Beginning to See the Leit: Exploring Leitmotifs in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled Beginning to See the Leit and the text and translation of “Senta’s Ballad,” the opera synopsis, colored pencils, and the audio selections from Der Fliegende Holländer.
Art, History, English, Drama, Music, Film, Creative Writing
- To strengthen students’ comprehension of Der Fliegende Holländer’s characters and story
- To develop students’ musical vocabulary
- To deepen students’ understanding of how composers can link music and plot elements through the compositional technique known as leitmotif
- To extend students’ ability to discuss, depict, and describe music through verbal, visual, and dramatic modes of expression
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Create a presentation, art work, or text in response to a literary work with a commentary that identifies connections and explains divergences from the original.
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
How do we know the Wicked Witch of the West is on her way? How can we tell, in the immortal words of Jaws, that “we’re going to need a bigger boat”? In these two iconic films, witch and shark alike are announced by musical motifs that we recognize in a heartbeat and instantly link to a character or creature. Today, this compositional technique is closely associated with movie music, but the composer most famous for pioneering the use of such musical themes, known as leitmotifs,is Richard Wagner. This activity will introduce students to a series of leitmotifsfrom Der Fliegende Holländer, casting students in the role of “leitmotif detective” as they imagine which characters or plot element each musical theme might represent. By completing this activity, students will develop a working knowledge of some of the most important musical themes in Der Fliegende Holländer, a knowledge that will facilitate their active engagement with the opera’s music and story during the Live in HD transmission. They will also emerge with a deeper appreciation for how different listeners experience music in diverse ways. Students will:
- Review the plot of Der Fliegende Holländer and identify possible characters and ideas ripe for musical representation
- Create visual and poetic responses to leitmotifs heard in the opera’s overture
- Examine the musical elements of individual leitmotifs and consider how these elements might help listeners link each musical theme with its intended subject
- Compare how different listeners experience different leitmotifs and discuss the role that leitmotifs play in creating a dramatic story onstage
In this activity, students will explore a range of leitmotifs presented in the overture to Der Fliegende Holländer and think about how Wagner uses various musical elements (orchestration, dynamics, tempo, and major/minor modes) to develop these musical-narrative themes. With each listening excerpt, students will create both visual and verbal representations of the music they hear, drawing illustrations, writing poems, and preparing musical analyses. Finally, students will compare their multimodal experiences in small group discussions.
Start the activity by asking students to think about a movie or television soundtrack they know well. Ask for a few volunteers to hum a memorable tune from their chosen soundtrack for the class. Next, ask if anybody recognizes this tune; if so, do students associate the tune with any particular idea, character, or event in the film/show? Does everybody agree on what the tune represents? Why or why not? If students feel stumped, prompt their thinking with the following movies and TV shows, all of which have now-iconic soundtracks:
Star Wars | Indiana Jones | Harry Potter | Game of Thrones | The Lord of the Rings | The Lion King | Frozen | The Avengers
Explain to students that if a musical theme recurs every time a subject appears onstage or onscreen, then that theme is called a leitmotif. A leitmotif is, essentially, a theme song; a more extended definition of the term can be found in the Ten Essential Musical Terms included elsewhere in this guide. Next, explain to students that Richard Wagner, the composer of Der Fliegende Holländer, played a major role in the development of leitmotifsin the 1800s.
Divide students into groups of three, and then pass out the synopsis of Der Fliegende Holländer.Ask students to take turns reading the synopsis aloud in their groups. As they read, students should compile a collective list of the possible subjects (characters, plot elements, symbols, and dramatic themes) that could be turned into leitmotifs. For example, the first sentence of the synopsis includes two possible recurring plot elements: the storm and the ship.
In the next step of this activity, students will listen to three different leitmotifs from the overture to Der Fliegende Holländer. At this stage, the three leitmotifs will be identified simply as “Leitmotif 1,” “Leitmotif 2,” and “Leitmotif 3.” Explain that it will be students’ task to figure out what each leitmotif might represent. In order to do so, students will need to work together. They will also need to take turns playing three different investigative roles, described below:
- The Illustrator: As the Illustrator listens to the excerpt, they will draw whatever they imagine the music to be depicting (an event or an object or a character). For example, if the Illustrator thinks the music depicts the Flying Dutchman, the Illustrator would draw the Flying Dutchman, using the music as a guide.
- The Poet: As the Poet listens to the excerpt, they will write a poem about whatever they imagine the music to be depicting.
- The Music Critic: Asthe Music Critic listens to the excerpt, they will describe what they hear using any musical terminology they know. Elements students may wish to describe include orchestration, tempo, dynamics, and major vs. minor (definitions for each of these terms are available in the Ten Essential Musical Terms). In their review, students are welcome to use simple English descriptions, such as “fast,” “slow,” “loud,” and “soft,” as well as more formal musical terms, such as “allegro,” “lento,” “forte,” “piano,” etc.
Pass out the “Leitmotif Listener Packets” and give each group a packet of colored pencils. Explain that for Leitmotif 1, each student in a group will take on one of the three roles described above. As the class moves on to Leitmotifs 2 and 3, students will take on new roles; after listening to all three leitmotifs, students will have played each of the above roles once.
Ask students to decide among themselves who will be the Illustrator, the Poet, and the Music Critic for the first excerpt (or, if necessary, assign roles). Ask them to open their packets to the appropriate page for their “job” (the Illustrator will turn to the “Illustrator” page, etc.).
