C9 | The Leitmotif

What is a leitmotif?

  • A leitmotif is a musical motif or idea, representing something or other.
  • It could be a character, time of day, an emotion, a principle, or indeed, anything else that is needed to draw the attention of an audience.
  • The composer Berlioz called this idea an idée-fixe (the fixed idea) and introduced it in his voluminous work the Symphonie Fantastique. In this innovative work, the musical motif, the idée-fixe, conveys his obsession with his girlfriend, an actress.
  • In Wagner’s works the leitmotif is continuously developed more so throughout the whole work, making his technique so pioneering.
  • In the links that follow, we see how Wagner changes his leitmotifs with varying techniques to coincide with the plot in the drama.

First of all, we meet the characters:

  1. The Mastersingers. A guild or society of singers, intent on keeping and upholding the musical traditions of Germany.
  2. Hans Sachs: a cobbler, a traditional Meistersinger but able to empathise with development and change.
  3. Walther: a young knight, in love with Eva, and keen on winning the annual singing competition in order to also win her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, her father is a traditional meistersinger and Walther’s singing is not compatible with their views. He is at a disadvantage from the start. He would like to be a part of the guild but his first audition is disastrous because he doesn’t toe the line.
  4. Pogner: a goldsmith, Meistersinger, Eva’s father.
  5. Eva: Pogner’s daughter, in love with Walther.
  6. Beckmesser: a much older man, also intent on marrying Eva. He has a head start in being a Meistersinger. His disadvantage is that he’s a bit of an idiot!
  • We can observe from the characters that there is fertile ground here for contrasts and tensions between the two groups. This is of course an ideal situation to create contrasts in the music as well.
  • Needless to say, Walther wins the prize in the end, giving Wagner as a composer the chance to weave two contrasting ideas together in the marriage ceremony where everyone is content.

Listen to the Overture to Wagner’s music-drama Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nurenmberg ):

Nürnberg is a town in Germany. The story follows a singing competition where Walther, a young man, is intent on winning the first prize, namely the hand in marriage of the daughter of one of the more conservative of the town singers. Tension arises between the more traditional singers (the Masters) and the more contemporary and freer style of singing heard by young Walther.

Wagner preferred to call his musical works for the stage music-dramas rather than operas, probably to pronounce a new genre compared to the traditional opera which had been around for centuries. In his stage works, the integration of all the elements – music, drama, staging, and set – contribute to the finished product. His music dramas are extensive and very lengthy. This work takes over 5 hours to perform and there are even longer works by him. Die Meistersinger was performed for the first time in 1868.

Overture (to an opera). An overture contains all the main themes of the opera that follows, thus preparing the listener for the rest of the performance.

Composition task

C9 Composition task