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Leitmotif: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the musical technique known as leitmotif. You'll learn how composers use musical fragments to represent ideas and tell stories, and you'll learn some famous examples of leitmotif from operas, symphonic music and film scores.

What is a Leitmotif?

One of the most iconic elements of the Star Wars series is its music. The film scores, by composer John Wiliams, are full of memorable themes attached to characters in the story. For example, when Darth Vader or his ship appears, we hear the ominous Imperial March announcing his arrival. When Luke Skywalker stares at the double sunset on his home planet, we hear a variation of the main theme we heard during the opening crawl.

The musical technique that John Williams used in these examples is called leitmotif (pronounced 'LIGHT moh-teef'). A leitmotif is a musical fragment representing a person, object, or concept, that recurs throughout a piece of music. Leitmotifs first appeared as narrative devices in nineteenth-century opera, and since then, they've been incredibly useful to composers who want to tell a story through music.

Origins of the Leitmotif Technique

'Leitmotif' is a German term which literally means leading motive. Musicians started using the term in the late 19th Century, to refer to recurring themes that appeared in German operas. Composers have been structuring music around reappearing tunes for centuries, but it wasn't until the 1800s that opera composers began to use recurring themes to represent specific ideas or characters.

The term 'leitmotif' first appeared in 1871, to describe a musical tag in Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter). When the character Max is afraid to enter a dark, magical lair in the 'Wolf's Glen Scene', the orchestra quotes music from an earlier scene in which a crowd mocked Max. Weber used this recurring chunk of music as a storytelling tool to represent Max's fear.

The Wolfs Glen Scene
Wolfs Glen Scene

Another early example of leitmotif is found in Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastiqe (Fantastic Symphony, 1830). The Symphonie fantastique is an example of program music: instrumental music that tells a story, or suggests any idea external to the music itself. Berlioz's symphony tells the semi-autobiographical story of his obsession with a popular actress named Harriet Smithson. Each of this symphony's five movements (freestanding sections) illustrates a different moment in his imagined love story. One leitmotif appears in every movement: a melody that Berlioz called his ideé fixe (fixed idea), which represented his 'beloved.'

Here's a fun fact: when Harriet Smithson heard the Symphonie fantastique performed, she knew Berlioz only as a wild groupie who had been sending her amorous fan mail. When she realized that the ideé fixe represented her, she agreed to date and marry Berlioz. Unfortunately, the marriage was a dismal failure. This might have been because Berlioz had fallen in love with the impossible fantasy-version of Harriet in his symphony, or for other reasons. Either way, I'll leave it up to you to decide if leitmotif is a useful dating tool or not.

Richard Wagner and the Leitmotif

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

The single composer best-known for his use of leitmotifs is 19th century German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner composed large-scale, dramatic operas, usually based on ideas from Germanic mythology. His operas are full of complicated plot points and psychological nuance. He used leitmotifs to symbolize important ideas in his stories, and to communicate his characters' inner worlds.

For example, Wagner uses leitmotifs to hint at his characters' fate in his opera Tristan und Isolde (1857-9). Tristan und Isolde tells the story of the doomed love between the medieval knight Tristan and the princess Isolde. The opera's orchestral prelude begins with a short, haunting melody atop an unstable, unresolved harmony.

This fragment from the opening of Tristan und Isolde becomes the Potion and Desire leitmotif.
Opening of Tristan und Isolde

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