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Opera Daily 🎶 — Leitmotifs, Liebestod & The Godfather
In The Godfather, the somber waltz on solo trumpet appears as a leitmotif whenever there is a suggestion of business taking place
Richard Wagner is considered the father of the leitmotif, which originated from his German Romantic operas.
What is a leitmotif?
It’s a theme or other musical idea representing a character, place, object, or idea. A leitmotif generally has three features: short, distinctive, and consistent.
While the idea started in opera, film composers have adopted the technique in many of the most memorable films ever made.
Want to make someone or something present in the scene, but not visible in the frame? Use a leitmotif.
The most familiar example is the famous two-note leitmotif for the shark in Jaws, whose presence is often only implied by the music.
“Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde
While composing the opera Siegfried, the third part of the Ring cycle, Wagner interrupted work on it and between 1857 and 1864 wrote the tragic love story Tristan und Isolde.
Today’s aria, “Liebestod” (Mild und leise, German for "love death"), sung by Isolde is heard in the final few minutes of the opera.
At the start of the scene, Isolde re-introduces a melody (a leitmotif) that Tristan had sung during their love duet (in Act 2), as they swore love to each other until death.
Now that Tristan has died, Isolde sings this motif again at the end of the opera to remind us of their undying love.
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): Birgit Nilsson (Isolde) singing “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
Isolde looks at Tristan in a trance. She believes that she sees her love coming back to life as she hears a melody around her. The hallucinations become stronger and stronger until she falls down (dead) next to Tristan. The aria is the climactic end of the opera as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body.
This aria happens at the end of a four-hour opera, so the fact that any soprano can get through it is a miracle.
"Isolde is a severe test for the voice, either it can be completely destroyed, or it can grow, as mine did."
― Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad
This is an example of music, text, expression, human voice and instrumental color blending together and elevating one another to generate a powerful and emotional sensory experience. In moments like these, classical music shows that there is nothing else in the world quite like it.
Softly and gently
how he smiles,
how his eyes
—do you see, friends?
do you not see?
how he shines
Do you not see?
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): Margaret Price (Isolde) singing “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with Carlos Kleiber conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden (Deutsche Grammophon)
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): Jessye Norman (Isolde) singing “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
The story of Tristan und Isolde
When Tristan brings princess Isolde on his ship to Cornwall, where she is to marry his uncle, King Marke, she becomes irritated by his indifference to her. But they are in fact passionately in love (this is opera, remember?!), but their relationship is doomed. By substituting a love potion for the poison Isolde and Tristan intend to drink, Brangäne only revives their love and it is in this ecstatic state that they arrive in Cornwall. Despite Isolde’s marriage to Marke, the lovers' passion secretly unfolds, until one day they are discovered. Marke feels betrayed and becomes distraught at Tristan's behavior. Mortally wounded by Melot, King Marke’s vassal, who Kurwenal, Tristan’s servant, kills in turn, Tristan dies in Isolde’s arms. The princess collapses beside her deceased lover and they are reunited in their “love death”, the only possible outcome for their mystic union.
Wagner showed little excitement for music as a child and was the only one of his (8) siblings not to receive piano lessons. When he was 13, though, he wrote a play that he insisted should be set to music.
“Tristan is the gateway to the rest of Wagner’s music – the drama of Götterdämmerung, the spiritual progress of Parsifal – but it’s also the solar plexus of the whole of 19th-century musical history,” says music critic Tom Service. “Tristan changed every composer who heard it, whether they loved it or loathed it, and the piece opened a Pandora’s box of technical and expressive possibility, of chromatic harmony and vividness of musical thought and feeling, that could never be closed again.”
The Aria Code podcast, hosted by Rhiannon Giddens has a great episode on this piece (and opera) “Potion, Emotion, Devotion: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde”, which is worth a listen (LISTEN HERE)
In The Godfather, the somber waltz on solo trumpet appears as a leitmotif whenever there is a suggestion of “business taking place”. In the famous scene in which a movie producer wakes up to a find severed horse’s head in his bed, we hear leitmotifs associated with the Godfather, clarifying that the deed was done at the Godfather’s request.
Thank you for reading (and listening),
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