Stage & Screen
Opera: Leitmotif (with a teacher)
This activity is for classroom use. Your teacher will have further material to use alongside the clips and information below.
SECTION 1: Theme tunes
Listen to these short pieces of music – what do they make you think of?
The idea of short musical themes being attached to specific characters or places or things is important in opera. Like little musical signposts, the themes can help the audience follow very long stories! They came to be called leitmotifs. What things in a story do you think could be given a theme tune or leitmotif? Discuss your ideas with the class.
SECTION 2: Guess the leitmotif
Richard Wagner was a master opera composer. He created a story from myths and folk tales based on a magic ring. It is such a long story that he composed four separate operas to tell it! Its complete title is The Ring of the Nibelung but it is also known as ‘the Ring’ or ‘the Ring cycle’.
Leitmotifs are important in the Ring to help the audience remember the characters, objects and ideas all the way through the story. Have a look at the five things below and see whether you can match each one to its leitmotif from Audio clips 3–7.
Read the descriptions of the different characters, objects and places carefully. Focus on which of them may be ‘good’ things and which may be ‘bad’.
Listen again to each leitmotif and describe how the music is a good fit for what it is labelling.
SECTION 3: Compose your own
You’re now going to create your own version of one of Wagner’s leitmotifs! Make sure you use the same musical ingredients to give your chosen leitmotif the right character and atmosphere. Your teacher will give you more detailed information.
SECTION 4: Modern leitmotifs
Although leitmotifs were developed by opera composers, theme tunes – which are a similar idea – can now be heard everywhere! Look at the ideas board below and think where else you might hear a modern theme tune today…
Articulation: The way that notes are performed and joined together – e.g. smooth or spikey
Dynamics: The volume (degrees of loud and quiet) in a piece of music
Harmony: The combining of notes to make chords
Leitmotif: A musical phrase that represents a character, object, place or idea – like a musical signpost or label
Pitch: Whether a note is high or low
Rhythm: A combination of notes that are of different lengths and durations
Tempo: The speed of a piece of music
All media credits – titles, composers, artists, sources etc. – may be found in the Teacher Sheet, accessed from the Info box at the top of this page.