Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Leitmotifs in Wagner and Movies

A leitmotif is a musical identification tag which is used to represent a person, idea, place or thing. The use of the leitmotif in opera is mainly associated with Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen. Wagner was an absolute master at using leitmotifs in order to continue the action from beginning to end. He used it to differentiate himself from the Italian style of recitative, aria, people screaming bravo or booing depending on the circumstances. The way Wagner uses this device influenced movie composers such as John Williams. People do not start applauding after a dashing rendition of the Imperial March from Star Wars while the movie is actually going on. In concert performance absolutely. Wagner's Ring is like a series of movies with a prologue and a trilogy. The whole thing is 15 hours, so it is wise to break it up. The use of leitmotifs was around before Wagner. However, he was the true master at using them in my opinion. Here is how he uses leitmotifs in the ring. There are hundreds of leitmotifs in the ring cycle, and it is absolutely astounding how he puts the cycle all together. He uses leitmotifs in the past, present and the future. Also, he presents them in different keys, he makes them longer or shorter, and with different instruments. Finally, he uses them even when the people, places, ideas or things are not present. Siegfried's horn call is a horn passage that a lot of musicians are familiar with. Since it is called Siegfried's horn call, it is a leitmotif. Wagner represents Siegfried with this horn call by presenting it in a variety of ways. For example, when Siegfried goes into the dragon cave to kill Fafner, the horn call is played at length to alert Fafner of Siegfried's presence. Of course this pisses Fafner off, so the dragon motif is heard at a frantic pace. These particular motifs are instrumental only, and there is always an unspoken message. Siegfried's horn call at this point represents his confidence and energy. Siegfried's horn call is heard during Siegfried's Rhein Journey, but he is not actually seen. It is played by various instruments in various keys, and at various lengths. Siegfried is jovial at this point, so the various instruments playing his theme represent that. Another use of this horn call, and the final one I am going to discuss is when Siegfried wakes up the sleeping Brunnhilde. This is the point where he says "das ist kein Mann" (that is no man). No shit, Sherlock. Seriously, he has never seen a woman before, so the horn call is played with tremendous excitement and passion. The idea of a motif being played at various speeds, in different keys, at various points in time, and to represent different emotions is a device used in movies. The Star Wars Trilogy is the ultimate example of the use of leitmotifs in movies. The composer of Star Wars, John Williams is one of many composers influenced by Richard Wagner. The imperial march is the theme associated with the dark side of the force. In The Empire Strikes Back, the imperial march is is introduced for the first time. It keeps recurring throughout The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. It is mainly associated with Darth Vader's presence. It is used in different keys, at different speeds and with different instruments. For example when Vader dies at the end of Return of the Jedi, the theme is played very slowly and softly as Vader stops breathing. The love theme between Han Solo and Leia is a recurring motif also. It is not varied as much with instrumentation, but it does change keys. It always has a great deal of passion and confidence to it like the good guys are going to win. There are other films where leitmotifs are used. In the film Psycho everytime Tony Perkins kills someone the theme from the very beginning of the movie is heard. So, the audience knows the film is about a nut job. This theme is played in it's entirety when the main character finishes a killing when dressed as his mother. It is played in bits and pieces when he is committed at the end. I have focused on the leitmotif and how it is used musically. It is a symbolic device away from music as well. I think that everyone's life has a general theme which is used in varying ways.

1 comment:

  1. This blog comes at a good time for me as I have begun studying The Flying Dutchman, the role of Senta. Thanks, Nick.