The German word means 'leading motive' although a more idiomatic English translation might be 'representative theme'. Leitmotivs existed in music before Wagner (the 'idee fixe' in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique might be described as one), but Wagner developed the use of the Leitmotiv to the highest level of musical expression in the four operas which make up Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Leitmotiv is a musical idea or phrase which could be as simple as a two-chord unit, or extended into a long line of music, which is associated with a concept, an idea, a character, or an object. For Wagner, consistent use of the Leitmotiv in symphonic composition creates a rich tapestry of allusion; as the audience becomes familiar with these musical signatures, it enables listeners to be subliminally prompted to recognise ideas, emotions, and acts, but also to discern what a character may be thinking about or influenced by, when singing about something quite different.
We've made a representative selection of Leitmotivs from the four Ring operas. You can see the scoring of the Leitmotivs, read a description, and hear the music in recordings made specially for us by pianist Alex Taylor.