Leitmotif consists of figures or short passages of melody of marked character which illustrate, or as it were label, certain personages situations, or abstract ideas which occur prominently in the course of a story or drama of which the music is the counterpart. When these situations recur, or the personages come forward in the course of the action, or even when the personage or idea is implied or referred to, the figure which constitutes the leitmotif is heard.
Their employment obviously presupposes unity and continuity in the works in which they occur. For as long as it is necessary to condescend to the indolence or low standard of artistic perception of audiences by cutting up large musical works into short incongruous sections of tunes, songs, rondos, and so forth, figures illustrating inherent peculiarities of situation and character which play a part throughout the continuous action of the piece are hardly available.
Musical dramatic works of the old order are indeed, for the most part, of the nature of an ‘entertainment,’ and do not admit of analysis as complete and logical works of art in which music and action are coordinate. But when it becomes apparent that music can express most perfectly the emotional condition resulting from the action of impressive outward circumstances on the mind, the true basis of dramatic music is reached; and by restricting it purely to the representation of that inward sense which belongs to the highest realization of the dramatic situations, the principle of continuity becomes as inevitable in the music as in the action itself, and by the very same law of artistic congruity the ‘leitmotif’ spring into prominence. For it stands to reason that where the music really expresses and illustrates the action as it progresses, the salient features of the story must have salient points of music, more marked in melody and rhythm than those portions which accompany subordinate passages in the play; and moreover when these salient points are connected with ideas which have a common origin, as in the same personage or the same situation or idea, these salient points of music will probably acquire a recognizable similarity of melody and rhythm, and thus become ‘leitmotif.’
Thus judging from a purely theoretical point of view, they seem to be inevitable wherever there is perfect adaptation of music to dramatic action. But there is another important consideration on the practical side, which is the powerful assistance which they give to the attention of the audience, by drawing them on from point to point where they might otherwise lose their way. Moreover, they act in some ways as a musical commentary and index to situations in the story, and sometimes enable a far greater depth of pregnant meaning to be conveyed, but suggesting associations with other points of the story which might otherwise escape the notice of the audience. And lastly, judged from the purely musical point of view, they occupy the position in the dramatic forms of music which ‘subjects’ do in pure instrumental forms of composition, and their recurrence helps greatly towards that unity of impression which it is most necessary to attain in works of high art.
As a matter of fact ‘leitmotif’ are not always identical in statement and restatement; but as characters and situations to which they are appropriate vary in their surrounding circumstance sin the progress of the action, so will the ‘leitmotif’ themselves be analogously modified. From this springs the application of variation and ‘transformation of themes’ to dramatic music; but it is necessary that the treatment of the figures and melodies should be generally more easily recognizable than they need to be in abstract instrumental music.
Leitmotif are perfectly adapted to instrumental music in the form known as ‘programme music,’ which implies a story, or some definite series of ideas; and it is probably that the earliest distinct recognition of the principle in question is in the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz (written before 1830), where what he calls an ‘idee fixe’ is used in the manner of the leitmotif. The idee fixe’ itself is as follows:
It seems hardly necessary to point to Wagner’s works as containing the most remarkable examples of leitmotif, as it is with his name that they are chiefly associated. In his earlier works there are but suggestions of the principle, but in the later works, as in ‘Tristan’ and the ‘Trilogy,’ they are worked up into a most elaborate and consistent system. The following examples will serve to illustrate some of the most characteristic of his ‘leitmotif and his use of them.
The curse which is attached to the Rheingold ring is a very important feature in the development of the story of the ‘Trilogy,’ and its leitmotif, which consequently is of frequent occurrence, is terribly gloomy and impressive. Its first appearance is singularly apt, as it is the form in which Alberich the Niblung first declaims the curse when the ring is reft from him by Wotan, as follows:
Among the frequent reappearances of this motif, two may be taken as highly characteristic. One is toward the end of the ‘Rheingold,’ where Fafner kills his brother giant Fasolt for the possession of the ring, and the leitmotif being heard resembles the hearers of the doom pronounced on the possessors of the ring by Alberich.
