or motto-theme. [2] The spelling leitmotif is an anglicization of the German Leitmotiv (IPA: [ˈlaɪtmoˌtiːf] ), 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", [3] 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." [4]

Phrase (music) Musical unit

In music theory, a phrase is a unit of musical meter that has a complete musical sense of its own, built from figures, motifs, and cells, and combining to form melodies, periods and larger sections.

A phrase is a substantial musical thought, which ends with a musical punctuation called a cadence. Phrases are created in music through an interaction of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Motif (music) short musical idea, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition

In music, a motif(pronunciation)  is a short musical phrase, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "The motive is the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity".

Contents

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. [5] 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.

Rhythm aspect of music

Rhythm generally means a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions". This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time can apply to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to several seconds ; to several minutes or hours, or, at the most extreme, even over many years.

Harmony aspect of music

In music, harmony considers the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superpositions of sounds, is analysed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches, or chords.

Orchestration study or practice of writing music for an orchestra

Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra or of adapting music composed for another medium for an orchestra. Also called "instrumentation", orchestration is the selection of different instruments to play the different parts of a musical work. For example, a work for solo piano could be adapted and orchestrated so that an orchestra could perform the piece, or a concert band piece could be orchestrated for a symphony orchestra.

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.

Melody linear succession of musical tones in the foreground of a work of music

A melody, also tune, voice, or line, is a linear succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity. In its most literal sense, a melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm, while more figuratively, the term can include successions of other musical elements such as tonal color. It may be considered the foreground to the background accompaniment. A line or part need not be a foreground melody.

Chord (music) harmonic set of three or more notes

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords.

Chord progression a succession of musical chords

A chord progression or harmonic progression is a succession of musical chords, which are two or more notes, typically sounded simultaneously. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition from the common practice era of Classical music to the 21st century. Chord progressions are the foundation of Western popular music styles and traditional music. In these genres, chord progressions are the defining feature on which melody and rhythm are built.

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.

Literature written work of art

Literature, most generically, is any body of written works. More restrictively, literature refers to writing considered to be an art form or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage.

Video game music is the soundtrack that accompanies video games. Early video game music was once limited to simple melodies of early sound synthesizer technology. These limitations inspired the style of music known as chiptunes, which combines simple melodic styles with more complex patterns or traditional music styles, and became the most popular sound of the first video games.

Classical music

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). [2] The first use of the word leitmotif in print was by the critic Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns in describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871. [5]

<i>LOrfeo</i> opera by Claudio Monteverdi, with libretto by Alessandro Striggio

L'Orfeo, sometimes called La favola d'Orfeo[la ˈfaːvola dorˈfɛːo], is a late Renaissance/early Baroque favola in musica, or opera, by Claudio Monteverdi, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio. It is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, and tells the story of his descent to Hades and his fruitless attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the living world. It was written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua. While Jacopo Peri's Dafne is generally recognised as the first work in the opera genre, and the earliest surviving opera is Peri's Euridice, L'Orfeo is the earliest that is still regularly performed.

André Grétry composer

André Ernest Modeste Grétry was a composer from the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, who worked from 1767 onwards in France and took French nationality. He is most famous for his opéras comiques.

Étienne Méhul French opera composer

Étienne Nicolas Méhul was a French composer, "the most important opera composer in France during the Revolution". He was also the first composer to be called a "Romantic".

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.

Romantic music music of the Romantic period

Romantic music is a period of Western classical music that began in the late 18th or early 19th century. It is related to Romanticism, the Western artistic and literary movement that arose in the second half of the 18th century, and Romantic music in particular dominated the Romantic movement in Germany.

Hector Berlioz French Romantic composer

Louis-Hector Berlioz was a French Romantic composer. His output includes orchestral works such as the Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy, choral pieces including the Requiem and L'enfance du Christ, his three operas Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict, and works of hybrid genres such as the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette and the "dramatic legend" La damnation de Faust.

<i>Symphonie fantastique</i> Program symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830

Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un artiste ... en cinq parties Op. 14, is a program symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is an important piece of the early Romantic period. The first performance was at the Paris Conservatoire on 5 December 1830. Franz Liszt made a piano transcription of the symphony in 1833.

Though perhaps not corresponding to the strict definition of leitmotiv, 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 Carlo, there are at least three leitmotivs 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.

Wagner

The Siegfried's Horn Call leitmotif from the prologue to Act I of Wagner's opera Gotterdammerung, 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. Siegfried's Horn Call E flat version 02.png
The 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. [6] [7] 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. [8]

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; [1] 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. [9] 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!". [10] 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, featuring in the work of prominent Wagnerian critics Ernest Newman, Deryck Cooke and Robert Donington. [11]

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. [12]

After Wagner

The leitmotif associated with Salome herself in Richard Strauss's opera Salome. Salome leitmotif salome.jpg
The leitmotif associated with Salome herself in Richard Strauss's opera Salome .

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 leitmotifs in his choral work Gurre-Lieder (completed 1911). Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (1914–1922) also utilises leitmotifs. [13] The leitmotif was also a major feature of the opera The Immortal Hour by the English composer Rutland Boughton. His constantly recurrent, memorably tuneful leitmotifs contributed in no small way to the widespread popularity of the opera.

Critique of the leitmotif concept

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 leitmotivs 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 leitmotiv is to announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily. [14]

Entertainment

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.

See also

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References

  1. 1 2 Kennedy (1987), Leitmotiv
  2. 1 2 Kennedy (1987), 366
  3. Drabkin (1995)
  4. White (1976), p. 26–27.
  5. 1 2 Warrack (1995)
  6. Millington (1992), 234–5
  7. Grout (2003), Chapter 22
  8. Burbidge and Sutton, (1979), pp. 345–6
  9. See Thorau, 2009
  10. Cosima Wagner,(1980), II, 697 (1 August 1881)
  11. See e.g. Donnington (1979), passim
  12. Rehding (2007), 348
  13. New Grove Dictionary, Leitmotif
  14. Adorno (2005), pp.34–36
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Sources and further reading