Have students circle Leitmotif 1 on whichever sheet they are using for the first task. Play Track 1. As the students listen, they should complete their first task. As soon as the clip ends, play it again while students continue to embellish their work. Once the clip has played through twice, give students two minutes to share and compare their thoughts within their groups. The following questions will help guide students’ small group discussions. The questions can be read to the whole class prior to the discussion, or teachers can use these questions to prompt discussion while circulating from group to group.
- What subject does each student in the group imagine the leitmotif might be depicting?
- Which musical elements noted by the Music Critic most shaped the thinking of the Poet and the Illustrator?
- What do the Poet’s and the Illustrator’s representations have in common? What is different?
- After hearing each group member’s ideas, has anyone changed their prediction about what the leitmotif represents?
Rotate tasks. The order is always I-P-M so the Poet for the first round will be the Music Critic for the second round, the Music Critic for the first round will be the Illustrator for the second round, and so forth. Students should circle Leitmotif 2 on whichever sheet they are using for the second task. Then repeat Step 4, now having students listen to Track 2. Finally, rotate tasks again and repeat Step 4 for Track 3.
Before moving on, you may wish to play the beginnings of Tracks 1, 2, and 3 again to ensure that students remember each of these themes. You may also wish to have students hum a bit of each leitmotif to help review and recall what they have heard.
In the rest of this activity, students will explore how Wagner brings these three leitmotifs back throughout the opera by identifying which leitmotif appears in various scenes. Explain to students that they will now hear three excerpts from various points in the opera, all of which feature the same leitmotif. Play Tracks 5, 6, and 7 in succession, then ask students to vote on which leitmotif they just heard (the answer is Leitmotif 3). Next, ask a few students to share what they think Leitmotif 3 represents. Accept and encourage all answers, but guide students toward the following: “Leitmotif 3 represents the Flying Dutchman.”
Play Tracks 5, 6, and 7 again. Before playing each track, offer students some context (described in the teacher’s guide below) for where the excerpt appears in the opera. Even if there are words in the excerpt, no libretto is provided; students should continue using the music itself to develop a creative description and understanding of what is happening onstage. Students are also welcome to add to their Illustrator/Poet/Music Critic sheets, if they desire.
Leitmotif 3 | The Flying Dutchman’s Theme
- Track 5: This theme is linked with both the character of the Flying Dutchman and his ship. This excerpt occurs when the captain himself appears onstage for the first time.This theme is linked with both the character of the Flying Dutchman and his ship. This excerpt occurs when the captain himself appears onstage for the first time.
- Track 6: This excerpt occurs when the Flying Dutchman’s ship appears onstage for the first time.
- Track 7: This excerpt comes from Senta’s Ballad, when she tells the story of the Flying Dutchman while staring at his painting.
After playing each track, give students time to discuss in their groups what they have heard. Some guiding questions:
- Does this presentation of the leitmotif sound like what you heard in the overture? How is it the same? How is it different?
- Why might Wagner have chosen to vary it in this way? Based on what you know of the plot, why might this musical variation be important?
- Based on the music, what else do you think is happening onstage? Why?
Leitmotif 2 | The Sailors’ Chorus
- Track 8: This theme is linked with the merchant sailors reveling on land. This excerpt comes from the final act of the opera, when the sailors and townspeople celebrate the return of Daland’s ship.
Leitmotif 1 | Senta's Theme
- Track 9: This theme represents both Senta and the salvation she promises. This excerpt also comes from “Senta’s Ballad,” when she tells the story of the Flying Dutchman. This excerpt occurs as she explains how the Dutchman may be released from his curse.
Step 7 (optional)
If time allows, students may enjoy hearing how Wagner combines multiple leitmotifs in a single aria. Distribute “Senta’s Ballad,” available in the reproducible handouts for the other classroom activity, Senta of Attention. Play the ballad in its entirety (Track 10), and ask students to make a mark in the text whenever they hear a leitmotif they know. After students have finished listening, ask them to share which leitmotifs they heard. Why would Wagner have used these leitmotifs in this aria? Do the leitmotifs add any additional information to what is already present in the text?
Close the lesson with a full-class discussion on leitmotifs. Invite students to reflect on and share their experiences with this activity. Some guiding questions:
- Did you accurately predict what the leitmotifs represented?
- Which elements of the music (instrumentation, dynamics, tempo, etc.) helped you recognize the character or theme represented by the leitmotifs? Did different students link any given leitmotif to different subjects, or did listeners make similar connections? What might affect how we hear stories in music?
- Why might a composer choose to include leitmotifs in an opera score (or a score for film or theater)? How might leitmotifs help the audience understand the story?
- If there were a leitmotif (and there might be!) for a character or plot element on your list that we haven’t heard yet, what might it sound like?
Students can explore leitmotifsin other media beyond opera. For example, students can analyze leitmotifsin Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, an orchestral work with narration in which both instruments and melodies are linked to specific animal characters. Students could each be assigned a leitmotif from Peter and the Wolf and present on how that music develops alongside the represented character throughout the work. Leitmotifs similarly abound in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods (also a film): Jack’s magic beans, Rapunzel, and the Witch are among the characters and props that have music to match. Students can be assigned a particular work to watch or listen to while making a map (or some other visual representation) of major musical themes and what they represent. Students can also be allowed to choose a favorite scored work to explore (from Harry Potter to Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings).