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A leitmotif is an artistic medium that, coupled with an initially non-artistic content, can be found again and again in the entirety of the work. Depending on the art direction ( music , painting , architecture or literature ), different motifs are used and implemented. Colors, moods, symbols, people, tone sequences, sentences and much more can be used as a leitmotif. They are then only used with this meaning within this work. The word has also found its way into English and is usually written as “leitmotif”.

The concept of the leitmotif appeared for the first time in 1871 in Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns ' directory of the works of Carl Maria von Weber . According to other sources, Hans von Wolhaben is said to have coined the term. In the French language as well as in other languages, the term “leitmotiv” (often with an “f”) was able to establish itself as the terminus technicus .

Sometimes a leitmotif is used in the narrower sense when it is subject to musical processing as a theme. In the broader sense, a distinction is made between this and the motif of remembrance , which appears several times in the same work unchanged in a certain scenic or programmatic context.

Romantic music

In music, especially in that of the 19th century, the leitmotif is a mostly shorter, characteristic tone structure that recurs at least once, but mostly more frequently and associatively with a certain, usually extra-musical meaning, for example a person, an object, an idea or symbolizes a feeling. Since it is not subjected to specific musical processing processes, i.e. the thematic-motivic work, for example in a sonata movement , it typically forms a design element in musical dramas , but also in oratorios and symphonic poems . In order to be recognized by the recipient, especially within a longer work context, it almost always has a concise, well-defined shape that is only slightly and carefully changed. As musical material for leitmotifs, therefore, not only characteristic melodies or melody parts (but not common formulas and phrases of musical rhetoric ), but also unusual chords such as the diminished seventh chord of the Samiel motif in Der Freischütz (1821) and, most of all, are suitable , the Tristan chord . The French tradition from which this practice arose is often no longer known.

Vaudeville and Opéra comique

The French vaudevilles of the 16th century were hit melodies that spread quickly and were constantly being rewritten. This gave rise to a popular practice of remembering certain melodies and their context. This very long-lasting tradition also had an impact on the Parisian theater, namely the Opéra comique , which had its origins in the Parisian fairground theater . Because speaking was temporarily forbidden in stage productions at the annual markets, a melody there could remind of a certain non-articulated text. Characteristic dances to familiar melodies were also common. It was possible to play with a network of memories that were alternately connected to body movement, song and language.

The Opéras comiques by François-André Danican Philidor , Monsigny , Dalayrac , later André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry or Étienne-Nicolas Méhul , which were also played very often in the German-speaking area, contained memory melodies with a sophisticated dramaturgy that had been tried and tested for many years the re-encounter of figures was used. Before the French Revolution, Grétrys Richard Cœur de Lion (1784) was particularly well known, in which the song "une fièvre brûlante" embodies the ideals of the savior and liberator Richard the Lionheart.

The older vaudeville tradition remains present in 19th century theater both inside and outside the opera. In Yelva, the Russian orphan (1828) by Eugène Scribe , a mixture of melodrama and vaudeville, certain vocal texts are recalled parallel to the plot with well-known instrumental melodies that give different moments of the plot a color. Many librettists and composers in the then still provincial areas outside France and Italy tried to build on these successes.

Weber and Spohr

German-language Singspiele were only local variants and mostly also translations of the Opéra comique and merely adopted their stylistic features. Since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, a nationalist music historiography has tried to "deny the origin of this technique from the Opéra comique, philological inaccuracies as well as the analytically and terminologically undifferentiated treatment of leitmotif and memory motif" to turn the leitmotif into a "genuinely German" To make an appearance, which partly still has an impact today.

The fact that Carl Maria von Weber was the first composer to use leitmotifs is a mistake, which is mainly due to the fact that the word was first mentioned in his catalog raisonné by Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns . Weber actually admired this technique in Louis Spohr's opera Faust (1816): "Happy and correctly calculated, some melodies run like quiet threads through the whole thing and hold it together". About Nicolas Dalayrac's Léhéman ou La Tour de Neustadt (1801) he remarks: “The romance 'A pilgrim is wrong' is particularly interesting because of its intimate interweaving with the whole of the plot. In the most tense and decisive scenes, the friendly melody appears like a comforting star and promises the expectant audience the rescue of loved ones. "

A bracket between the overture and the core theme of the piece is formed by a motif from the slow introduction to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Così fan tutte and Il dissoluto punito ossia Il Don Giovanni (only the full title in this case makes this bracket clear).

Berlioz and Wagner

In the symphonic poem, Hector Berlioz used the concept of the leitmotif as a so-called "idée fixe" in the Symphonie Fantastique for large orchestra. Richard Wagner perfected and used the leitmotif technique extensively in his operas and musical dramas , although he never used the term himself, but spoke of “memory motifs ”. His Ring des Nibelungen is almost criss-crossed by a network of leitmotifs, whereby these are often derived from one another and, due to slight changes in note value or rhythm as well as in the instrumentation, clearly differ, but are nevertheless related in terms of motif. The peculiarity of the leitmotifs lies - with Wagner - "precisely not in the rigid fixation, but in the deviating, transforming and metamorphizing caused by the poetic intention."

