Musical Motives in the Ring
his article discusses the musical motives in Wagner’s Ring. It does not presume to be a definitive account of the subject, only a corrective to misconceptions and confusions that are in circulation. Some but not all of the following discussion applies to Wagner’s later operas and not only to the Ring. Although in those later operas Wagner’s treatment of his musical material differs in some ways, it builds upon the techniques that he developed for the Ring. In this article I shall consider some of those techniques and to what kinds of musical material they were applied. First let us get the terminology straight.
ommentaries on Wagner’s Ring and related literature often discuss the musical material of the Tetralogy in terms of «motives». These are often listed and referenced in text booklets: no two of these lists are quite the same, varying in which motives they select and what names are given to them. Recently it has become more usual to call them «themes». I prefer «motives» because «themes» can misleadingly suggest that we are only discussing melody. In fact, some of the motives of the Ring are primarily rhythmic (such as the Nibelung motive) or primarily chord progressions (such as the Tarnhelm motive or the Fate motive) or cadences (such as Womans’ Worth) and many of them involve not only melody but also rhythm, harmonies and even timbre. Some commentators apply «theme» to larger musical ideas and use «motive» for the smaller units of musical material. In contrast to Wagner’s earlier operas, with their extended melodies, the musical material of the Ring consists of motives that are generally short, compressed, fragmentary, incomplete and interdependent. But there are extended melodies too (such as the Song of the Rhinemaidens or the Valhalla motive).Figure 1: Song of the Rhinemaidens
o what is a musical motive in the context of the Ring? A practical definition might be: any short musical element or idea that is distinct is a «motive». How many such motives are there? Anyone who can read a score could probably identify at least 300 musical ideas after a few hours study of the scores. It is a more difficult task, however, to identify which of these motives are significant — and it is the significant motives and their relationships that are worth studying in depth.
he literature uses the term leading motive or «Leitmotiv», which in English is by tradition quaintly rendered as «leitmotif». Wagner himself sometimes used the term «Hauptmotiv» or «principal motive»; he also used «Grundthema» or «ground theme». The term Leitmotiv was popularised by Hans von Wolzogen although he did not claim to have coined it himself. So what is it about a motive that qualifies it to be called a leading motive? It is not easy to find a good definition but it is clear that a leading motive is repeated not only within the same scene or (to use Lorenz’s terminology) only within the same musical period but also in different scenes or in different musical periods. Therefore, for example, the motive associated with the Rainbow Bridge is not a leading motive because it never returns. Returning is a necessary but not a sufficient condition by which to qualify as a leading motive.
Wieland Wagner, quoted in Panofsky's Wieland Wagner, eine Bildbiographie, Munich, 1963, p.53.
ans von Wolzogen wrote that the motives are necessary to the symphonic as well as to the dramatic movement of the
work. Also that they are
ome of the motives, including a few that are prominent and that might be considered dramatically or musically important, are very little changed from their first to last appearance: for example the core motive of Woman’s Worth (which by many commentators has not been regarded as a separate motive, only a spin-off from the so-called Renunciation motive 1). Others are expanded, compressed, broken into pieces and reassembled, or developed in various ways. When he was writing Opera and Drama Wagner stated his intention to limit the number of principal motives in each drama. Later when composing the Ring he found that a more practical approach, on a work of this scale, was to develop many melodic elements from a few principal motives, thus ensuring a rich musical fabric while enabling recurrence and recognition of those elements. In Tristan he takes more of a "bottom-up" approach, building the thematic material from a very few harmonic and melodic ideas. In Parsifal he starts by stating a complex musical theme whose components provide the thematic material for a large part of score (specifically the music of the Grail domain).
