"'Leitmotif': On the Application of a Word to Film Music"


  • Stephen C. Meyer Syracuse University




Leitmotif, Ben-Hur Rózsa, Steiner


The idea that the film scoring procedures of classic Hollywood composers descends from the leitmotif technique of Wagner (and other composers such as Richard Strauss) is so firmly embedded in narrative histories of film music that it hardly needs to be rearticulated. It stretches back beyond Max Steiner’s frequently-quoted comments about his own indebtedness to Wagner into the very earliest years of sound film. The first section of this paper offers a critique of this interpretative tradition, by placing it in the context of Wagner's own discussion of the term "leitmotif" (in his essay "On the Application of Music to Drama") and its use in subsequent analytical works. Classical Hollywood film music scoring, I will maintain, fits very uncomfortably with this analytical tradition. In many ways, the invocation of the leitmotif in film music discourse during the 1930s and 40s was driven by a desire to establish the cultural legitimacy of sound film: to establish (we might say) Hollywood as the logical successor to Bayreuth. In the second part of this essay, I use Miklós Rózsa's score to Ben-Hur as a kind of limiting case for the application of the leitmotif principle to film music. The highly transformative network of motives that Rózsa uses in this score is similar—in terms of its structure if not its specific melodic/harmonic content—to those through which Wagner organized his music dramas. The drafts and revisions to the "Aftermath" cue, however, suggest that Rózsa's early intentions in this regard were far more thoroughgoing than the final cut of the film would suggest. In this final cut, Ròzsa's original concepts were simplified: the network of motives through which the scene was organized was—so to speak—partially unraveled. In this sense, the evolution of Rózsa's "Aftermath" cue illustrates the tension between cultural pretensions and cinematic practice: between film music as "high art" and film music as functional entertainment.

Author Biography

Stephen C. Meyer, Syracuse University

Associate Professor, Department of Art and Music Histories


Donington, Robert. 1974. Wagner’s Ring and its symbols. 3rd ed. London: Faber & Faber.

Erdmann, Hans and Giuseppe Becce. 1927. Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik, 2 vols. Berlin-Lichterfelde and Leipzig: Schlesinger.

Hickman, Roger. 2011. Miklós Rózsa’s Ben-Hur: a film score guide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Rózsa, Miklós. 1982. Double life: the autobiography of Miklós Rózsa, foreword by Antal Doráti. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Schreiber, Myrl A. and Max Steiner. 2004. On Gone with the Wind, Selznick, and the art of “Mickey Mousing”: an interview with Max Steiner.” Journal of Film and Video 56, no. 1 (Spring): 41-50.



How to Cite

Meyer, S. C. (2013). "’Leitmotif’: On the Application of a Word to Film Music". Journal of Film Music, 5(1-2), 101–108. https://doi.org/10.1558/jfm.v5i1-2.101