Another instance is in the Gotterdammerung. When Siegfried comes to the Hall of the Gibichungs on the Rhine, with the ring in his possession, having obtained it by slaying Fafner, who had taken the form of a dragon to preserve it, the first person to greet him is Hagen, the son of Alberich, who looks to compass Siegfried’s death, and regain the ring for the Niblungs by that means. As Hagen says ‘Heil Siegfried, theurer Held,’ the greeting is belied by the ominous sound of the leitmotif of the curse, which thus foretells the catastrophe in the sequel of which Hagen is the instrument and Siegfried the victim and lend a deep and weird interest to the situation. Siegfried himself has ‘motive’ assigned to him in different circumstances and relations. For instance, the following figure, which he blows on the horn made for him by Mime, is the one which most frequently announces his coming. It implies his youthful and light hearted state before he had developed into the mature and experienced hero:
This figure is frequently subjected to considerable development, and to one important transformation, which appears, for instance, in the death march as follows:
In his character as mature hero he is notified by the following noble figure:
which occurs as above in the last act of the ‘Walkure,’ when Wotan has laid Brunnhilde to sleep on the ‘Felsenhohe,’ with a wall of fire around her; and the sounding of the motif implies that Siegfried is the hero who shall pass through the fire and waken Brunnhilde to be his bride. A happy instance of its recurrence is when, in the first act of ‘Siegfired,’ the youthful hero tells how he had looked into the brook and saw his own image reflected there.
In the above examples the marked character of the figure lies chiefly in their melody. There are others which are marked chiefly by rhythm, as the persistent motif of Mime imitating the rhythmic succession of blows on an anvil:
which points to his occupation as a smith. This motif occurs in connection with the rattling blows of the hammers of the Nibelung smiths underground, at the end of the second scene of the ‘Rheingold,’ and thus shows its derivation.
Other ‘motif’ again are chiefly conspicuous by reason of impressive and original progressions of harmony. OF this kind that of the Tarnhelm is a good example. It occurs as follows, where Alberich first tests the power of the helm at the beginning of the third scene of the ‘Rheingold’:
Another instance, where a strongly marked melodic figure is conjoined with an equally striking progression of harmony, is the ‘death motif’ in ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ which first appears in the second scene, where Isolde sings as follows:
A figure which it is difficult to characterize, but which has a marvelous fascination, is the motif of the love potion in ‘Tristan und Isolde.’
The love potion is the key to the whole story, and therefore the musical portion of the work appropriately commences with its leitmotif. Among the numerous example so fits recurrence one is particularly interesting. When King Mark has discovered the passionate love which existed between Tristan and Isolde he is smitten with bitter sorrow that Tristan, whom he had so loved and trusted should have so betrayed him, and appeals to Tristan himself. Then as Tristan slowly answers him the motif is heard, and, without its being so expressed (for Tristan does not excuse himself), conveys the impression that Tristan and Isolde are not to blame, but they are the victoms of the love potion they had unwittingly shared.
Prior to contemporary composers, though subsequent to the idee fix of Berlioz, a few hints of the spirit of leitmotif may be found in various places for instance:
In Meyerbeer’s ‘Prophete’, when the prophet in the early part of the work speaks of the dream of future splendor in store for him, the fist strain of the processional march is heard.
Again, the system of giving a particular instrumental tone to the accompaniment of particular characters which is clearly analogous, is notable in the string accompaniment of Christ’s words in Bach’s ‘Passion,’ and in the sounding of the trombones when the Commendatore appears in ‘Don Giovanni,’ and the adoption of a similar quality of tone or definite phrase as the accompaniment to special utterances of Elijah in Mendelssohn’s oratorio, and to the appearance of Don Quixote in his opera of ‘Camacho’s Hochzeit’ (1825).
Among other instances of the use of what is practically a ‘leading motif,’ apart from the advanced school of composers, should be mentioned ‘La Clochette’ of Herold, in which the melody of ‘Me viola,’ allotted to Lucifer, appears at every entrance of the character.