Let’s start things off with something fun: Wagnerian thematic musical technique!
I know, that doesn’t sound fun at all. Which is why we’ll give it its shorter and catchier name, Leitmotif (lite-mo-teef).
I swear, I’m not lying. Leitmotif is very cool. Leitmotif is a technique in music where the composer assigns a particular tune or melody to a character, object or concept in the story. That tune or sound is now associated with that particular subject for the entirety of the drama and will play whenever that subject needs to be brought up. Think the Imperial March and Darth Vader. When ever you hear that sinister and martial tune, you know that the Big Bad is somewhere nearby.
Leitmotif is one of the most exciting and moving innovations in orchestral music. It can foreshadow, reveal, and explain a moment of drama without a character in the opera, play or movie ever having to say a word.
This idea has been used for a long time, but its real development is almost always attributed to Richard Wagner, the prodigious and famously bombastic German operatic composer. He used this technique a lot in his famous operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. You can listen here for a tune you will probably recognize. It is the motif for the Valkyries, the divine battle maidens. Or listen here for the theme which is associated with Siegmund’s magic sword, Nothung. The tunes are short, but powerful and memorable, just as a leitmotif ought to be.
Now, that’s all very well, you’re saying, but I don’t know if I want to listen to 14 hours of Wagner to understand leitmotif. That’s fine. I’m not much of a Wagner fan myself (for the time being). There are far more easily digested ways of understanding and appreciating leitmotif. It is a staple of the epic film genre, and is used magnificently in very popular films such as Star Wars and especially The Lord of the Rings. These are far too complex to address here, but I will talk about them in future posts…
Now you know what leitmotif is. Next time your friends decide to have a Star Wars Marathon, pause the movie, push up your glasses as pompously as possible and listen to them groan while you expatiate on Wagnerian thematic musical techniques.