Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 28 October 2013 | 10:30:00 pm

THE NIBELUNG STRIKES BACK: Fundamental connections in the leitmotivic treatment and structure of   Wagner’s 0peras and John Williams’ Star Wars film-score

                                                                 PHILIP RICE

                                                          MUS-311 Music History III

                                                Central Michigan University, 1 Dec., 2008

It was the self-proclaimed goal of Richard Wagner to create an all- encompassing art-form that could perfectly portray mythic narrative through musical, thematic, kinetic and linguistic means. Wagner spent his entire life attempting to create works that satisfied this ideal, which he called Gesamtkunstwerk (“complete art”). There is perhaps no clearer modern parallel to this goal of Wagner’s than twentieth century cinema. Although the convenience of cinema has rendered modern opera virtually obsolete to the common audience, commercial films produced by major studios of today—thanks to a highly developed ability to precisely synchronize speech, movement, and music—come perhaps closer to Gesamtkunstwerk than even Wagner could have hoped. Despite the fact that there exist so many parallels between Wagner’s art and modern film, most film composers have generally failed to employ many of the complex devices for musical symbolic and thematic integration that Wagner so seamlessly achieved in his greatest operas.

If there is one example of modern film that has come nearest to achieving an authentically Wagnerian model, it could easily be John Williams’ score to George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. The films share a strong thematic link with many of Wagner’s works, (particularly Der Ring des Nibelungen) in that they portray the mythical adventures and fate of a heroic character (in this case, Anakin Skywalker) within a complex storyline consisting of multiple installments. On a musical level, however, Williams’ use of leitmotif, as well as the very fabric of musical and thematic interaction share common threads with essential conventions laid down by Wagner. Williams’ treatment of leitmotif goes far beyond staple “film themes” which remain perpetually married to the literal people and places they portray.

Additionally, Williams’ themes are integrated on a structural level, unifying the entire saga, much as Wagner integrated entire opera cycles with overarching resemblances between themes sharing a common origin.
The concept of the leitmotif appeared first in its “pure” form in the operas of Wagner at the end of the Nineteenth century. This is not to say that Wagner created the model; indeed the idea of a “recurring motive” had existed long before (well into the Baroque period), and had enjoyed special prominence in Hector Berlioz’s rendering of the idée fixe in his 1830 magnum opus, Symphony Fantastique. Wagner, however, expanded the notion of recurring motives to take on a much more directly dramatic function. Wagner’s ultimate goal was not musical, but dramatic; Wagner sought not to create merely musical masterpieces but comprehensive theatrical productions that were, in reality, grand literary mythologies that used music as a means for furthering the depiction of the plot and characters. He modified the use of recurring motives to directly link characters, plot devices, actions, and, ultimately, overarching themes to the musical fabric of the opera. This not only accomplished the task of finding appropriate music to fit each scene, but it also unified the work, and as a result, unified the emotional and intellectual state of the listener. Wagner’s leitmotifs
were, however, more than just guiding “musical signposts;” they were completely integrated both thematically with the storyline and on a purely musical level. In a sense, the motives functioned not only as representations of elements within the story, but they also embodied the elements themselves. As Theodor Adorno explains, leitmotifs develop into “process[es] in which signifiers and signifieds are interchangeable” If a leitmotif is to become integrated on this deep a level, it needs to be as dynamic as the character or idea it portrays. In this sense, leitmotifs in Wagner’s music generally evolve with the character or ideas they symbolize.

Continue Reading