Wagner's Leitmotifs

©  Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
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 dozens 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.
Wagner had raised the issue of how music could best unite disparate elements of the plot of a music drama in his essay Opera and Drama; the leitmotif technique corresponds to this ideal.
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 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.).
Some of the motifs he identified began to appear in the published musical scores of the operas.
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 (see below) and Robert Donington.

Richard Wagner
These small, distinctive snatches of music, often no more than one or two measures long, are the bricks with which Wagner built his operas, including the massive sixteen-hour cycle 'Der Ring des Niblungen'.
By establishing, and subsequently layering these motives, Wagner devised a way for the listener to be guided to, and in many cases, recall certain characters or plot points.
Furthermore, Wagner often directly commented on the action in the opera through his use of significant leitmotifs.
One method of commentary was to show characters’ hidden intentions and thoughts by juxtaposing two or three motives at the same time in both the vocal lines and in the orchestral texture.
But what do the leitmotifs actually contain ?
How are they constructed ? How are they able to convey so much powerful emotion in so very few notes?
Here we will examine some of the key leitmotifs from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niblungenin order to more deeply understand Wagner’s intent, and how Wagner is able to be so effective in their use.

Deryck Cooke
In performing this analysis, we would wisely turn to one of the great Wagnerian scholars - Deryck Cooke.
In addition to his landmark analyses of 'Das Rheingoldand' and 'Die Walkürein', Cooke is also the author of an influential and remarkably perceptive book on musical analysis called 'The Language of Music'.
In this book, Cooke argues that Western tonal music is literally a language of the emotions; the emotions conveyed being those of the composer.
Deryck Cooke (14 September 1919 – 27 October 1976) was a British musician, musicologist and broadcaster.
Cooke was born in Leicester to a poor and working-class family; his father died when he was a child, but his mother was able to afford piano lessons.
Cooke acquired a brilliant technique and began to compose.
He won an organ scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was taught by Patrick Hadley and Robin Orr.

Deryck Cooke 1940
His undergraduate studies were interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in the Royal Artillery and took part in the invasion of Italy.
Towards the end of the war he became pianist in an army dance band.
Back in Cambridge, a number of his compositions were successfully performed, but he was insecure about their unfashionably conservative idiom, and eventually destroyed most of his works.
After graduating in 1947 Cooke joined the BBC; apart from an interlude (1959–65) working as a freelance writer and critic, he worked for the Corporation for the remainder of his life.
His job involved writing and editing scripts for the music department and broadcasting for radio and television, where his thoughtful, unaffected manner made him an ideal communicator.

Gustav Mahler 1909
Beginning in the run-up to the Mahler centenary in 1960, Cooke (in association with Berthold Goldschmidt) made his first attempt at producing a 'performing version' of the unfinished draft of Mahler's 10th Symphony. Originally a lecture demonstration broadcast by the BBC in 1960, the first full (continuous) version was premièred on 13 August 1964 at 'The Proms' by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Goldschmidt.
Revised editions followed, with the composers David Matthews and Colin Matthews assisting Cooke and Goldschmidt in the attempt to produce an authentically Mahlerian orchestration.
Finally seen into print by Cooke and his collaborators in 1976, the work has now become a part of the repertoire.
Cooke's last years were marred by ill-health, and he died prematurely of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1976, at the age of 57.
During the final years of his life he had worked on a large-scale study of Wagner's massive operatic tetralogy 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', however, only part of the first volume, dealing with the text, was finished; it was published after his death as 'I Saw the World End'.
The loss of what would almost certainly have been the definitive study of the music of the 'Ring' is deeply regrettable.
A collection of Cooke's essays and talks was also published after his death as 'Vindications'.
Cooke's archive is held at Cambridge University Library.
Though he was the author of many articles, and several books, one of the most influential writings is his book 'The Language of Music'.
The book is most often cited as a representative of the expressionist theory of art, which maintains that beauty in music depends upon the accurate representation of the emotions of its creators, and it has been described as, "a glossary, matching various predicates with musical phrases or chordal sequences."
Cooke believes that memory for melodic contour and implicit harmony is allied to its affective character.
In 'The Language of Music', Cooke begins by saying that music can be closely related to three other art forms - architecture, painting, and literature.
Of these three, he feels the analogy of music to literature is similar in that both make use of an aural language to express emotion.
Because of this analogy, he explores further the similarities between music and language in form and content, eventually coming to the conclusion that music is indeed a language.

