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Leitmotif Was A Musical Concept Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1806 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Romantic music is a term describing a style of classical music that began in the late 18th century or early 19th century. Romantic music as a movement came from the formats, genres and musical ideas created in the earlier period, such as the classical period. Although it went further in the name of expression and merging of different art forms with music. Romanticism does not always refer to romantic love, although that theme was prevalent in many works composed during this time. Romanticism pieces are understood to be more passionate and expressive.1 The expansion of form within a typical composition, and the growing quirkiness and expressiveness of new composes from the new century; it became easier to identify an artist based on his work or style.

Romantic music attempted to increase emotional expression and power to describe deeper truths or human feelings, whilst still trying to preserve the formal structures from the classical period.


A Leitmotif is a musical term that means a short and constantly recurring musical phrase. It is associated with a particular person, place or idea. [2] The term itself comes from the German word Leitmotiv, meaning leading motif or guiding motif. A motif is a short musical idea – melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic and a significant recurring figure that has some special importance for the characteristics of a composition. Although it is usually a short melody, it can be a chord progression or even a simple rhythm. Leitmotifs can help bind a work together into a whole, and enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words.

The power of the technique was used early in the nineteenth century by composers of the Romantic Period.1 Recurring themes or ideas were sometimes used in association with specific characters.

Romantic music used Leitmotif to help narrate, people were aware of the musical code and the associations with characters and situations which allowed directors to define and complete plot ideas through sound. 2

Example of composers/famous pieces who used Leitmotif

Richard Wagner is the earliest composer that can be associated with the concept of Leitmotif. His cycle of four operas, titled “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, uses dozens of Leitmotifs, often related to specific characters, things, or situations. [3] Wagner raised the issue of how music could unite different elements of the plot of a music drama in his Opera; the Leitmotif technique corresponds to this ideal. Wagner used Leitmotifs for their role in musical form and emotional effect.

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Richard Georg Strauss, born on the 11th of June 1864 and died on the 8th of September 1949 was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. Strauss used Leitmotifs in many of his operas and several of his symphonic poems to create mood and emotion in his music. Arnold Schoenberg, who was born on the 13th September 1874 and passed away on the 13th of July 1951 was an Austrian composer and painter, associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art. He used a complex set of Leitmotifs in his choral work, Gurre-Lieder which was completed 1911.

Modern composer John Williams was influenced by music of the Romantic Period and made use of “Leitmotif” in his film scores

John Williams

John Towner Williams was born in Long Island, USA, on the 8th of February 1932 into a musical family. [4] In 1948, Williams’ family relocated to LA, where he studied music at the University of California. Following his national service in the air force John Williams went to the Julliard School in New York, where he studied piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and on recordings.

In 1956, John Williams was hired by Twentieth Century Fox as a pianist in their studio orchestra, and he was also soon writing the music for some TV shows including – Lost in Space, Wagon Train and Land of the Giants.4 At the studio Williams worked with great movie composers like Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman. In 1967, John Williams made the A list of movie composers when he wrote the Oscar-nominated score for The Valley of the Dolls.

John Williams has scored nearly 90 films and has been Oscar nominated over forty times. John Williams’ themes for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, and ET have great appeal for the general public and his movie score albums are top sellers. Williams has also written compositions for the Olympic ceremonies which capture the true spirit of the game. John Williams was the conductor and musical director of the famous Boston Pops Orchestra, where he is still a guest conductor. As well as movie scores, John Williams has written concert pieces for such greats as Yo-Yo Ma and has conducted concerts all over the world. On December the 5th 2004 John Williams was one of the 2004 honourees at the Kennedy centre in Washington, D.C.

The use of Leitmotif

In John Williams films he uses a lot of music related to Wagner, such as diatonic scales for hero themes, chromatic scales for objects or negative elements, bright sounds for positive elements. [5] John Williams has become of the most successful scoring composers and one of the most respected. His approach is very direct and strong, and no one in the theatre will fail to recognize any link between the themes and the characters associated with them. He has a great capacity to reach the audience like a classical composer.

Jaws – Jaws is an American horror and thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975. In the story, a giant man eating great white shark attacks beachgoers on Amity Island, prompting the local police chief to hunt it down. [6] The main “shark” theme, is a simple alternating pattern of two notes, variously identified as “E and F or F and F sharp which became a classic piece of suspense music, synonymous with approaching danger. John Williams uses Leitmotif in this film for the shark. Each time the shark is going to appear the same pattern is played that can be recognized by the audience.

Indiana Jones – Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. is a fictional professor, archaeologist, and adventurer. Indiana Jones is noted for his trademark bullwhip, his fedora hat, and his great fear of snakes. [7] Indiana Jones is also the general name given to the series as a whole, which has four movies, a TV series, novels, comics, video games, and other media. In this movie Williams used Leitmotif for the character Indiana Jones. For this Williams used a diatonic scale for a hero-theme whenever Indiana was about to do something heroic and at the end of the film.

Star Wars

The music of Star Wars consists of the scores written for all six Star Wars films by composer John Williams. Williams scores for the double trilogy are amongst the most widely known and popular contributions to modern film music. The scores utilize a diverse variety of musical styles, many culled from the Late Romantic Period of Richard Strauss. [8] 

The Main theme of star wars is easily the most recognizable melody and is often associated with Luke Skywalker, linking with heroism and adventure. It is heard over the beginning of all the films and forms the basis of the end title as well.

The Rebel Fanfare is a short Leitmotif used extensively throughout all the episodes to represent the rebel alliance. The theme is constructed out of brassy major block chords that progress in parallel motion through intervals of a third. This results in a non-diatonic sound. 8

The force theme is a well known example of a Leitmotif. Out of all of the Leitmotifs in the series this theme is most consistently developed and consequently most difficult to attach a specific meaning. This theme can represent Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi and the Force from which they draw their power.

Princess Leia’s theme is heard form episode III and onwards. It is a Leitmotif that represents a romanticized, somewhat naive idea of the princess and can also show that she is vulnerable.

The imperial Leitmotif (not the imperial march) represents the Empire and Darth Vader in Episode IV. The Leitmotif is militaristic and is generally played by bassoons or muted trombones. 8

The Death Star Leitmotif is an imposing four chord played six times during episode IV to represent the Death Star.

The Dual of Fates is another Leitmotif played in the first three episodes. It is composed from two minor Ostinatos and choral interjections that are head in The Empire Strikes Back. [9] The theme is used to represent the clash between the Light and Dark Side. In Episode II, the Leitmotif is played when Anakin goes off to search for his mother, implying an internal struggle between good and evil.

Anakin’s Leitmotif is an innocent theme that contains seeds of the Imperial March. It has a warm melody that contradicts with the harmonic instability of a number of different passages. The concert arrangement makes the fate of this Leitmotif more explicit, ending with a number of subtle renditions of phrases from the theme it foreshadows.

The Imperial March or Darth Vader’s Theme” represents the Galactic Empire as a whole and Darth Vader specifically. It features relentless martial rhythm and dark, non diatonic harmonic support. The Imperial March represents the Empire and is nearly equilivent to a galactic anthem. It is heard with progressive prominence through Episodes II and III, signalling critical points in Anakin’s downwards spiral to the Dark side. In the final rendition, accompanying Vader’s death Williams reverses the effect of the theme. It ends with a cadence of solos as Vader dies.

Word Count – 1498


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