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Chapter One - A Brief History

During the 19th century, composer Richard Wagner was dreaming of creating the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. Gesamtkunstwerk would be the perfect unity of music and drama as one whole. It was relevant that in this total work of art, a variety of musical techniques should be incorporated that would help unify all the characters, emotions and other physical and non-physical elements of the drama together. One of the most important musical techniques Wagner employed was that of the leitmotif. The function of the leitmotif has been described by Arnold Whittal(2003) in The New Grove Dictionary of Music as:

A theme, or other coherent musical idea, clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances, whose purpose is to represent or symbolize a person, object, place, idea, state of mind,
supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work.
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As you can see from this description, it is possible to develop the leitmotif in relation to different situations. We will look into this in more detail in the next chapter.

The English translation of leitmotif is leading theme, this translation perhaps makes the concept of leitmotif a little clearer.  

Wagner extensively used leitmotif to musically reinforce the presence of certain characters and locations in many of his operatic works. For example, Wagner would use leitmotif in his famous opera The Ring to anticipate the entrance of the lead character Siegfried. Wagner would often further develop these leitmotifs to coincide with the thoughts and feelings of the relevant characters, this was achieved through changes in tempo, instrumentation, rhythm and many other parameters, this will be looked into more closely in chapter 4.  

The leitmotif was not just used by Wagner to tell people what they already know. One could be told precisely what a character is thinking about by using a previously established leitmotif. As an example, a love theme could be denoted between Character A and Character B. If this love theme is repeated every time they embrace or speak to each other romantically, then an emotional leitmotif has been created. This love theme can then be used to represent the feelings and emotions that character A has towards character B even when character B is not involved in the scene. Re 4

Since leitmotif is used to denote character, emotion and location among many other things in opera, it is also apparent that its use can be adapted to film scores. The connection between opera and cinema is recognized by Richard Davis(1999):

The thinning out of the orchestra during recitative(dialog), the grand crescendos and emotional outbursts at high points of the drama, and the use of leitmotif in opera are no different in concept from the marriage of music and film during the early days of Hollywood. Re 5

So why use the techniques that 19th century opera created instead of inventing new techniques? Roy M. Prendergast(1977) suggests that this could be due to the extremely tight time restrictions that were imposed on the Hollywood composers of the day:  

While directors of films have had the chance to experiment and make serious but instructive errors, composers, because they are usually the last contributors to the corporate art of film, have had little opportunity to experiment with their art form. Re 6

Many of the early Hollywood film composers including Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Alfred Newman used leitmotif extensively in their film compositions. Of these composers, Max Steiner was perhaps the most obviously influenced by Wagner's leitmotif style of scoring. This is particularly evident in his score's for films such as Gone with the Wind(1939), Mildred Pierce(1945) and The Informer(1929). Steiner has been famously quoted for saying “If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the Number One film composer.”. Max Steiners score for Gone With The Wind provides a great example of how leitmotif can be applied to a variety of characters, locations and emotions in film.

The reason that composers such as Steiner and Korngold were chosen to score motion pictures could lie in their past experiences in composing and conducting opera, operetta and theatre. Thus these composers were already very familiar with the composing techniques that the Hollywood producers were looking to employ in their films. Hollywood composers combined the late romantic music of composers such as Richard Strauss and Mahler with the operatic techniques employed by Wagner. But why choose the nineteenth century late romantic style of composing and not the modernistic sounds of Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Richard Davis offers an opinion:  

The late romantic period of classical music was the most familiar to the film going audience... The melodic thrust, the harmonic structure, and the overall thematic development were musical events that the average film audience could easily grasp. Re 7

Claudia Gorbman(1987) suggests that late romantic music was used for it's “epic feeling”:

Music especially lushly scored late Romantic music can trigger a response of epic feeling.. it elevates the individuality of the represented characters to universal significance. Re 8

Many of the early Hollywood films were works of great drama. so it is quite easy to see that a style of music that produces an “epic feeling” would be a suitable method of film scoring. It also makes sense that if you are going to use a technique such as leitmotif to help the audience identify with characters, then a familiar style of music would be best suited to this cause.  Throughout the 1950's the traditional Hollywood studio was in decline, producers were forced to have to pay their way. Short term contracts were drawn up between the producer, technicians and actors etc. then everyone disbanded after the film was made. With the introduction of the film High Noon(1952), arose the idea of using a pop song as a theme. Hollywood studios caught onto the financial potential of featuring a theme song in their films. Re 9  Roy M Prendergast states:  

No longer did producers care if the music written for their films was the best possible music for that specific picture; they now wanted music that would sell away from the picture. Re 10

Due to the extra revenue created from using theme songs in their scores, the romantic composing style of old was on the wane. In the 60's and throughout most of the 70's the rock and roll soundtrack became a popular accompaniment to film. Re 11 Easy Rider(1969) and The Graduate(1967) are good examples of films that employ this soundtrack.  

So did the demise of romantic scores during these decades also signal the end of leitmotif? Although leitmotif was perhaps used most extensively during the golden age of Hollywood, there is nothing to intrinsically tie the technique to the romantic scores that it often became associated with. Therefore, can theme songs or even pop soundtrack music act as a leitmotif? This matter shall be addressed in chapter 4.  

The traditional use of the leitmotif in its late romantic form re-emerged in John Williiams' score for Star Wars (1977). Although Williams had previously used leitmotif extensively in Spielberg's Jaws (1975), Star Wars was the film that really harked back to the golden age of Hollywood. Lippencott(1998) explains why George Lucas opted for this style of composition:

He wanted a dichotomy to his visuals, an almost 19th Century romantic, symphonic score against these yet unseen sights. Re 12

Some have been critical in Lucas' choice to revert back to the Hollywood style of the 30's questioning why a more modernistic sounding score wasn't used. John Williams response complements Lucas' intentions perfectly:

In that escapist thing is the whole romantic idea of getting away, of being transported into another kind of atmosphere. Re 13

Traditional use of leitmotif has seen quite a recurrence since the introduction of Star Wars. Most recently, this technique has been used in the new Star Wars Trilogy and also the hugely successful and critically acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It may be useful at this stage to look into the differences between leitmotif and general movie themes or motifs. General themes or motifs are used in films without a specific relation to character, location, or any other physical or supernatural presence. These general themes are often used to heighten the sense of emotion at key points during the course of the film. It is sometimes difficult to recognize a general theme from a leitmotif. Claudia Gorbman stresses the same concern when talking about the film All About Eve (1950):

Does this melody, first heard over the credits and subsequently at the most emotional moments where Eve appears, signify Eve herself, or Eve's emotional impact on her “audiences” (the characters and film viewers she manipulates), or is it simply a signature for the film “All About Eve”? Re 14

Leitmotif used for physical objects such as Character(s), location etc. are often easy to spot as a clear visual connections can be made between music and object, but how about portraying complex emotions using leitmotif? Since leitmotifs can be assigned to such a vast array of emotions, feelings and desires, one is left wondering whether the theme or motif they hear has any connection to the portrayed character(s) emotions or whether the theme bears no relation to the character's emotions and just functions as a general theme.  

Many leitmotifs which function as a character's thoughts or feelings is quite obvious in nature. Such an example is Ashley and Scarlett's love theme from Gone with the Wind. Together with the fact that we often hear this theme when they are embracing or talking romantically to each other, the syrupy melodramatic string laden melody also indicates connotatively, that this is a romantic relationship. After all, Fred Steiner(1985) notes that the strings are often called “the soul of the orchestra”. Re 15