Even though the appearance of short, recurring musical motives can be traced back to the early seventeenth century and French eighteenth-century opera, it was during the Romantic period that composers used the leitmotif (a recurrent melodic, harmonic or rhythmical motif associated to a particular character, mood or idea in a musical composition) more extensively. Although the device has been mostly associated with Richard Wagner´s monumental cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, it was also employed in operas by other major composers such as Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, and Alban Berg.
Wagner´s “Ring” motif
Interestingly, it was through the Nibelungen saga that the leitmotif also found its way into film music. In the first decades of the twentieth century, some of the most prominent examples of German expressionist cinema (which was highly influential in the era of silent films), including Fritz Lang's landmark movies Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927), featured original orchestral and leitmotific scores written by German composer Gottfried Huppertz.
Following the emergence of cinematic art and sound film, the leitmotif technique was extensively used by film composers who further explored its possibilities and applications in cinema. One of the first uses of leitmotif in film was in Fritz Lang´s classic 1931 German drama-thriller M, where the main character whistles the main theme of In the Hall of the Mountain King from Edvard Griegs Peer Gynt Suite, No. 1. A technique borrowed by opera, the association of a musical theme with a certain character or situation went on to become a standard practice in film music.
Another early example of leitmotif use in film music can be found in Erich Wolfgang Korngold´s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), where particular themes and harmonies correspond to the appearance of individual characters in the movie. Korngold´s scores have been characterized as “a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt.” Korngold basically treated each movie as an 'opera without singing' assigning distinctive leitmotifs to the various characters in each film, thus developing a style that would prove profoundly influential for later film composers.
Notable examples of more recent leitmotific scores include the Star Wars series, where composer John Williams uses a wide range of themes associated with various characters, situations, and concepts, such as the presence of Darth Vader or the idea of the Force.
The “Force” theme from the Star Wars saga
Moreover, the dramatic orchestral score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy by Canadian composer Howard Shore also features an abundance of different leitmotifs, representing various individual characters, cultures, as well as places.
A particularly successful musical device with a long and fascinating history, the leitmotif has occupied a unique place in film scores from the early age of silent cinema up to today´s gigantic, state-of-the-art film projects. Music fads and compositional trends come and go, but it seems the force is strong with this one.