By Jeff Dunn
Rossini got it half right once. He said that Wagner had “beautiful moments but awful [brutti] quarter hours.” Yes, the Ring cycle lasts for 16 or more hours over four nights, driving some folks into periodic heavy Yawnville. But what Rossini may have missed is that those very moments of beauty, most often characterized by recurring, symbolic tunes such as the Ring, Rhine, and Spear themes known by Wagnerians as leitmotifs, are what — for me — mold the quarter hours into seemingly timeless states of rapt fascination.
And here’s the rub: to transform those awful quarter hours, to experience Wagner’s genius — and indeed, Wagner’s humanity — to a fuller, non-Yawnville extent, I urge that anyone spending the hours and money on the Ring and Wagner’s later operas should invest time in understanding leitmotifs.
Why a rub? I’ve developed a habit over the years of interviewing random listeners at symphony concerts I review. When I ask them how they liked what they heard, at least half of them demur at first, and respond with an apologetic “But I don’t know anything about classical music.” Although this fearful barrier — knowing — may be ascribed to the failure of American educational systems to impart a musical vocabulary, I assure my listener-interviewees that I’m asking about their feelings, not their knowledge, after which they usually reply more enthusiastically about their experience. Indeed, it’s their feelings (or those of their companions) that usually bring them into the concert hall or opera house to begin with, and feelings are by far reason enough to attend any classical music event.
But in the case of Wagner and his Ring cycle, feelings, while prerequisite, are not really enough alone. I beg acquaintances whenever I get the chance, and you, dear reader, if you’ve not already done so, to delve more into these leitmotif tunes — work though it may be. I can only speak from my own heart and experience, not from the authority of countless books on the subject, and try to give you just three out of dozens of reasons why I’m crazy about leitmotifs and why you should tackle them: (1) To be astonished by Wagner’s sheer exploitation of the leitmotif idea, (2) To experience the manifold intentional and unintentional ironies that can be conveyed by the leitmotif technique, and (3) To revel in the plain beauty of the tunes themselves.
Let’s begin with the magnitude of Wagner’s achievement with leitmotifs. The concept of leit (“guiding”) motives — to let a relatively short musical phrase represent a person, object, event, or idea — did not originate with Wagner — he didn’t even coin the now commonly used term for them. Von Weber, Marschner, Liszt, and Berlioz, among others, did it earlier. No, Wagner did not invent the leitmotif — any more than Ray Kroc invented the hamburger. It’s what he did with the idea that impresses.
Just as Kroc researched only the best-placed of an infinitude of locations for a McDonald’s franchise, so Wagner proliferated his leitmotifs among the most memorable short series of notes. The stirring calls for heroism characterized by dotted rhythms, diatonic-scale passages, leaps of a fourth or fifth of the scale (like in the American song “Columbia, the gem of the Ocean”), and emphasis on the first, third and fifth of the scale (as in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) are readily apparent in dozens of leitmotifs like the famous “Ride of the Valkyries.” So many of Wagner’s “guiding” tunes utilize memorable short series of notes in the above four categories, one wonders how many good ones were left after Wagner first thoroughly exploited the Mother Motive Lode.
Go Forth and Multiply
But it wasn’t just in staking tune claims that Wagner excelled. Just as dot-coms today register related names and even misspellings in addition to an “official” site, so Wagner altered initial leitmotifs to create DNA-like related leitmotifs, often to reflect changing events or attitudes on stage. Thus one leitmotif (or does it take two leitmotifs?) can populate a planet.
There are many examples of transformed leitmotifs to explore in the Ring (one website recognizes 178 separate but usually interrelated leitmotifs), but my favorite is the treatment of the Ring leitmotif between the first and second scenes of Das Rheingold. You have to listen carefully to catch this Ring tune. It goes down, then up in an almost circular fashion, somewhat similar in aspect to the slithery leitmotif assigned to the evil Niebelung dwarf Alberich, who fashioned the ring from the stolen Rhinegold. But as the first scene ends and the second begins, this vital Ring tune — elusive, yet representing, after all, the subject of the entire set of operas— morphs spectacularly into the noble tune for Valhalla, refuge of the gods. Wagner changes the intervals between the notes but not the basic shape of the Ring theme, which remains recognizable, albeit altered, in the Valhalla theme. Thus without mentioning a word about it in the libretto, Wagner taints the gods’ noble home theme with the theft of the Rhinegold and its forging into an instrument of power by bad-guy Alberich — even before the chief god Wotan begins to commit crimes of his own.
