digplanet beta 1: Athena
Share digplanet:


Applied sciences






















For the album of the same name, see Leitmotif (album).
Leitmotif associated with Siegfried in Richard Wagner's opera of the same name

A leitmotif /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 term itself is an anglicization of the German Leitmotiv, literally meaning "leading motif", or perhaps more accurately, "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]

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, 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. Such usage typically obscures 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.[citation needed]

Classical music[edit]

Early instances in classical music[edit]

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).[6] Indeed, 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.[7]

Motives 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.


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, 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.[8][9]

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.[10]

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;[11] 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 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.[12] 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!".[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

After Wagner[edit]

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.[16]

Critique of the leitmotif concept[edit]

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.[17]

Film music[edit]

Leitmotifs in Adorno's 'degenerated' sense frequently occur in film scores, and have since the early decades of sound film. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1938 score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, can be heard to attach particular themes and harmonies to individual characters: Robin, Will, Much, and Gisbourne are all accompanied by distinctive musical material. A more modern example is the Star Wars series, in which composer John Williams uses a large number of themes specifically associated with people and concepts (for example, a particular motif attaches to the presence of Darth Vader and another to the idea of the Force).[18]

Another notable example would be for the Chinese hero Wong Fei-hung; while there are three songs that are known to be associated with him, likely the most notable would be A Man Should Better Himself by George Lam which was first played during the Once Upon A Time in China series starring Jet Li. In the film trilogy Lord of the Rings the dramatic orchestral score has hundreds of Leitmotifs recurring throughout.

Literature and drama[edit]

Leitmotif is sometimes used by literary or dramatic critics to refer to a recurring event, image, object or character in a story, poem, film or play. Leitmotifs (or motifs) become significant to the meaning of the overall work when they develop thematic importance. In film, such a motif is most frequently a plot device, image, character trait, or element of the mise en scène.

Leitmotif-like techniques, with word patterns replacing melodies, are said to be used in Ulysses by James Joyce. Leitmotifs are also said to be present in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as in the works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, Chuck Palahniuk, and Julian Barnes, among several other writers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kennedy (1987), Leitmotiv
  2. ^ Kennedy (1987), 366
  3. ^ Drabkin (1995)
  4. ^ White (1976), p. 26–27.
  5. ^ Warrack (1995)
  6. ^ Kennedy (1987), 366
  7. ^ Warrack (1995)
  8. ^ Millington (1992), 234-5
  9. ^ Grout (2003), Chapter 22
  10. ^ Burbidge and Sutton, (1979), pp. 345–6
  11. ^ Kennedy (1987), Leitmotiv
  12. ^ See Thorau, 2009
  13. ^ Cosima Wagner,(1980), II, 697 (1 August 1881)
  14. ^ See e.g. Donnington (1979), passim
  15. ^ Rehding (2007), 348
  16. ^ New Grove Dictionary, Leitmotif
  17. ^ Adorno (205), pp.34–36
  18. ^ Rooney, Jessica "Use of Leitmotif in Star Wars"

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Theodor Adorno, tr. Rodney Livingstone, In Search of Wagner, London 2005 (ISBN 978-1-84467-344-5)
  • Peter Burbidge and Richard Sutton, The Wagner Companion, London, 1979. ISBN 0-571-11450-4
  • R. Donnington, Wagner's 'Ring' and its Symbols, London, 1979
  • William Drabkin, 'Motif', in New Grove Dictionary of Music, London 1995, vol. 12
  • Donald Jay Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams (2003). A Short History of Opera (4th ed.). Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11958-5
  • H. Rosenthal and J. Warrack (eds.), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford 1979
  • Michael Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford, 1987. ISBN 978-0-19-311320-6.
  • 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
  • Christian Thorau, "Guides for Wagnerites: Letimotifs and Wagnerian Listening", in T. Grey, (ed.), Richard Wagner and his World, (pp. 133–150) Princeton 2009 ISBN 978-0-691-14366-8
  • Cosima Wagner, tr. Geoffrey Skelton, Cosima Wagner's Diaries (2 vols.), London 1980.
  • John Warrack, "Leitmotif", in New Grove Dictionary of Music, London 1995, vol. 10
  • John D. White, The Analysis of Music, (1976). ISBN 0-13-033233-X

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitmotif — Please support Wikipedia.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. A portion of the proceeds from advertising on Digplanet goes to supporting Wikipedia.
5951 videos foundNext > 

Wagner's Ring Cycle Leitmotifs, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

Taken from the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, members of the Metropolitan Opera Brass section explain and demonstrate Wagner's use of leitmotifs throu...

