Matthew Bribitzer-Stull: Wagner's Legacy in the film score

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

Moderators: alberich00, Justin Jeffrey

Post Reply
Site Admin
Posts: 428
Joined: Tue Apr 19, 2011 11:03 am

Matthew Bribitzer-Stull: Wagner's Legacy in the film score

Post by alberich00 » Wed Sep 04, 2013 2:16 pm

Here's Paul Heise's mini review of "Wagner's Legacy in the Leitmotivic Film Score," a talk presented by Matthew Bribitzer-Stull (Univ. of Minnesota) at the Wagner Worldwide 2013 bicentennial symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina during the winter of 2013:

Bribitzer-Stull informs us that Wagner's leitmotifs have been misunderstood. We must ask how these musical motifs work in Wagner. People tend to lump Wagner's musical motifs in with other types of associative themes. A Wagnerian motif is a special type:

1. It is multi-faceted
2. It develops over time in the drama
3. It is an intrinsic part of the musical form in which it occurs

What is a theme? A theme is repeated. But how is it different from a Wagnerian motif?

Wagner was inspired by Beethoven's development of themes.

There are several types of association of musical themes with a drama:

1. Representation
2. Narrative & commentary
3. Expression of semiotics

Emotional Association:

1. Culturally accepted tropes
2. Piece-specific tropes

Types of development:

1. Thematic mutation
2. Thematic evolution of one theme into another
3. Contextual reinterpretation
4. Large-scale connections

An example of thematic mutation is that the Spear Theme [PH: #21] falls apart.

An example of thematic evolution: the Giants' motif transitions from a perfect fourth to a tritone in the course of the drama

An example of contextual reinterpretation: the music associated with Wotan's kissing Bruennhilde in parting [V.3.3] is also heard in an ironic association during Wotan's confrontation with Alberich in S.2.1.

Film music:

In Talkies, music becomes part of the soundtrack. Many Hollywood composers were adherents of Wagner's school.

There is a distinction between diegetic film music, which is inside the story, and non-diegetic film music, which is only understood to be heard by the audience watching the film, not the characters in the film. In Wagner's operas/music-dramas, diegetic themes become part of non-diegetic scores.

Wagner liberated chromaticism, created a wandering tonality, creating a unity of myth and music.

Film as a director's medium: in a film the composer of the score must follow the director's vision.

Bribitzer-Stull referenced the Indiana Jones films of Steven Spielberg, with scores by John Williams. The theme 'Indy's feelings for Marion' from "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" is manipulated by Williams using Wagnerian technique. However, a true motif is rarely heard in film music.

Bribitzer-Stull also referenced Danny Elfman's "Batman" score. And in the Harry Potter movies a song later enters the score.

Howard Shore's score for the "Lord of the Rings" movies employs a Ring theme like a leitmotif. In this case themes aren't just stage props but become part of the dramatic development.

Q&A: Someone [PH: Was it Anno Mungen?] mentioned the iconicity of motifs and themes, and asked how they attain modern cultural currency? Bribitzer-Stull responded that there are special moments when drama and music come together. Such moments take on cultural currency.

Someone asked how we distinguish musical and emotional effects, and referenced culturally semantic meaning. Bribitzer-Stull responded that such music has no emotional content without a dramatic association.

PH: The questions Bribitzer-Stull posed re how to distinguish Wagnerian musical motifs from other kinds of associative themes, and his effort to describe how musical motifs are employed and developed in Wagner's artworks, is very timely. What we need is a truly comprehensive assessment, for instance, of the many ways in which Wagner employs his musical motifs in the "Ring," a true definition of the motif and a truly definitive list of all the motifs and their variations, and distinctions between the various types. I don't believe that a complete study of the relationship of the thematic material to the drama of the "Ring" has ever been done. If someone of sufficient authority does undertake this grand task, I would certainly like to consult with them in order to bring my own conceptual interpretation of the "Ring," which depends on a fairly simplistic assessment of associations of motifs with the drama, up to speed. There is also much work that needs to be done on determining to what extent certain motifs are related to or develop out of others, and much work needs to be done on key relationships as well. Also, as my music-consultant Dr. Allen Dunning pointed out many times during our discussions, there is much music, some of it very expressive, in the "Ring" and Wagner's other operas and music-dramas, which is not motival at all. The question must be asked, for instance, why does Wagner employ motival material here, but not there. And of course there is still much work to be done to assess why Wagner uses such-and-such motif here, and not there, etc.

In film music there is a need for concise, pithy gestures.
Post Reply