This brings me to the second reason for exploring leitmotifs: the fact that, once established, they can occur independently of the action and can evoke perceptions in the listener contrary to the thoughts of the characters on stage — in short, provide opportunities for ironic commentary. This “voice of the leitmotif” can be viewed as a subconscious, a Greek chorus commenting on the action, a reminder to the audience of past events or ideas contradictory to the present, or authorial comment.
A favorite such instance is in Act 1, Scene 2, of Die Walküre, where the hero Sigmund relates how his father Wolfe was lost in a battle. As he sings “My father was not there,” the orchestra plays the Valhalla tune, indicating to the leitmotif-savvy listener that, unknown to Sigmund, his father is the god Wotan. Here we have triple association: the object Valhalla associated via a tune to the man Wotan, linked to a character’s mention of his unknown father.
Once the interpretation of leitmotifs gets you going, you can see why discussions of Wagner’s music fill so many books: the technique encourages active listeners to create their own personal associations, whether or not they have anything to do with Wagner’s dramatic intentions. I have found myself reflecting, for example, on what the leitmotif themes might have indicated about Wagner’s own psychology.
Like the lives of most composers, Wagner’s is replete with the non-musical things he wanted as a young man, but couldn’t get. In Wagner’s case, these included: (1) a father (his legal father Carl died when the son was 6 months old, the stepfather/suspected-natural-father Ludwig Geyer, when he was 7 years old); (2) a totally devoted wife; and (3) an endless supply of cash to finance his giant projects and expensive tastes. More than most composers, Wagner projected a conviction of his own genius, an attitude that offended many and probably led to severe inner conflict. I enjoy mulling on how his leitmotifs perhaps became part a fabulous self-medication for expressing the initial lack of fulfillment Wagner experienced and later projected into his operatic characters. This in itself becomes ironic when I consider that what the Ring cycle accomplishes is death and destruction for all except the evil Alberich. The only fulfillment must come on the part of the listeners acting on their own as a result of the experience.
To me, all of the above would mean little if the leitmotifs themselves were not so beautiful, not only in how they sound but also in what they do. What strikes me is the concision with which most of the leitmotifs seem to express particular psychologies, those that are a combination of what may be “in” the notes (i.e., Wagner’s intentions or “message”) and what the listener may actively project onto to the notes, based on his or her associations of the music with events on stage and his or her interpretation of the music based on prior experience, self-reflection, and exposure to others’ interpretations in the vast Wagner literature.
For example, there is such a sturdy forthrightness in the Valhalla theme, despite its dubious origin as above, that I can’t help admiring it — even noticing its similarity to the opening notes of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It withstands vicious mocking by the character Loge later in Das Rheingold and stands even nobler in its final peroration as it burns up in Götterdämmerung. Another favorite is the Wanderer leitmotif in Siegfried, Act 1, Scene 2, where a disguised Wotan shows up. The tune depicts his “wandering” cover story by literally wandering all over the tonal map, trying to modulate from one key to another but establishing none. I love thinking about how the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, an avid Wagner fan, adapted the concept to his most grandiose finale, the chorale of his Fifth Symphony.
Then, of course, there is the glorious Redemption theme that ends the last of the four operas. The proper name for the theme and its meaning is still a matter of debate, but few can deny that the falling interval of a seventh at the end brings with it a special poignancy, especially if you realize that the dropping seventh interval is first used by Alberich at the end of Scene 1 of Das Rheingold, on the word Liebe (love) — as he curses it.
Whether love is a curse or a blessing can be argued either way, based on the results of that affliction in the Ring. But I advocate that leitmotifs are an unalloyed, indispensible blessing, and a thrill of discovery for those who undertake their exploration. The best way to do so, by the way, is to obtain Deryck Cooke’s double CD, “An Introduction to Der Ring des Niebelungen,” available from online dealers.
You, too, will feel sorrier for Rossini’s misfortune than Wotan’s.
*Jeff Dunn writes regularly for San Francisco Classical Voice. And for more on Wagner by this critic, click here.