Famous Movie Leitmotifs

I have no copyright on any of these songs. I made this video to introduce my Analysis of Visual Media classes (high school) to leitmotifs.

Let there be leitmotifs!

From a PBS Great Performances broadcast in 1995. This has a simple explanation of Wagnerian leitmotifs, specifically in Siegfried's Funeral March and Brunnhi...

Leitmotif Video Essay (Michael Chiu)

Leitmotif -- Music Minute #7

Learn all about the Leitmotif! stevenjacks.com facebook.com/stevenjacks.com.

Leitmotif - Fractal

Author : Leitmotif Album : Luminescence EP ( November 2013) Lyrics : Point first, than line than every shape and sound. Proceed to infinum, turn it into dust...

Valhalla - Leitmotif 8 (Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold: Scene 2)

Valhalla, glorious hall of those slain in battle and selected by mighty Wotan to take rank in his army at Ragnarok, when this world must end.

Musical Contexts - Year 9 Unit 2 - Video 2 - Jaws Leitmotif

www.musicalcontexts.co.uk Key Stage 3 Music Year 9 Unit 2 - Soundtracks Video Sequence 2 - Jaws Leitmotif For supporting resources for this video, please vis...

dredg "leitmotif" 2006-09-14 [FULL LIVE SET]

Leitmotif - Fractal (Live @ Kanal 103)

Leitmotif - Fractal | Live @ Kanal 103 | 02.03.2014 | https://akonikojnesviri.bandcamp.com/album/point-first Recorded and mixed by Nenad Trifunovski. Video b...

5951 videos foundNext > 

176 news items

STA - Slovenska Tiskovna Agencija (subscription)
Thu, 24 Jul 2014 05:00:00 -0700

Ljubljana, 24 July (STA) - The head of a movement demanding the release of Democratic Party (SDS) leader Janez Janša has suggested in an interview that the activities of Committee 2014 are less about the ex-PM than defending basic civil liberties.
Sacramento Bee
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 15:52:30 -0700

The show's drag chorus line, Les Cagelles, are introduced in the leitmotif tune “We Are What We Are.” Their excellent costumes are designed by Mark Koss with hair, wigs, and make up by Christine Conklin. Their audience-pleasing set piece with the title ...
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 19:03:45 -0700

Rather than face the reality of stagnation, the president of the European Central Bank seems to have adopted the leitmotif of Olli Rehn, the former EU economic and monetary affairs chief, who for the past three years has asserted in defiance of all ...
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 00:11:51 -0700

The music also continues the leitmotif of Frame as folk troubadour. Nearly all the tracks on Seven Dials are backed by Frame's fluent acoustic guitar. Other musical styles occasionally provide an interlude or a complement to the pop-folk backdrop ...
Warrnambool Standard
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 11:00:00 -0700

The performance is part of the 2014 festival's theme of memory, according to the event's artistic director Anna Goldsworthy. “Memory runs as a leitmotif through this program,” Ms Goldsworthy explained. “Composers engage in dialogue with the past ...

Economic Times

Economic Times
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:26:15 -0700

The common leitmotif is that it is all about engaging with government through various media to transform accountability and to deliver citizens' services better. Today, more than at any other time before, there's a genuine force from citizens to ...


Wed, 20 Aug 2014 20:14:33 -0700

But his argument has been the leitmotif of media discussions from the moment it became known that a white cop had killed a black man. National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson Police watch as demonstrators protest the killing of teenager ...
Financial Times
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 10:26:15 -0700

Rather than face the reality of stagnation, the president of the European Central Bank seems to have adopted the leitmotif of Olli Rehn, the former EU economic and monetary affairs chief, who for the past three years has asserted in defiance of all ...

Oops, we seem to be having trouble contacting Twitter

Talk About Leitmotif

You can talk about Leitmotif with people all over the world in our discussions.

Support Wikipedia

A portion of the proceeds from advertising on Digplanet goes to supporting Wikipedia. Please add your support for Wikipedia!