'The Language of Music' (1959)
In 'The Language of Music' (1959) Cook argued that music is essentially a language of the emotions, and showed that composers throughout history had tended to choose the same musical phrases to express similar feelings or dramatic situations.
He writes,
In any case, it is undeniable that composers have consciously or unconsciously used music as a language, from at least 1400 (A.D.) onward - a language never formulated in a dictionary, because by its very nature it is incapable of such treatment.” 
He goes on to define the vocabulary of the language in the following manner:
Beginning with the basic material - notes of definite pitch - we must understand that musical works are built out of the tensions between such notes.
These tensions can be set up in three dimensions - pitch, time, and volume; and the setting up of such tensions, and the coloring of them by the characterizing agents of tone-color and texture, constitute the whole apparatus of musical expression.” 
Of these three dimensions, Cooke spends the great majority of the book on pitch.
He goes on to describe the emotional connotations of the various intervals of the major and minor scales.
For example, he describes a major third as a “concord, natural third: joy,” and a minor sixth as a “semitonal tension down to the dominant, in a minor context: active anguish in context of flux.” 
These descriptions build to one of the major ideas of the book - what Cooke calls his “Basic Terms of Musical Vocabulary.
These terms are a set of seventeen basic pitch patterns to which Cooke ascribes distinct emotional meanings.
It is with these terms and descriptions of intervals that we can analyze Wagner’s leitmotifs.
Cooke is by no means the first to attach non-musical meanings to musical ideas.
As far back as the Middle Ages, music theorists were giving “characteristics” to the various modes (scales) in which the Gregorian chants were composed, based on the characteristics given them by Plato and other Greek philosophers.
In the musical Baroque period, musical form was linked closely to the art of rhetoric, as outlined in treatises that discussed “The Doctrine of Affections.”
It was thought that in good rhetorical speaking, the object was to affect the listener with his argument.
The statement would have “figures of speech” which would make it more affective.

Richard Strauss
In the same way, a musical statement would have musical figures, or motives, which would make the musical statement more affective to an audience.
These motives would be very similar to Cooke’s “terms,” though Cooke has adapted the concept to a specifically major-minor vocabulary used in the period of Romantic music (roughly 1825-1914) which was subsequently perfected by Wagner and Richard Strauss.
Finally, it is interesting to note that during Wagner’s lifetime there were a set of key characteristics given to all the major and minor keys put together by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1739-1791) in his book 'Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst'.
These key characteristics were well known to the majority of composers of the day.
Undoubtedly, Wagner was included in that group.
It is difficult to say whether Wagner used ideas from Schubart or his own.
However, a good case can be made that Wagner was influenced by Schubart’s ideas.


With the foundation in Cooke’s ideas regarding musical expression in hand, we can turn to the leitmotifs of Richard Wagner’s 'Der Ring des Niblungen'.
The first motive we can explore is the one associated with the Ring itself.

Example 1 – The Ring motive
In Example 1 we find the definitive version of the Ring motive.

The Ring
It takes place in the key of E minor, and essentially outlines a vii° 7 chord, which is made up entirely of intervals of a minor third.
For this I would use both Cooke’s terms #3 and #6 to analyze this passage 7 , because the middle voice is outlining a minor scale first going down and then back up.
When we look at Cooke’s meanings we can’t help but agree with the analysis.
Term #3 connotes an “outgoing feeling of pain,” while term #6 connotes “incoming painful emotion.”
What we are seeing symbolized in the Ring motive is a cycle of pain that is never ending.
What can be a more appropriate definition for the Ring which brings death and despair to all those who come in contact with it ?
Next we shall examine the motive for Alberich’s Curse. Example 2 –

Example 2 – Alberich’s Curse
Alberich’s Curse is originally stated in B minor.