Opera and Drama
eryck Cooke wrote that Wolzogen’s «Thematic Guide» to the Ring established an unfortunate pattern, by
listing only the shorter musical ideas and in giving the impression that the score was a patchwork of recurring motives separated by music that merely filled out
the time between appearances of «Leitmotive». This obscured two facts: first that the score is
word of caution is necessary concerning the naming of motives. In his Guide to the Ring, Wolzogen listed 90 motives (of which a few are arguably not leading motives because they do not return) that he considered to be (dramatically) important or significant: he gave to each of them a name. Wolzogen admitted that it was difficult to find suitable names and he emphasised that the names are only to be used as «marks of recognition». It is easier to communicate with others about the leading motives using labels such as Sword motive than by calling the musical object «motive number 57», since my number 57 might not be number 57 on your list. The label Sword motive should not be considered, however, as any more descriptive than «motive number 57». One should avoid falling into the trap of trying to read the musical motives as some kind of code, where for example no.57 stands for «sword». Wolzogen again:
Hans von Wolzogen, Thematischer Leitfaden durch die Musik zu Richard Wagners 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', 1876.
nd the ear too, of course. So the names are only a convenient tool for talking about the musical material. Whether the names or the motives to which they are applied convey meaning is a difficult question: the simple answer might be, not alone, if at all.
eryck Cooke argued that some of Wolzogen’s names are misleading. In particular he discussed the second part of
Freia’s theme, which Wolzogen had called the Flight motive (Fluchtmotiv). On its first appearance and on a few subsequent appearances,
this motive does seem to be associated with running away, or trying to run away. But in general the Flight motive, which is originally
heard in relation to Freia, becomes associated with love in its totality. It soon develops into Fasolt’s
Deryck Cooke, I Saw the World End, OUP, 1979.
ccording to Opera and Drama, the meaning of a musical motive or «melodic element» is bound to it when it is heard in connection with something definite that is seen, something that appears on stage, or words that are sung in a specific situation: this is the formal ground of the «melodic element». As noted, Freia’s theme is associated with her on her first appearance, while the Rhinegold motive sounds as the gold becomes visible. A motive that is heard during the overture or in a prelude, while the curtain is down, does not have any meaning before it has been heard in connection with something visual. Usually, this is some dramatic action or situation. That action or situation is then recalled, either consciously or unconsciously, whenever the motive is heard again. This kind of motive is called a motive of remembrance (Erinnerungsmotiv). Wagner’s motives also can foretell (Zukunftsmotiv) and they can illustrate the present scene (Gegenwartsmotiv). It was because of the lack of a formal ground, or motivation, for the so-called Sword motive that Wagner during the stage rehearsals of the final scene of Das Rheingold (according to Porges) directed Wotan to pick up a sword that Fafner had left behind, after the giant gathered up the treasure, and with it to hail the fortress. This provided a motivation for the musical element and an association with a sword.
Opera and Drama
t is important to realise that, in the Ring, a motive (and in particular a leading motive) does not have one fixed meaning. We should not be misled by Anna Russell’s humorous description of the leading motives as musical visiting cards. Although some of the characters of the drama have one or more motives that undeniably are associated with them, commentators have found it difficult to identify an Alberich motive as such. Cooke chose to call the first motive heard on his appearance as the Alberich motive, although it does not return. There is of course his Curse motive, which returns several times. It seems that there is no «visiting card» for Alberich himself. At the other extreme, there are several musical ideas that each have been identified as «Gutrune’s motive». It is likely that this is intentional, to depict Gutrune as a shallow and superficial person, a chameleon without her own identity. The group of related motives usually referred to as Valhalla are as closely related to Wotan as they are to his fortress.
n general we can say that a motive (whether or not it develops musically) acquires a trace of meanings as it appears in various dramatic scenes and in different musical periods: so that what we understand by the motive and the meanings that we associate with it by the end of the Tetralogy can differ from what we understood by it or associated with it on first hearing, or even when it was first heard in connection with something that we saw happening onstage. Consider, for example, the prominent motive of Alberich’s Curse which recurs at decision points throughout the four-part drama; or the motive of The Rhinemaidens’ Joy in the Gold as it is «utilized, developed, interwoven, assimilated ... and multifariously transformed». Wagner wrote to his friend Röckel in 1854 about Das Rheingold:
Richard Wagner to August Röckel, 25 January 1854.
he first scene of this opera is a kind of exposition for the entire Tetralogy. It begins with the elements of music: intervals (first unison, then octave, then fifth and so on, ascending the harmonic series), rhythms, scales and most obviously, arpeggios. In a trivial sense, everything that follows is built upon these elements. The first real «motive», something that might have been considered as a «subject» had it occurred in the exposition of a sonata movement, is the motive of Gold.
his is followed by another real motive (actually a composite of two shorter motives), that of The Rhinemaidens’ Joy in the Gold. In his response to Wolzogen, Wagner drew attention to the development of this motive:
Richard Wagner, Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama, November 1879.
