Wagner 3. Endless Melody (& leitmotifs)


Music and melody are absolutely inseparable

 – Richard Wagner


CHAPTER AIM: Introducing Leitmotifs, ‘Endless Melody’, and hearing them in action



Wagner’s greatest tunes

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Apocalypse Then...

Apocalypse Then


A common complaint about Wagner is that his melodies are non-existent. Or difficult to hear. It’s not the sort of music you can whistle along to. The tunes may not be leaping out at us.


Wagner’s music can sound complex, even impenetrable. But rest assured, he could safely master a great tune when he needed to.

Here are two bits of Wagner you may know :

Two bits of Wagner you’ll probably know   


When Wagner required a melody to carry through his most intense and profound music – usually at the most important climax of his opera – he would usually plump for the simple.

Take this example, from right at the end of the final opera in his Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung:

Gotterdammerung finale   

You’ve experienced 16 hours of the most complex music ever composed, and right at the end appears a melody so sweet you could tie it up in a bow and sell chocolate with it.

These are rare moments of melodic simplicity, but Wagner always saves them for the perfect moments.


Our own piece provides a wonderful example, with the moment of musical ecstasy that marks the climax of not just our piece, but the entire opera:

4.58  Liebestod Climax  (rapture melody)  


It’s a simple melody. A few steps down and up (0.00-0.26 above). Follow the violins, and not the voice (always a good tip with Wagner).

It’s simple, harmonically as well. And yet to get here, we have to wait almost four hours of…’Endless Melody’.



Endless Melody

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Wagner was not interested in making melodious sounds for the pleasure of his audience’s ears. He wanted to change the way people thought.


No verse-chorus here

To do to this, he created long and elaborate musical drama based on myths that wrestled with profound issues. The melodic line of his music was there to serve that purpose, never merely as aural decoration.


Wagner detested most of the opera of his day. He thought it ridiculous that characters could sing an aria – and then stop for an audience’s applause – without destroying the illusion that had carried everyone beyond the confines of the opera house.

He felt he needed to change the way opera worked, to take his ‘musical drama’ beyond what he saw as the limitations of the opera of his day, with its shallow stage-craft and fake posturing. And of course all those memorable tunes.


Wagner intended his operas to be profound, both metaphysically and psychologically. He wanted to transport his audience fully into a different realm, whether it was Valhalla the home of the Gods, or the inner psyches of the lovers Tristan and Isolde. And he fully intended to keep his audience there.

To do this, Wagner created ‘Endless Melody’, a style of opera where the drama and music constantly flowed throughout. That meant goodbye to all the traditional arias, choruses, ballets, and recitatives of the opera of his day. No verse and chorus, no refrains, no applause. Just a continually unwinding melody, from beginning to end of the act. Endless Melody.


15th Century Tristan & Isolde


And so the music of Tristan & Isolde flows as a continuous musical drama, pausing only for breath twice – at the ends of Acts I and II – during its entire four hours. This lack of any pause in adds to the restlessness of Tristan & Isolde , the sense that this music is always searching for some kind of a conclusion, or end.

That end comes some five minutes into our piece.


What you are hearing is not the absence of melody, but a surplus. But this is a restless melody, continually moving and changing, like a slippery eel. You’ve hardly grasped onto it before Wagner has moved on.


Listen for example to a clip from earlier in the opera, towards the end of Act I. A fanfare welcomes King Mark:

Act I clip 

It’s a moment that sings out. A build in the brass section, followed by a ringing melody from the male singer (0.05), and repeated by the chorus (0.10).

And check out those violins, decorating with a highly melodic line of their own (from 0.06)…


It’s the kind of material most composers would spin into an entire scene.

Not Wagner.

Here’s that same clip extended:

Act I clip extended 

  • 0.00     Fanfare
  • 0.05     Tenor melody
  • 0.10     Chorus repeat…

…but no sooner has the chorus repeated the melody than our male singer is away, singing something else. That’s it for that particular melody, for the rest of the opera.


Kings and fanfares, traditional melodies and harmony. This is a superficial world for Wagner, a tiny back-drop to the new musical drama he was trying to create.




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There is a problem with Wagner’s method of construction. ‘Endless Melody’ means you get music of a highly fluid nature, great, but there’s a cost structure-wise.

Composing a more traditional opera means balancing out scenes between arias and choruses, duets, dances, orchestral interludes. There were a large number of generic devices a composer could employ that an audience would instinctively understand.

Wagner was in unchartered territory by the time he was writing this music, going far beyond anything attempted in opera. But he still needed structure to compose . He needed a musical framework to hold his music together.

The method he eventually refined was a system of musical thought we term ‘Leitmotifs’.

Wrong Wagner

Wrong Wagner


A Leitmotif (literally ‘leading motif’) is a musical idea that might represent any number of things; a character, an object, a feeling, fate, death, really anything.

It’s a technique that’s proved perfect for the scoring of films, where motifs are often used as a calling card for a particular character. Think of Indiana Jones’ theme, ringing out as he escapes a perilous situation, or the Star Wars theme sounding out as the Millennium Falcon appears to help Luke defeat the Death Star. Wagner’s music has influenced the music of the cinema more than any other composer, unquestionably. His music speaks exactly the same language.


