May 2020 – It’s all about the leitmotifs (2)

Welcome to May’s diary entry. This week I’m publishing the page of House Tully with two tracks from Catelyn, but the real course is an expanded discussion on leitmotifs after the appetizer from last month’s update, as I want to delve into the importance leitmotifs will have in the music of the project, especially Notes of Ice and Fire and Songs of Ice and Fire.

What is a leitmotif?

Leitmotif is the English form of the German word leitmotiv (meaning leading motif) and its basic definition is a musical idea (a melody, a rhythm, a harmonic progression, etc.) that is associated to a non-musical idea (a person, a place, an event, an emotion, etc.) and thus every time the musical idea is heard the audience is made to think of something else that is not musical.

Leitmotifs are usually associated with Richard Wagner, and even though he wasn’t the first composer to ever use the concept of associating musical ideas to extra-musical ones he is responsible for its popularization. What Wager did that no one had ever done before (at least not in such an extensive manner) was the use of leitmotifs in his operas (music dramas as he called them) where almost characters, objects, places, events, and feelings had leitmotifs of their own: A  character walking on stage would be accompanied by said character’s leitmotif, followed by the leitmotif of the poison he is holding in his hand to kill himself as he mourns the death of his beloved (cue beloved’s leitmotif and death leitmotif).

Nowadays we have become accustomed to this use of leitmotifs in movies thanks mainly to John Williams, who re-popularized the concept with scores filled to the brim with leitmotifs (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones to name a few).

The good, the bad, and the ugly leitmotifs

Leitmotifs are an incredibly resource and to explore them I will categorize them in three ways: Good Leitmotifs, Bad Leitmotifs, and Ugly Leitmotifs:

  • A Good Leitmotif is one that clarifies what is happening plot-wise, and makes it easier for the audience to follow along. Good leitmotifs can also link ideas together and give them new meaning when combined.
  • On the other hand, a Bad Leitmotif happens when it is used almost haphazardly, creating more confusion that if there had been no leitmotif at all. Some bad leitmotifs are bad simply because they are not distinctive enough, and they can be missed easily or what’s worse, misheard and taken for an entirely different idea.
  • But what is an Ugly Leitmotif? I’m glad you asked. There are times when the Leitmotif cannot be said to be bad, but it simply doesn’t perform as it should or it has unexpected consequences. Unlike bad leitmotifs they are not the result of incompetence on behalf of the composer, but unavoidable problems that take come with the territory:
    1. The Dog Whistling effect: This problem goes back all the way to Wagner’s days and it sadly doesn’t have a solution. Basically, the leitmotif is so good and effective that if the leitmotif doesn’t play when the audience expects it then it feels as if the music is wrong. This results in the leitmotif appearing every single time it should, without exceptions, resulting in an unnatural mannerism, where a character is mentioned and the leitmotif is played by an instrument almost instantly, like a dog responding to its master’s whistle.

      It is a catch 22 where the very essence of a leitmotif is to reinforce non-musical elements by playing consistently when it applies in context otherwise its effectiveness is weakened, but if it’s used constantly it becomes cliched. What is the solution? There is no one solution here since it is intrinsic to the technique and one is forced to live with it. The best way to deal with it is to be judicious when deciding what leitmotif needs to be played, and when exceptions can be made in order to find a balance between meeting expectations without resulting predictable.

    2. A leitmotif set in stone: Usually, when a leitmotif is truly great it basically revolves around its most memorable incarnation, so it doesn’t matter if the non-musical idea has changed and developed, the leitmotif will rarely change at all from the original version. This could be dismissed as not a problem if one adopts the idea that leitmotifs are simply another tool in a composer’s toolbox to extract a reaction from the audience and they are complementary to the plot, but I still think this is a problem that needs to be remedied.