Alberich’s Curse
The most striking feature of the motive is the occurrence of the C-natural, which is the interval of a tritone (diminished fifth or augmented fourth) away from the beginning note, F-sharp.
The diminished fifth is one of the most distinctive and dissonant intervals in tonal music.
In the Middle Ages the interval was called “diabolus in musica,” or the “devil in music” because it was thought that the sound was dissonant and therefore sinister.
Cooke describes the interval as bringing to mind “devilish and inimical forces.” 
We see the trombone line in the first half of the motive outline an f#° 7 chord.
Again, we have a chord made entirely of intervals of a minor third, and so again I apply Cooke’s term #3, which contains the definition “outgoing feeling of pain, protest of misfortune.”
Certainly these emotions can be applied to Alberich.
However, still more interesting is the second half of the trombone line in the motive, starting with the E-natural.
It outlines a C major chord. So I go to Cooke’s term #5 and see that a descending major chord connotes “(if loud) a sense of confidence.”
Certainly, when Alberich sings the curse it is both loud and confident.
One could even describe the curse as defiant.

Next, let us turn to the Spear motive.
I also feel that this motive not only represents the Spear, but also Wotan himself, as he is the only major character that does not have a motive specifically named after him.

Example 3 – The Spear
Just as the Curse motive, the Spear motive is one that carries multiple intentions overlapping with one another at the end.

Wotan's Spear
The key of the motive is both C major and A minor.
The two keys coexist easily together because they both have the same key signature, and are relative keys. As you look at Example 3, the Spear motive is in the accompaniment line, not the voice part.
It is essentially a descending C major scale for the first half of the motive.
The terms that apply are #14 and #5.
We must account for the loud dynamic of the motive.
According to Cooke, Wagner is expressing Wotan’s great confidence in himself—an attribute that he first possesses in abundance.
However, as the motive progresses down the scale, our ears hear a shift to the A minor scale, which would imply term #6.
In other words, Wotan along with his sense of confidence has an “acceptance of, or yielding to grief; discouragement and depression; passive suffering; despair connected with death; passive falling away from the joy in life.”
Cooke gives us a description of Wotan as the Wanderer in the third opera Siegfried.
We see in Wotan’s own motive the foreshadowings of his own demise.

The next motive we will look at is that of Brünnhilde.

Example 4 – Brünnhilde
In this example in E flat major, the motive occurs twice, with the repetition of the motive an octave down in measures 3 and 4.

Upon further examination, we see that the thirty-second notes in the second half of the second beat in the first measure, along with the eighth note on the last half of the fourth beat of that same measure, both can be considered ornamentation of the key melody.
The melody itself is at its core only three notes - A flat, F and E flat.
When we look to Cooke, we see that term #12 best applies because just as in the term, we have a leap up of a major sixth, and a return down of a major second.
Cooke’s definition is again quite accurate in describing the character: “innocence and purity (of angels and children); affirmation of maximum joy.
What is Brünnhilde but simultaneously an angel (of Death as a Valkyrie) and a child (of Wotan)?
And what does she bring Siegfried but maximum joy?
Finally, let us take a look at the hero of the cycle, Siegfried.

Example 5 – Siegfried

This example is in C minor, and is yet again a motive that contains dual meanings - one at the beginning and one at the end.

The beginning outlines a C minor chord with one exception.
The standout feature in the first half of the motive is the A flat in m. 3.
The addition of the lowered sixth scale degree charges the passage with emotion.
This is not lost on Cooke, whose term #13 best goes along with the pattern in the motive by including the minor sixth scale degree.
Cooke describes the term as “a powerful assertion of unhappiness.”
This certainly is a foreshadowing of the end of 'Götterdämmerung', and harkens back to Wagner’s original idea for the material for the 'Ring Cycle' - an opera called 'Siegfrieds Tod' or 'The Death of Siegfried'.
The second half of the motive shows Siegfried’s most important characteristic.
The motive rises from scale degree five, to the tonic, and finally up to the minor third above.
Cooke’s term #4 fits this pattern exactly, and the description fits Siegfried’s character like a glove: “pure tragedy; strong feeling of courage; acknowledges tragedy and springs onward.”
I cannot think of a better description of Siegfried as the tragic hero.
After having analyzed five of the leitmotifs from 'Der Ring des Niblungen', what can we say about their construction ?
I think it is clear that the motives which Wagner created for his masterwork, the building blocks of his monumental achievement, are themselves crafted from smaller bits of music that contain inherent connotations.
These connotations may only apply to music of the nineteenth century, but they are embedded in the Western understanding of music.
Further, Wagner uses those connotations to reflect the objects or characters the leitmotifis supposed to represent.
Deryck Cooke’s theories prove to be invaluable in analyzing this type of music.

for more information about Wagner's Ring Lietmotifs go to

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