And Wagner takes the process further. His leitmotifs represent musical ideas that are plastic in nature. He could mutate or transform them, clash or mix them with other leitmotifs, so as to create a succession of new musical ideas in his work.

Wagner would use the technique to amass a set of musical ideas, blocks he could use to construct his musical dramas.



Let’s take an example of a leitmotif. In fact, let’s take the ‘Liebestod‘ motif, after which our piece is named. Liebestod means literally ‘Love-Death’, which incidentally is a pretty good two-word summary of the entire opera.

Our motif appears as a 7-note or more commonly a 4-note sequence. The theme first appears earlier in the opera, the 4-note sequence sung by Tristan rapidly, three times (0.00, 0.02 and 0.05 below):

Liebestod motif from Act II   


In our own piece (which remember comes from the end of the opera) Isolde begins straight away with this melody in it’s 7-note version, but played much slower:

Liebestod opening  

Now at this point in the opera, Tristan has just killed himself because of his love for Isolde. She now gazes upon the dead body of her lover, preparing for her own death (or at least her own ‘transfiguration’). So there’s plenty of ‘Love & Death’ to go round here.

Let’s go from the start of our piece, and follow the motif as it spreads:

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  • 0.00     Sung by Isolde (and bass clarinets)
  • 0.15     Again Isolde (with clarinets)
  • 0.28     Now the horns play it (listen carefully)
  • 0.35     And now the 2nd violins (even harder to make out)
  • 1.15     The horns. Now this four note version spreads…
  • 1.20     The clarinets have it
  • 1.25     Oboes now. Isolde’s voice also follows the theme.
  • 1.45    Violins, really clear. Ditto at 1.56
  • 2.06     back with Isolde
  • 2.17     The woodwind etc…

And so on, really…

Different Love & Death

Different Love & Death

As I hope you can hear, a leitmotif isn’t some clumsy theme Wagner whacks us over the head with. It’s much more subtle and supple, than that.

These are musical thoughts or ideas. They are suggestive (like music) rather than definitive (like words). They change, in key and tempo. Sometimes the melodies themselves twist into slightly new forms, or even turn into versions of each other.

The effect is something we hear – something we feel – rather than something we work out, like a puzzle.


Words barely do justice to Wagner’s use of Leitmotifs. As Wagner told friends who puzzled over the libretto for Tristan & Isolde, which as usual he had written first before composing any of the music:

Wait until you hear the work with the music; that will make everything plain to you, in terms however not of words, which are a clumsy tool created by human reflection, but of feeling; for music, which comes from the foundations, not the surface, of man and things, is capable of a thousand shades of suggestion that are beyond the capacity of words.



Let’s take another example from our piece, a melody we’ve already touched on, but this time, let’s trace the leitmotif in more detail across the opera.

The melody (sometimes known as the ‘rapture’ motif) forms the climax of our piece (and indeed the entire opera). Listen how it rings out from the violins:

Liebestod end (rapture motif )  


0.03-0.15 above

It’s a melody that rolls up and down. Three times the melody sounds out three (0.03, 0.15 and 0.28 above). It’s rare for Wagner’s music to repeat a simple idea like this. It tells us we’ve reached the end of our music. Final closure is here.

This motif has been called ‘passion’ or ‘rapture’ or ‘bliss’ by various critics, but it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. It is a musical idea that expresses the passion of Tristan and Isolde’s love.


And it’s an idea that comes in many forms. Here it is, briefly, from the prelude at the start of Act II:


Once the lovers are together, it’s a theme we hear often. Listen for it in the violins in the middle(0.04) of this clip:


Motifs can seamlessly join into new forms. Here’s another instance, again in the violins. This contains the theme twice(0.02 and 0.05), the second time changing very rapidly into something (0.07) very different:


Once you begin to catch hold of the motifs in Wagner’s work, you start to hear them everywhere. Sometimes loud and plain, sometimes elusive and ghost-like:


You don’t even need to know what they mean for them to work, to know this ‘rapture’ motif, to feel its effect, that tug at the heart it signals:


Here our theme comes in its slowest and most gentle form. Here it sounds spiritual.


And then soon after – twice – in this most passionate form where you can hear the embrace of the lovers. This is a very physical manifestation of rapture, you can hear the blood pumping:


We feel for the entire opera that Tristan and Isolde’s love is too intense. Too intense for words. Too intense, even, for music. In this final instance – as the adulterous lovers are about to be exposed – the motif can’t even sustain its own intensity, and comes crashing down:



All of this means that when we come to the end of this opera, we’ve constantly heard this motif already, in so many varied and highly energized forms.

It is only now, at the end, that the melody can lay before us in its gentle simplicity:

Liebestod climax   


Now the melody, as it rolls up and down, finally makes sense. It is only now, as we bathe in the climax of the piece, that the melody is allowed to finally complete itself, before finally coming to rest.

It is only now that the melody has finally closed, and therefore become what we might call a tune.


And so, as we reach the climax of not just this piece but – remember – four hours of opera, Wagner finally finds an end for his endless melody, and closure for the music.

He wows us with a tune.





For those Wagner tunes….