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  Leitmotif (German, ‘leading theme’) is an idea widely used in music, especially in such complex works as Wagner\'s music-dramas. A leitmotif is a series of notes, or a scrap of melody, harmony or rhythm, embodying a specific idea. In Wagner\'s operas, for example, each character has a distinctive leitmotif, as do objects like castles, rings or swords, not to mention such abstractions as destiny, duty or love. These motifs are woven into the musical texture, enriching the meaning with allusion and suggestion at every point. (The motifs of ‘betrayal’, ‘fate’, ‘love’ and ‘magic philtre’, for example, underlie the first meeting of a pair of future lovers.)

Wagner\'s followers claimed that he invented the technique, but it had been used—albeit not so obsessively—in music for centuries, adding motivic richness, for example, to Renaissance Christian church music, and being a main resource in Indian art music. European composers after Wagner made extensive use of it, and it is a standard resource in works as distinct as Berg\'s chamber music, Mahler\'s symphonies and the music-theatre works of Britten, Henze and Stockhausen.

In the other arts, critics have found leitmotif techniques analogous to those in music. In Far Eastern nature-painting, specific objects are included to suggest associations or ideas. In film, images are blurred together or recalled to make artistic points. Leitmotif adds allusive density to such complex literary works as James Joyce\'s Finnegans Wake or Proust\'s Remembrance of Things Past. In all other arts, however, the technique seems more explicit and contrived than in music—possibly because music, by its very nature, deals in evocation and allusion rather than in assertion. KMcL



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