leitmotif

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leitmotif

, leitmotiv
1. Music a recurring short melodic phrase or theme used, esp in Wagnerian music dramas, to suggest a character, thing, etc.
2. an often repeated word, phrase, image, or theme in a literary work

Leitmotif

 

a musical figure—a motif, a phrase, an entire theme (rarely), or a progression of harmony—that is stated repeatedly as a representational device in a composition. A leitmotif is usually intended to characterize or illustrate a particular personage, subject, situation, idea, phenomenon, or emotion.

Nineteenth-century composers used the leitmotif principle on a wide scale in opera, ballet, and instrumental program music. In his late operas R. Wagner based the musical and dramatic development on a complex system of leitmotifs. The Russian classical composers Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky used the leitmotif in an artistically convincing way but combined it with other musical principles; thus the leitmotif was not as central to their music as it is to Wagner’s.

The leitmotif has retained its importance in 20th-century music—for example, in Prokofiev’s operas and ballets. Motion-picture scores rely heavily on the principle.

Literary analysis frequently turns to the concept of the leitmotif—a representational figure that is repeated in a work as a constant attribute of a character, mood, or situation. Appearing repeatedly, often with modification, the leitmotif grows in associations and acquires an ideological, psychological, or symbolic depth. For example, the noise of a watchman’s rattle in Chekhov’s novella The Bride is transformed into a symbol for the monotony and dullness of philistine life; simultaneously it underscores the changes in the heroine’s attitudes. In poetry, there are also leitmotifs of sound, rhythm, and intonation.

The term “leitmotif” has also come to have a broader common meaning, which defines, for example, the dominant theme in a person’s activity or in a chain of events.

REFERENCES

Wagner, R. “0 primenenii muzyki k drame.” In Izbr. stati Moscow, 1935.
Druskin, M. S. Voprosy muzykal’noi dramaturgii opery. Leningrad, 1952. Iarustovskii, B. M. Dramaturgiia russkoi opernoi klassiki. Moscow, 1953.
Rimsky-Korsakov, N. A. “‘Snegurochka’—vesenniaia skazka.” Poln. sobr. sock, vol. IV. Moscow, 1960.

G. V. KRAUKLIS