Wagner's Music--The Leitmotifs

In the Italian opera tradition, the main musical interest is carried in arias, which are separate songs with a beginning and an end. In performance, the action comes to a full stop after each aria to allow for thunderous audience applause, and opera arias are often taken out of the opera entirely and performed as concert pieces. Between the arias the story is advanced in recitative, which is dialogue sung to a minimal accompaniment. The recitative carries the plot, and the arias provide emotional resonance at key points.

In Wagner and his followers, the Italian tradition is abandoned in favor of a system of leading motives or leitmotifs. The distinction between aria and recitative goes away, and the music flows more or less continuously. Some passages are more aria-like and some more recitative-like, but the boundary between them is fluid and ill-defined. There is no pause in the action, and the audience has no opportunity to applaud until the curtain falls at the end of each act. Passages from Wagner are still excerpted and turned into concert pieces, but it's harder; unless the passage comes at the very end of an act, it is often necessary to alter the ending so as to provide a proper cadence.

The word "leitmotif" sounds exotic and strange, but the fact is that we have all become so accustomed to this approach that we don't even notice it. From the beginning of the talkies, composers of movie scores have used the technique of associating a particular tune with a character or situation, and they all got the idea from Wagner. In the Star Wars movies, for example, John Williams plays a characteristic theme whenever anyone talks about The Force. After a few repetitions, the theme becomes associated with the idea, and its appearance will remind the viewer of The Force and general Jedi-ness even if the characters are not mentioning it directly. Unless you've seen the movie many times or are paying very close attention, the association is unconscious but still effective.

In the Ring, Wagner takes this notion to a level of sophistication far beyond what movies ever attempt; after all, he has 15 hours in which to develop his motives. Over the course of the opera cycle, they evolve and grow right along with his characters. For instance, Wotan's main motive, Valhalla, is first heard in a bright, solid major key, as confident and assertive as Wotan himself. Later on, when Wotan has gotten himself into an insoluble dilemma and is despairing, we hear the Valhalla motive turned into a wrenching, minor-keyed cry of pain, with the "Rhinegold" trumpet call thrown in to remind us that the gold was the ultimate source of his problem. (It is hard to hear what's going on in this passage; the trick is to listen to the orchestra, not Wotan.) By the end of the cycle, the major motives have taken on such a load of associations that passages like Brünnhilde's immolation scene or Siegfried's funeral march become overwhelming and complex emotional experiences.

Sometimes the orchestra will let you know what is going on when even the character doesn't know. For instance, in Act I of Die Walküre, Siegmund tells of the disappearance of his father ("Mein vater fande ich nicht."). He has no idea that his father is actually Wotan, but the orchestra lets the audience know it. Later, in Act II, Brünnhilde tells Siegmund she is going to take him to Valhalla. Siegmund asks if he will see his father Wälse there. Brünnhilde replies that he will, while the orchestra plays the Valhalla motive to remind us that Wälse is in fact Wotan.

You may be wondering why we call these musical elements motives and not melodies or themes. That's because most of them are not complete melodies (Valhalla is one of the exceptions) but short musical phrases, sometimes as brief as a couple of chords. If a melody is like a sentence, a motive is like a word or a phrase.

One other note: In Italian opera, the musical interest resides primarily with the singer, and the orchestra is providing accompaniment. In Wagner (just as in the movies), the motives appear, more often than not, in the orchestra rather than being sung. This means that, in Wagner, the orchestra is far more important than it is in Italian opera, and often carries most of the musical interest. That is why Wagner greatly enlarged his orchestra, and even went so far as to invent instruments, like the Wagner Tuba, to get the sounds he wanted. When you listen to Wagner, don't make the mistake of paying attention only to the singing.

The Motives

If you count every musical idea that is heard more than once, there are hundreds of leitmotifs in the Ring cycle--far too many to come to grips with on a first hearing. Furthermore, it's not necessary to know them before you go to a performance, any more than you have to know the "Force" theme before you go see Star Wars. On the other hand, knowing some of the major ones up front can greatly increase your appreciation the first time, and help reduce the sheer weight of all-new material you have to deal with. Here are some of the more important ones. Even if you don't memorize them, listening to them will help you get a feel for what a leitmotif is:

Valhalla -- This motive is first heard to signify the castle built by Wotan, and comes to stand for Wotan himself and the power and glory of the Gods. It is usually played by the brasses, and sounds solid and major-keyed and kind of churchy. Notice how the first phrase is kind of U-shaped; it goes down, then up.

