How does one go about identifying leitmotifs in Wagner's Ring cycle? My usual strategy is:

  1. I just know a bunch of them from repeated listening.
  2. I open one of the online repositories such as this one and search by the position in the work.

What are my options after these fail? I can't read notes at any useful level.

As a current example I am at loss trying to identify which leitmotif appears in Götterdämmerung, Act 1, just as Siegfried arrives to the Gibichung Hall. It starts around the 49:34 mark in this rendition:

and I believe that it's the first time we hear that motif.

  • 3
    Does this return later in the work? I don't believe it does, in which case I'm not sure it's helpful to call it a leitmotif.
    – Richard
    Aug 5 '18 at 11:25
  • Thinking about it I believe you might be right. Just doing another pass through the cycle, so I will keep an... ear out for that.
    – vektor
    Aug 5 '18 at 11:27
  • 1
    "Just doing another pass through the cycle,".... See you in a week or so, then! :-) Aug 5 '18 at 12:56
  • 2
    @vektor Typically, identification questions like this are considered off-topic, since they're rarely helpful to future visitors. I wonder if you'd consider editing the question to something like "How do I identify an unknown leitmotif in the Ring cycle?" so that it's broader than just a single motive and may be more helpful to other readers.
    – Richard
    Aug 5 '18 at 16:48
  • 1
    @Richard thanks, done exactly that while keeping my original question as an example.
    – vektor
    Aug 6 '18 at 4:45

As I see it, you have three options:

  1. Consult the published motivic guides to see what, if anything, prior authors have discussed about a particular motive. In your case, it seems that you're discussing the motive that begins 11 measures before the beginning of Act I Scene 2. The Donington guide that alephzero mentioned doesn't include this motive. Nor does Warren Darcy's guide, which can be found in an appendix to this dissertation (by a guy who later wrote a book on the leitmotif!). Darcy's guide is my personal go-to reference, since he compiles ideas from several previous authors.

  2. If no one else discusses a particular motive, see if you can describe the motive in relation to other, more defined motives. Many authors discuss "motivic groups" in these leitmotifs, showing how a family of several motives are all evolutions of an original motive. Regarding your motive, I hear a bit of a resemblance to Gunther's motive (shown here in the website you linked) that appears in the sixth measure of Act I Scene 1. It makes dramatic sense for your motive and Gunther's motive to be related, since it's Gunther that Siegfried is there to see! And I'm especially convinced by this since your motive is briefly hinted at in m. 239, over 200 measures after the initial appearance of Gunther's motive and about 80 measures before the spot you referenced in the video.

  3. If neither of these options works, you might reconsider whether or not it's a leitmotif at all. Typically Leitmotive return later on in the music. If the motive you're trying to identify never returns, perhaps it's not worth the trouble to even label it. (For what it's worth, I don't think this motive appears again earlier or later in the Ring, but perhaps I'm wrong.) And you wouldn't be in bad company if you don't label it as a leitmotif; after all, Wagner famously hated the practice!

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