Figure 3: The Rhinemaidens' Joy in the Gold
ll of Das Rheingold and all of Die Walküre builds upon and develops the musical material that Wagner presented in this first scene. It is not until the third act of Siegfried that entirely new music appears: this material was conceived for the Siegfried Idyll.
here are many special cases and you would be right to point to exceptions. The bright theme that Wagner conceived
for the ending of Götterdämmerung and which he subsequently found to be suitable for Sieglinde’s praise of Brünnhilde (
Robert Donington, Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols, London, 1963.
t is a good question. Anywhere between 67 (if we only count "core" Leitmotive) and 251 (if we include all distinct motives), depending on which commentator you ask and on how narrow or broad is their definition of «motive» or of leading motive. There is a common core, however, of about 67 core motives that all major commentators include and presumably would agree upon as significant ones if not also Leitmotive. A good reference for these motives is the list provided by Spencer and Millington in The Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion. This does not rule out the possible validity and significance of other motives that are not included in that list. Several insightful commentators (among whom I should include Monte Stone and Rudolph Sabor) have identified motives that are not on that list and that were not identified by early commentators such as Wolzogen or even by later commentators such as Deryck Cooke or Robert Donington, and that I agree with them are significant: in a few cases, highly significant. In round numbers, there are between 84 and 90 motives in the Ring that might be called leading motives or, if not qualifying for your chosen definition of leading motive, might be acknowledged to be dramatically or musically significant. Still in round numbers there are about 100 motives that are not leading motives but interesting either in themselves or in relation to them. These include variants of leading motives; motives that Cooke called «embryonic» because they develop into leading motives; and complexes formed by combination of two or more of the leading motives.
ifferent commentators (of those who number them) count their motives differently. Some commentators list Freia’s theme as one motive: for example, Millington labels the whole theme as no.16 and its two parts as 16a and 16b respectively. Other commentators label the two parts as separate motives. It is generally agreed that the entire theme is the principal «love motive» and that each part represents a different aspect of love. Giving numbers only to the larger motives and calling their parts a, b, c and so on reduces the length of the list. Hence Millington’s list of 67 principal motives actually includes more than 67 musical ideas.
otivic complexes, with motives in sequence or superimposed in different vocal and orchestral parts, are
at one end of a spectrum of complexity. In some cases it can be argued that a simple motive is incomplete, a fragment, on first appearance and that the complex
that we hear later is the complete motive. Cooke drew attention to what he called «embryonic forms». These are not yet motives but the predecessors of motives.
The Flight motive for example he showed to originate in Alberich’s phrase
the other, simpler end of the spectrum are basic motives: what Alfred Lorenz called «Urmotive»2. Some of them are so simple that we might not realise (and many of the earlier commentators did not realise) that they had any
significance. Consider for example the falling octave that some commentators have identified as a distinct motive, to which both Siegfried and Siegmund cry
n conclusion: the score of the Ring is a motivic web. The jewels in that web are the leading motives, or principal motives, that function as signposts (pointing forwards and backwards) to the dramatic action. Supporting those leading motives musically and illustrating that dramatic action as it occurs are a host of musical ideas that are often simply called motives.
Footnote 1: The occurrences of Womans’ Worth have been well documented by J.K. Holman in an appendix to his Listener’s Companion and Concordance to the Ring.
Footnote 2: This is not what Deryck Cooke meant by «basic motive», it should be noted. Cooke's «basic motives» are Leitmotive that each generate a family of motives, such as the Ring and the Spear. These Leitmotive are more complex than the short musical ideas that Lorenz called «Urmotive» and the latter do not always develop into other motives, although they may appear within them.