The Ring -- You would expect the motive that signifies the Ring to be powerful and assertive, but this motive is frail and mournful and a little pathetic. It sounds vaguely minor-keyed, but its actual key is ambiguous, which gives it a feeling of elusiveness. Contrast those characteristics with the Valhalla motive, which is the exact opposite. Then notice that the Ring motive has the same U-shaped down-then-up structure as the first phrase of the Valhalla motive; it turns out the two motives are essentially the same music, only one solid and assertive and the other weak and furtive. What does that suggest about the relationship between Wotan and the Ring?

The Rhinemaidens' Happy Song -- The first voice you hear in the cycle is one of the Rhinemaidens singing this little tune, and it represents their state of perfect happiness and innocence before the Gold is stolen. It is heard at the very end of the cycle as well, when they get their gold back at last (see Redemption below).

The Rhinemaidens' Lament -- This is their song of grief over their lost Gold, and for most of the cycle, when the Rhine or the Rhinemaidens are referred to, this is the motive you hear.

Renunciation of Love -- This motive is first sung by one of the Rhinemaidens when she says that only the person who renounces love will be able to forge the Ring from the gold. Since the whole opera cycle is largely about the value of love and people's willingness to abandon it for worldly ends, this motive shows up a lot. After the first few times, Wagner usually just uses the last phrase by itself.

Curse -- First sung by Alberich as he curses the Ring, this motive appears every time the curse claims another victim.

Wotan's Spear -- Wotan's power is based on the treaties inscribed on his spear, and this sharp descending scale is the symbol of those treaties and of the spear itself.

Rhinegold -- An ascending arpeggio by the trumpet or the horn. It always reminds me of a bugle call. Since the Rhinegold is the ultimate source of the whole story, Wagner uses a "fundamental" motive--a simple major chord played as a melody. The Gold is, after all, a simple thing; it's all the intriguing by the characters and their lust for the Ring that make everything complex, and this motive expresses that simplicity.

Sword -- Another brass "bugle call," very similar to the Rhinegold motive, that signifies the sword found by Siegmund, broken by Wotan, and reforged by Siegfried. The way I tell this one from the Rhinegold motive is to notice that the Sword motive always starts with a descending octave leap before moving upward.

Magic Fire -- Originally associated with Loge, it is used whenever fire occurs--most notably the fire that surrounds the sleeping Brünnhilde, and the fire that consumes Valhalla at the very end. Phil Spector, the great pop producer of the early 60s, once said, "Nobody could write more notes than Wagner," and this passage is a good example.

Sleep -- An eery sequence of descending chords--as vivid a musical depiction of falling asleep as you'll find anywhere.

Nature -- The first motive heard in the opera cycle--a simple ascending arpeggio, symbolizing the fundamental character of nature. Notice its similarity to the Rhinegold motive; both outline a simple rising chord.

Erda -- Erda's motive is simply the Nature motive rendered in minor instead of major. She is, after all, Mother Earth itself ("Erda" means "earth" in German), she is a part of nature and shares the fundamentality of "Nature" and "Rhinegold".

Siegfried -- Siegfried has many motives associated with him. This is probably the most important, and signifies Siegfried as hero. This is the motive that is heard when Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she will bear a son, and also when Wotan pronounces that "only he who knows no fear" will break through his ring of magic fire that surrounds Brünnhilde.

Siegfried's Horn -- The horn call signifies Siegfried in his adventurous exuberance.

Redemption By Love -- This one only appears twice, but I include it because one of those times is the very last thing you hear in the whole cycle. The first time is when Sieglinde escapes to the forest knowing she bears Siegmund's son.

The second time is the very end, when Valhalla goes up in flames and the world is redeemed. The Redemption motive is heard interwoven with the Valhalla motive and the Rhinemaiden's happy song from the opening scene. The Magic Fire motive sparkles, the Siegfried motive makes a brief appearance, and then Redemption stands alone as the curtain falls. I include this passage in all its wonder. It is over a meg, but it is one of the great finales in all music, and worth a moment or two to download.