Looking for 106-year old names for Ring motifs? You’ve come to the right place.

The Ring? There’s an App For That!

“LEITMOTIVE” is an iPhone app by Klaus Brink.  It was designed in cooperation with dajool (engineering and design), Volker Kolmetz (pianist) and Digitalspices (design elements), and is available at the App Store.

Leitmotive is a digital rendition of the motifs identified by Julius Burghold in his 1910 volume, “Richard Wagner – Der Ring des Nibelingen – Vollständiger Text mit Notentafeln der Leitmotiv.”

The app is straightforward – it lists 109 motifs by title, in order of their appearance in the Ring.  Upon clicking a particular motif, that melody is heard in a piano version.  As the motif is played, the screen displays the single-note score of that melody; the number and name given to the motif by Burghold; when the motif first appears; the “ranking” of the motif (meaning the frequency of its appearance); and the number of times it appears in each of the four parts of the Cycle.

A motif can be located either by scrolling down the 109 entries or by entering a search term (such as “sword”).  It is not possible to search for a name of a motif by humming a melody; it’s like a dictionary, in that you need to know how to spell it before looking up the spelling.  Having done so, however, the app identifies each motif containing the search term.  For example, search for the word “Love” results in 11 motifs, including “Sister’s Love motif,” “Love and Spring Chant,” “Loveglow motif,” “Love Confusion motif,” “Love’s Bliss motif,’ and “Love’s Bound motif.”

The app also has a section called “statistics” with static charts of, for example, “Top 12 Ranking of Frequency qty Leitmotifs in the Ring,” “Frequency of all Leimotifs in each Opera of the Ring and in Total,” and “Most often repeated Leitmotif in the 4 Operas.”

The app, therefore, has two main functions:  It is a digitalized presentation of the content of the 1910 Burghold volume, and it presents some statistics on frequency of appearance of various motifs.

Naming a motif is a moving target.  Wagner himself never named any of the motifs in the Ring.  Cosima does record in her Diary that, on March 15, 1874, “R. sings me Sieglinde’s theme to Brünnhilde and says, ‘That is you–‘”   But few scholars call the D-flat theme “Cosima.”

Hans von Wolzogen, in his 1878 volume Guide to the Music of Richard Wagner’s Tetrology The Ring of the Nibelung: A Thematic Key, included names like “Twilight motif” and “Compact-motif” that are not recognized on the Leitmotives app.  Albert Lavignac’s 1898 The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner tracks motifs such as “The Power of the Helm”  and “The Treachery by Magic.”  Richard Aldrich’s 1905 A Guide to The Ring of the Nibelung, names as “Motive of the Menial” what the app calls “Woe.”  What Ernest Newman, in his 1949 volume The Wagner Operas, called “Annihilation” the app calls “Nielungs Hate motif.”

Robert Donningen’s 1963 Wagner’s Ring identified motifs such as “Obligation as an expression of destiny;” Deryck Cooke in his 1979 I Saw the World End arguing that the theme commonly known as “Flight” is actually a primal expression of love; J.K. Holman identified “Mission (Mutation)” in his 1996 Wagner’s Ring: A Listener’s Companion & Concordance; and Barry Millington distinguish two motifs, both of which he termed “Blood-Brotherhood,” in his and Stewart Spencer’s 1993 Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung.

All this serves as a testament to the fruitlessness of the effort.  Wagner’s motifs are, at core, emotive rather than strictly narrative or logical.  I have argued, for example, that the final theme of the Ring, broadly called “Redemption,” actually concerns our faith in each other as expressed by our children.  Wagner’s motifs release our imaginations, but are almost always incompletely and inaccurately described as “standing for” this or that meaning, character, emotion or event.

This app is an effective, if limited, tool for retrieving melodies by summoning their 1910 names.  Beyond that, it is difficult to find a specific use for it.

(A version of this article appears in the August 2016 issue of Wagner Notes, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York.)

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