Musical Motives in the Ring

or ~ Leitmotifs for Dummies

Themes, Motives and Leitmotive

This 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.

Commentaries 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).

Song of the Rhinemaidens
Figure 1: Song of the Rhinemaidens

So 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.

The 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.

open quotes Leitmotifs are the melodic work material, symbols for metaphysical events. To trace the course of the motives through the whole Ring amounts to a journey into the realms of depth psychology. close quotes
Wieland Wagner, quoted in Panofsky's Wieland Wagner, eine Bildbiographie, Munich, 1963, p.53.

Hans 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 according to the inner laws of the drama, utilized, developed, interwoven, assimilated with each other and multifariously transformed. According to Wagner's theory as expounded in Opera and Drama the recurrence of melodic elements creates the principle behind a unified artistic form that spreads not merely over limited areas of the drama but over the whole drama, linking it together. In other words, the recurrence of the principal motives is a structural and unifying principle.

Some 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 almost the entire score.

open quotes These melodic elements will necessarily flower only at the behest of the most important dramatic motivations and the most important of them will in turn correspond in number to those compressed, reinforced, fundamental motives of the equally reinforced and compressed action which the poet has selected to be the pillars of his dramatic edifice; as a fundamental principle he will not employ them in bewildering multiplicity but in the small numbers which as necessary to allow easy recognition and lend themselves to plastic development. close quotes
Opera and Drama

Deryck 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 a unified symphonic fabric, built up by development, fragmentation, variation and transformation of these ideas; and secondly, that it is rich in motives that, while they do not qualify to be called leading motives, are important either musically or dramatically. A non-leading motive might be important musically because it develops into a leading motive, or becomes part of one, or perhaps even becomes part of several different leading motives (such as The Turn, a figure associated with frustration). It might be important dramatically because it helps to illustrate a scene, such as the sound of Hunding’s dogs barking as they pursue Siegmund and Sieglinde.

The Bad Habit of Naming Motives

A 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:

open quotes If, nevertheless, I here name motives, it is not for the sake of conforming to that bad habit, but because I wish thereby to distinguish intelligibly passages whose meaning is so obvious that it at once strikes the eye. close quotes
Hans von Wolzogen, Thematischer Leitfaden durch die Musik zu Richard Wagners 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', 1876.

And 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.

Deryck 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 Ein Weib zu gewinnen and in this form returns both in the scenes with Siegmund and Sieglinde, and at the end of Siegfried. Wolzogen had recognised that the first part of Freia’s theme (which also returns in the music of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and is heard again as Siegfried climbs the mountain to awaken Brünnhilde) is associated with love in its sexual aspect.

Freia's theme
Figure 2: Freia's Theme

open quotes The whole theme is manifestly attached to Freia, just as Loge’s music is attached to him when he first enters, some time later. And again, just as Loge’s music continues to reappear from The Valkyrie onwards, when he himself has vanished from The Ring, recalling his symbolic function as both god of fire and god of mind, so does Freia’s theme continue to reappear when she has vanished, recalling her function as goddess of love.close quotes
Deryck Cooke, I Saw the World End, OUP, 1979.

Remembering, Anticipating and Illustrating the Drama

According 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.

open quotes A musical motive can produce a definite impression on feeling, inciting it to a function akin to thought, only when the emotion uttered in that motive has been definitely conditioned by a definite object, and proclaimed by a definite individual before our very eyes. close quotes
Opera and Drama

It 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.

In 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-act 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:

open quotes It has grown into a tightly interwoven unity: the orchestra has hardly a bar which is not developed out of preceding motives.close quotes
Richard Wagner to August Röckel, 25 January 1854.

The 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.

This 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:

open quotes ... some real insight could be gained from a meticulous examination of the reappearances of the motive of the Rhinedaughters that I have quoted, provided it were pursued through all the changing passions of the four-part drama, down to Hagen’s Watch-Song in the first act of Götterdämmerung.close quotes
Richard Wagner, Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama, November 1879.

Joy in the Gold
Figure 3: The Rhinemaidens' Joy in the Gold

All 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.