Film music

Leitmotifs are also an important means of composing film music . The use of Grieg's whistled In der Halle des Bergkönig as the “signature tune” of the murderer in Fritz Lang's M is often mentioned as the first example of a musical leitmotif in talkies. It was then Max Steiner who made this technique usable for film in the early 1930s, first in Graf Zaroff - Genie des Böse (1932) and in King Kong and the White Woman (1933). Steiner's best-known film music, which makes extensive use of the leitmotif technique, is that for Gone with the Wind (1939). The soundtracks for the cartoons, feature films and documentaries by Walt Disney also consistently use leitmotifs. Other well-known examples are the many different recurring themes and motifs in Star Wars ( John Williams ) and in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations ( Howard Shore ). A particularly striking example of intensive leitmotif work in film music is Ennio Morricone's music for Once Upon a Time in the West . Even in Pirates of the Caribbean return leitmotifs (z. B. " He's a Pirate " by Klaus Badelt ) several films through again and again.


In musicals , too , especially in the more serious, dramatic works that are closely based on literary models, there are frequent leitmotiv structures.

West Side Story

In the musical West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein acts as a guiding principle, a combination of intervals fourth and tritone , and the fourth for the Sharks , a street gang Puerto Rican teenager, and the tritone for the rival American youth gang the Jets is.

Les Miserables

The musical Les Misérables contains a number of (rather abstract) leitmotifs that run through the work again and again at characteristic points and structure them dramatically, for example the motif of the legal-normative specification, which z. B. used by policeman Javert whenever he is bringing legal charges:

This motif is in contrast to the motif of personal-emphatic impulse / participation, which is used in almost all places in which a morally sincere person complains about their suffering from the current social, societal or personal constellation, for example in Fantine's death aria , in Eponine's famous ballad “On My Own” as well as in the finale, which is Javert's conclusion on life in general and in France in the pre-March period in particular.


A leitmotif is used in literature

  • a memorable and recurring statement in the same wording
  • or a thematic unit,

which serves to structure the narrative and often to represent the plot or the development of the protagonists of a literary work.

Van der Steenhoven differentiates between “situational” and “textual” leitmotifs. Textual leitmotifs repeat words or larger text units, situational leitmotifs on the other hand actions or situations. There is also the phenomenon of “duplication” when the same actions or motives recur in different people or in different situations. An example of a textual leitmotif would be the repetition of the phrase “A wide field” in Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest .

Jürgen Link defines the leitmotif in his "Basic Literary Concepts" structurally as "recurrence of morphemes or lexemes ". As “series” of elements that “all belong to the same lexical root”, leitmotifs according to Link are often characterized by the correspondence of phonetic and semantic repetition. Link explains this on the basis of short text excerpts from advertising and poetry and works out that mere phonetic correspondence is not sufficient for the formation of a leitmotif.

The leitmotif often functions as a guide that runs through a complete narrative. It often shows certain modifications with the same basic structure and thus represents the change of the protagonists in the plot.

An example in the literature for the technique of the leitmotif is the protagonists' dental problems as a recurring symbol of the decline of the Buddenbrook family in Thomas Mann 's novel of the same name .

As a rhythmic theme in is Verslehre dominant, perpetual recurrence of Kolonformen referred.

See also


  • Jürgen Link: Basic concepts in literary studies: a programmed introduction on a structuralist basis. In: Volume 305 by UTB für Wissenschaft, Issue 5, UTB Verlag 1993, ISBN 3-8252-0305-0 .
  • Robert Maschka: Wagner. Tristan and Isolde. Henschel, Leipzig 2013, ISBN 978-3-89487-924-2 .
  • Ton van der Steenhoven: Leitmotifs in Thomas Mann's “Death in Venice”. 2009, ISBN 978-3-640-38226-2 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Leitmotiv  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. See Thomas Betzwieser: Function and Poetics of Vaudevilles in the Théâtre de la Foire, in: Herbert Schneider (Ed.): Chanson and Vaudeville. Social singing and entertaining communication in the 18th and 19th centuries, Röhrig, St. Ingbert, 1999, pp. 157–184.
  2. ^ Sieghart Döhring, Sabine Henze-Döhring: Opera and music drama in the 19th century, Laaber 1997, p. 99.
  3. ^ Weber, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. G. Kaiser, 1908, p. 275.
  4. Weber, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. G. Kaiser, 1908, p. 114. It can hardly be overlooked that Weber uses the Agathen theme in the Freischütz in an analogous way.
  5. For the early history of memory and leitmotifs, see the contributions by Wörner and Engländer in: Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft , Vol. 14 (1931/32).
  6. Maschka, p. 45.
  7. Ton van der Steenhoven: Leitmotive in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice", 2009, p. 8.
  8. a b Jürgen Link: Basic concepts in literary studies, p. 116.