We think of motives as short melodic units that are capable of development, always less than a phrase — often less than half a phrase. Beethoven’s da-da-da-DA in the Fifth Symphony is certainly a motive that comes to mind immediately — it is identified by its rhythm first of all (Morse Code letter V: ••• ─ ), next by its three repeated notes, and then, flexibly, by its melodic shape; the motive appears three times in the first phrase, three times in the second phrase, and so forth. The development of this motive resides in its flexibility — it can be moved around everywhere and repeated as often as necessary, and you can even do it in your head if you know the symphony — even when, near the end of the Development section, the motive is shortened to two notes, and then to just one.
Less often do we look for harmony when we think of motives in music. But the 19th century introduced recurring individual harmonies as motives, without necessary connection to melodies. A succession of chords can be motivic if it is distinctive. An elegant harmonic leitmotive is found in Wagner’s Meistersinger, where the proud knight Walther speaks of his “wonderful dream” in Scene 3 of Act III. This begins with a deceptive cadence from C major to E major, then to A-flat major and finally (IV-I) to E-flat major: [EX. 1].
We barely notice the melodic identity here, although the connection from chord to chord is smooth; what counts is the distant tonal progression through three keys. Four times later in Act III this harmonic leitmotive reappears, at strategic locations. Wagner wasn’t the first composer to do this kind of thing, of course. There are more subtle earlier instances, such as the deceptive cadence from D major to B-flat major (V to flatVI) at two critical points in Fidelio, at the climax of Pizarro’s rage, first in Act I and then in Act II.
A single chord in isolation can become a motive, especially when individualized or in a characteristic shape. The diminished-seventh sonority, in every possible position, was widely used by every composer from the 17th century on, but when Weber employed it in isolation, with a characteristic sinister scoring, in Der Freischütz, it becomes a leitmotiv for the infernal Samiel. [EX. 2]
But it is one specifically identified harmony, a simple nondominant seventh, that became famous enough to be identified with a name: the “Tristan” sonority that is the first chord heard in Wagner’s opera, always in the same shape and always associated with the four notes rising from the upper voice. [EX. 3]
Other composers took the chord by itself and made it into an emblem. (See my article on the subject HERE.) Debussy, who throughout his career found Wagner an obstacle to his own development, especially fixated on the “Tristan” chord, as in this moment in an orchestral interlude when Pelléas and Mélisande discover their love for each other (you can’t see it, because the curtain is down, but the motives make it clear) [EX.4].
The 19th century, beginning with Wagner in Tristan and the Ring, already shows a fondness for dramatically highlighting specifically paired chords that are distantly related, as an element of surprise. He started as early as the first scene of Das Rheingold, with chords in the same key, among the swimming Rhine Maidens: [EX. 5]
Two scenes later, the “Tarnhelm” chords emerge, suggesting concealment, Gsharp minor alternating with E minor [EX. 6].
In Act I of Die Götterdämmerung the Tarnhelm motive changes into a related chord pair, indicating Siegfried’s loss of memory, after Hagen offers him a sneak potion: [EX. 7]
A few minutes later this becomes yet another chord pair, as Hagen watches on the Rhine: [EX. 8].
Possibly the most famous chord pair in motivic harmony is the “Bell” chords in Boris Godunov (1874), which are tonally as distantly related as could be: a V7 in D-flat major and a V7 in G major; and yet harmonically the two chords are closely related in their formation, with C and F sharp (G flat) as tones common to both. My article on “Boris’s Bells” (see it HERE) explores this topic very closely, but more from the standpoint of harmonic function (to what keys do they belong?, etc.) than of their use as motivic harmony. At the beginning of the Coronation Scene in Boris, the pair is repeated, like a swinging bell, ding-dong, thirty times without change — the point won’t be missed. These chords are dominant sevenths; change one note by moving it a semitone, and you get a diminished seventh, which can resolve to a tonic in four different keys (though you have to change the notation; see any standard harmony text), in classical V-I progressions that you can find even a century before Bach.
Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder is loaded with leitmotives of every kind; a harmonic motive that he singles out for its psychological significance first appears in the “Mitternachtzeit” song, Part I, no. 7, m. 563, supporting the word “Sehnsucht” (longing), returning several times thereafter, and with special poignancy in Part III, as Waldemar hears the voice of his beloved Tove “whispered by the forest”: [EX. 9]
This motive of two distantly related chords arises by contrary motion: upper parts descend by half-step as the bass rises. Compare the “Hagen’s Watch” motive in the example above; like the “Sehnsucht” progression, it involves two chords that have no common tones. Such a harmonic pairing is what one might discover just by carefully moving the fingers around on the piano keyboard. Alban Berg was only a beginner pianist, but he composed at the piano, and he certainly enjoyed discovering chord pairs like these. (See my article on the subject (scroll down to “Alban Berg and Creeping Chromaticism”) HERE.) Here’s an important motive in his String Quartet, op. 3, with eight different pitches [EX. 10].
In his Altenberg Lieder, op. 4, which he never heard performed, he made the chromatic pairing of two pentachords a significant element of the whole framework of the cycle. [EX. 11]
This is the kind of thing I remembered when I wrote the last two sentences in my piece about Easley Blackwood HERE. Here are the two chords that end his Symphony No. 1: [EX. 12]
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.