A leitmotif (sometimes written leit-motif) (pronounced /ˌlaɪtmoʊˈtiːf/) (from the German Leitmotiv, lit. "leading motif", or perhaps more accurately "guiding motif") is a musical term (though occasionally used in theatre or literature), referring to a recurring theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical idea of idée fixe. 
In particular such a theme should be 'clearly identified so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances' whether such modification be in terms of rhythm, harmony, orchestration or accompaniment. It may also be 'combined with other leitmotifs to suggest a new dramatic condition' or development. The term is notably associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, although he was not the originator of the concept.
Although usually a short melody, it can also be a chord progression or even a simple rhythm. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.
By extension, the word has also been used to mean any sort of recurring theme, (whether or not subject to developmental transformation) in music, literature, or (metaphorically) the life of a fictional character or a real person. It is sometimes also used in discussion of other musical genres, such as instrumental pieces, cinema, and video game music, sometimes interchangeably with the more general category of 'theme'. Such usages typically obscure the crucial aspect of a leitmotif, as opposed to the plain musical motif or theme - that it is transformable and recurs in different guises throughout the piece in which it occurs.
Early usage in classical music
The use of characteristic, short, recurring motives in orchestral music can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. In French opera of this period (such as the works of Grétry and Méhul), "reminiscence motives" can be identified, which may recur at a significant juncture in the plot to establish an association with earlier events. Their use, however, is not extensive or systematic. The power of the technique was exploited early in the nineteenth century by composers of Romantic opera, such as Carl Maria von Weber, where recurring themes or ideas were sometimes used in association with specific characters (e.g. Sammael in Der Freischütz is coupled with the chord of a diminished seventh). Indeed, the first use of the word "leitmotif" in print was by the critic F. W. Jähns in describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871. Motives were also important in purely instrumental music of the romantic period. The related idea of the musical idée fixe was coined by Hector Berlioz in reference to his Symphonie fantastique (1830). This purely instrumental, programmatic work (subtitled 'Episode in the Life of an Artist') features a recurring melody representing the object of the artist's obsessive affection and depicting her presence in various real and imagined situations.
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