There 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 (O hehrstes Wunder!) and which is often called Redemption through Love appears only in those two passages of the Ring. If it is rightly to be called a leading motive then it is a limiting case of that class of motives. Perhaps more by accident than by Wagner’s intention, it links that scene in Die Walküre with the ending of the final drama. There are many other connections, however, that clearly are intentional, such as the transformations of The Rhinemaidens’ Joy in the Gold that link back to the first joyful scene of Das Rheingold.

Those Awful Lists

open quotes How many musical motives are there in the Ring? That all depends on what we call a motive. At one extreme, the motives dwindle into mere fragments of figuration; at the other extreme, they pass into passages of development or even tunes; but neither dividing line can be sharply drawn ...close quotes
Robert Donington, Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols, London, 1963.

It is a good question. Anywhere between 67 (if we only count 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 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 about 90 to 100 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.

Different 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.

Basic Motives, Embryonic Motives and Complexes

Motivic 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 der dritte so traut. The Ring motive begins as Wellgunde’s Der Welt Erbe gewänne zu eigen ... Therefore there are fragments of vocal line, or figures played in the orchestra, that although not themselves leading motives, and perhaps not motives at all, are nevertheless significant because they provide the embryo or starting point of a leading motive or even (as in the case of Ring) an entire family of motives.

Atthe other, simpler end of the spectrum are basic motives: what Alfred Lorenz called «Urmotive». 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 Nothung!. Deryck Cooke identified the origin of this falling octave, which I should call a basic motive, in the end of Erda’s phrase Alles das ist, endet. Cooke grouped many of the leading motives into families. One such family of motives is generated by this falling octave: it is the family of heroic motives. Other families of motives have their own characteristic intervals: the motives associated with «Woman» usually have a falling 7th, the Gibichung motives have a falling 5th. Also worth noting, since they are pervasive, are two-note appoggiaturas that are associated respectively with Woe (a falling semitone) and with Joy (a falling tone).

In 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.

Further Reading

  • Cooke D., "I Saw the World End", 1979, Oxford.
  • Cooke D., "An Introduction to 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'", LP set with transcript 1967, CD set 1995.
  • Donington R., "Wagner's 'Ring' and its Symbols", 1963, London.
  • Holman J.K., "Wagner's Ring: A Listener's Companion & Concordance", 1996, Portland Oregon. Chapter 3.
  • La Mara (Marie Lipsius), "Richard Wagners Briefe an August Röckel", Leipzig, 1894 and 1912.
    English translation E.C. Sellar, 1897.
  • Lavignac A., "The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner", English translation by E. Singleton, 1924, New York.
  • Lorenz A., "Das Geheimnis der Form bei Richard Wagner", Band I, 1924, Berlin.
  • Newman E., "Wagner Nights", 1949, London.
  • Porges H., "Die Bühnenproben zu den Bayreuther Festspielen des Jahres 1876", 1881-1896.
    English translation as "Wagner Rehearsing the Ring", R.L. Jacobs, Cambridge, 1983.
  • Sabor R., "Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen: A Companion", 1997, London. Especially pages 134-147.
  • Scruton R., "The Ring of Truth", 2016, London.
  • Spencer S. and Millington B., "Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion", 1993, London. Especially pages 17-24.
  • Stone M., "The Ring Disc: An Interactive Guide to Wagner's Ring Cycle", The Media Cafe Publishing, 1997.
  • Wagner R., "Oper und Drama", completed in 1851. GSD volumes 3 and 4.
    English translation as "Opera and Drama", PW volume II.
  • Wagner R., "Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama", 1879. GSD volume X.
    English translation as "On the Application of Music to the Drama", PW volume VI.
  • Westernhagen C., "Die Entstehung des 'Ring'", 1973, Zürich.
    English translation as "The Forging of the 'Ring'" by A. & M. Whittall, Cambridge, 1976.
  • Wolzogen H., "Thematischer Leitfaden durch die Musik zu Richard Wagners 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'", 1876, Leipzig.


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.

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