III. Expressing Symbolism in Music:
Wagnerian Opera and the Leitmotiv

"Richard Wagner was not a musical prodigy and as a youth he came rather circuitously to opera. He first aspired to be a poet. Then, finding that poetry was for him more effective as drama, his ambition veered to the theatre. Music became for him a further enhancement of poetry in drama. Thus it was that opera entered the scope of his over-mastering desire for self-expression in art. He began, not with the note, but with the word. So, throughout his career, he wrote his own texts...."

"(Wagner's) goal was a new type of stage work that should carry dramatic conviction through music.... Out of the application of his theories arose...the new place of dominance in opera given to the orchestra.... It was not a symphonic ensemble that existed for the creation of musical beauty in terms of form. It was not an accompaniment for a drama. It was the drama...."

"Through this fusing of dramatic movement and musical expansion (Wagner) achieved a continuity such as opera had never seen before.... The music must not be at variance with the verbal idea; the note, as far as might be, should be the equivalent of the word. In the older opera, dramatic and lyrical constituents had been separated. With Wagner they theoretically were one" (The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 11th Edition, edited by Oscar Thompson; Dodd, Mead & Co., NY, 1985; "Opera," 1551).

In his operas, Richard Wagner was able to achieve technical and stylistic fluidity through the use of the "leitmotiv" to illustrate and represent a variety of characters, symbolic objects and themes.

Leitmotiv [or Leitmotif(s)]: "A word coined by the Wagnerian scholar Hans von Wolzogen for a theme of easily recognizable melodic, rhythmic or harmonic identity, first used in connection with a certain character of incident, and which returns time and again, always with a reminiscence of the original association. These melodic fragments acquired symbolic meaning in the Wagnerian music-dramas and in addition were the chief elements of form used by the composer. Wagner was by no means the first to discover the efficacy of such means....
The Wagnerian Leitmotiv serves a structural purpose, however, that is distinct from the use of reminiscent themes in the scores of earlier opera composers. Extended symphonic passages are built up on them and they are combined, contrasted and superimposed, one on another, in a manner to suggest the development sections of symphonies" (Ibid,1231).
(Illustration from Ernst Kreowski's and Edward Fuchs' book of caricatures, Richard Wagner der Karikatur, {B. Behr's Verlag; Berlin, 1907; 107}).

Leitmotifs offered Wagner a way to incorporate into music a range of solid but variable thesis arguments. In this way, the ideas at the base of the leitmotiv are what would be considered symbols in literature. Wagner's most complete usage of the leitmotiv is Der Ring des Nibelungen. This four opera cycle contains over sixty distinct leitmotiv used to represent everything from servitude to the magical ring itself.

Interested in hearing some of the leitmotifs of Wagner's Ring? Click below to hear a few of these motifs. (All sounds played and recorded on an electronic piano by the creator of this site).

To learn more about Wagner's use of the symbols which are capitalized above, see Fire, Dragon, Gold, Ring, River, Sword, Wanderer in this site's Symbolism Glossary for Wagner's Ring. However, the themes and objects represented by these leitmotiv are not the only symbols Richard Wagner included in the Ring.

Click here for Wagner, Symbols and Teutonic Mythology.

Back to Index of Wagner's Ring

Map of the Teutonic Cosmos

Table of Contents

Wagner and The Ring

Teutonic Mythology
and Wagner's Ring

Symbols in
Wagner's Ring

Symbols in
Teutonic Mythology

Bibliography of Books and Links

Comments or questions?

This site created by Jessica K. McShan on December 17, 1997.