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A leitmotif // is a "short, constantly recurring musical phrase" associated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or motto-theme. 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", 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."
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. 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.
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). 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.
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.
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.
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".
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. 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!". 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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.
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