Richard Wagner believed that part of what made his operas unique was the way that he sought after a seamless integration of the orchestral music with the vocal music and the drama unfolding onstage. In fact, he called his operas “music dramas,” almost as if to acknowledge that he felt his works were of a different genre than the other popular contemporary operas (especially those of French and Italian composers like Meyerbeer and Verdi). One way that he achieved a greater dialogue between text, orchestra, singers, and drama was to develop a system of Leitmotifs, which were short melodic ideas associated with a particular character, place, or idea. Wagner was influenced by Berlioz’s orchestral program music, and indeed the idea of a Leitmotif, of using a recurring melodic motive to represent a specific element of the story, is identical to Berlioz’s designation of a particular melody for his idée fixe.
Like Berlioz, Wagner also develops and manipulates his Leitmotifs to serve the dramatic and psychological action onstage. Remember how Berlioz, in the fifth movement of Symphonie fantastique, turns his idée fixe melody into a diabolical dance by having it played with excessive trills and a lively triple meter by a clarinet in order to represent how his beloved is now a cackling witch (in his own hallucination). Similarly, Wagner puts his Leitmotifs in different instruments, has them play at varying tempos and dynamic levels, and fragments or combines them to help tell his story. Wagner even uses Leitmotifs to shed light on things that are unknown to the characters, to foreshadow or remind us of things in the past, or to enhance the audience’s understanding of a character or idea.
In the massive, four-opera epic cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs, one way that Wagner achieves unity between all four operas (and within each of those operas) is to use an elaborate and extensive system of Leitmotifs, which he uses to generate much of the melodic material of the entire work. The Act I finale of Die Walküre, the second music drama of the cycle, is a great example of how multiple different Leitmotifs can tell the story. In this scene, we hear a number of important Leitmotifs:
Valhalla, the home of the gods:
Volsung motif, the name of the human race that includes Sieglinde and Siegmund
Renunciation of Love motif, symbolizing the idea that people give up love and humanity in order to achieve wealth or power:
The story of The Ring is naturally quite long and complicated, but what you need to know for this scene is that the two characters singing are Siegmund (tenor) and Sieglinde (soprano). Siegmund does not know who he is, he calls himself “Woeful” (Wehwalt), and Sieglinde lives an unhappy life with her husband Hunding, whom she was forced to marry. A stranger, who is actually Wotan the king of the gods, once stuck a sword into a tree in Sieglinde’s house which no one can remove, and told Sieglinde that only a true hero could remove it. During the course of Act I of Die Walküre, Siegmund and Sieglinde gradually fall in love. In this final scene, they discover that their father is the same person, and they are in fact twins. Their father is none other than Wotan, although they don’t know that he is a god, they refer to him as his human form “Volsa,” from which their race gets its name. Siegmund removes the sword from the tree, and they escape together in love.
Throughout this scene, listen for how Wagner uses the Leitmotifs listed above to accompany the dramatic action and tell the story.