What is a leitmotif?

Most associated with the operas of Wagner, a leitmotif is a brief musical device signifying a character, location or idea, as Charlotte Smith explains

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Published: January 21, 2022 at 2:31 pm

What is a leitmotif?

A leitmotif is a brief, recurring musical phrase associated with a person, place or concept. The word is an anglicised version of the German Letimotiv, meaning ‘leading motif’. Often used in opera, but also in symphonic poems and more recently in film scores, the musical device is used to underpin the narrative, to provide psychological context, to recall previous events and to 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 by changes of rhythm or pitch, instrumentation, the addition of new material or building on idea fragments.

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The Valhalla leitmotif from Wagner’s Das Rheingold

When did the leitmotif first appear?

The use of a short recurring motif in music can be traced back to early 17th-century works, such as Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Mozart used the four-bar phrase ‘Così 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 the critic Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns used the term when describing Weber's works.

How did Wagner use leitmotifs?

The composer most often associated with the leitmotif (though he never used the term when describing his works) is Wagner. His 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 operate as a tool for musical identification, 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 und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.

Siegfried’s leitmotif from Wagner’s Die Walküre

Did composers after Wagner work with leitmotifs?

Following Wagner, many composers used the device, including Richard Strauss in his symphonic poems and operas, Debussy in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Arnold Schoenberg in his choral work Gurre-Lieder and Alban Berg in his opera Wozzeck.

How have film composers used leitmotifs?

The leitmotif has proven particularly effective in film scores as a means of creating continuity, heightening the drama and building an emotional connection between characters and the audience. One of the most famous leitmotifs is the ‘shark theme’ in John Williams’s score for Jaws, comprising just two alternating notes in the bass register to signify the menacing approach of the shark. Williams has similarly used Wagnarian-style leitmotifs in his soundtracks for the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises. In his score for The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore uses an array of interconnecting leitmotifs to signify characters and locations, and composers including Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and James Horner have used leitmotifs to similar effect.

The shark leitmotif from John Williams’s soundtrack to Jaws

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Main photo: Valkyrie and a Dying Hero © Getty Images

Authors

Charlotte SmithEditor of BBC Music Magazine

Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.

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