To give an example most people would be familiar with, in Star Wars, what is known as Luke’s Theme (also known as Binary Sunset) is mostly (but not exclusively) to represent the figure of Luke Skywalker. This gorgeous leitmotif is so incredibly well defined in the Binary sunset scene that it can never change nor develop. It is exactly note by note exactly the same when it was presented in A New Hope, when Luke was but a farmer boy in a desolate planet with no future, as when in Return of the Jedi (SPOILER ALERT) Luke, as the last Jedi Master, burns the corpse of his father after redeeming him and having both brought down the emperor and freed the galaxy. That is not a world but a galaxy of development for a character, but the music is still stuck where he was 3 movies ago. This to me is incongruous to me and is something I rack my brain about how to address in A Song of Ice and Fire but the solution is clear: when a character develops through the books their leitmotif needs to change and develop with them, even if it means their original iteration of their leitmotif is never heard again later on, the same way that some aspects of their personality will never appear again after going through some trauma. There is a continuum where some characters experience many changes while others remain the same for the longest time.

Developing Leitmotifs: Catelyn Tully as Maiden and Mother


This last point of development is the reason for many joys and frustrations when writing music set to the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is not only toiling at the piano for hours looking for that one melody that matches what you think a character should sound like, it’s doing that for the same character more than once, sometimes half a dozen or more, never forgetting that all the versions of the leitmotif need to connect coherently. Sometimes a character goes from blissfully happy in book one to demented lunatic in later books, to dead, to vengeful undead, but the leitmotif needs to grow and develop with the character just as they do.

There are two leitmotifs for Catelyn I feel confident enough I can to use to make the point about the problem of setting leitmotifs in stone and not letting them grow with the character. The first leitmotif is Catelyn in her Maiden days, before marrying Eddard.

Catelyn is the model of what a maiden from the Riverlands should be. For now she is a girl who dreams of love and family who will fulfill her duty by marrying a noble lord chosen by her father. She is playful, beautiful and above all a Tully of Riverrun, of course. House Tully’s leitmotif is represented in the blue notes, and this is shared by all Tullys and descendants of Tullys. The leitmotif is very simple, a note waving up and down, always jumping in thirds around a central note. Three notes in total for the three core principles of the Tully’s: Family, Duty, Honor. Catelyn not only achieves a great balance moving back and forth between all three, she also manages to do so inserting her own personality into it, with playful notes in between the jumps that make her so cheerful, and a high and adventurous high note right before the end.

Almost twenty years later he second leitmotif is Catelyn well into A Clash of Kings.

Catelyn has lost a husband, children, and is fighting a war for survival. When she was young she could go up and down twice has fast the Leitmotif of the Tully’s, but now weariness has taken not just a toll on her, but also the notes that gave her a playful sound. Now there are only two notes left (who could these two notes represent I wonder), one of which she is incapable of reaching anymore as she is too far away and no matter how much momentum she has. The pace is slower too, and the accompaniment much more somber. This leitmotif also expands into a B section in the minor mode that didn’t exist before any tragedy had happened to her but this material will be expanded in future versions of her leitmotif, so I won’t go into detail here.

Now that we know what Catelyn’s leitmotif is we can look at Robb’s theme and see how his leitmotif is a combination of both Ned’s and Catelyn’s, with the Tully side being slightly favored. As it is a crucial element in the books, it is also important to have it in the music as well. Some people say that these elements are too difficult to be perceived unless one is explicitly told what to look for, and I agree, bur to me these are the kind of details where the magic happens, just like it takes us readers many rereads to find all the hidden details of the books and foreshadowing, this is my attempt at recreating such detail and foreshadowing in the music.

On the difficulties of complex leitmotifs

When I explain these kinds of details people usually ask me how much of this is planned in advanced and my answer is that while not 100% is planned in advance when I start working on a leitmotif, there is nothing that is not justified by the time I consider it finished.

Sometimes I work chronologically, starting with the leitmotif of a character when they are young and work my way forward developing the leitmotif with the character (this is one of several reasons why children can be easier to write leitmotifs for, as they are a clean slate). In the particular case of Catelyn, the Mother version of her Leitmotif was written back in 2016 before the Maiden version, so it was a question of writing backwards wondering what was her leitmotif when she was younger, more innocent and less traumatized.

Other times I have to finish so many more specific leitmotifs to merely be able of thinking of other leitmotifs. This is specially the case of characters who were brought up by people who were not their parents (think bastards but also wards) since the conglomerate of parental figures and perceived identities makes it a challenge to find the true essence of their real being (looking at you Jon, Joffrey and Theon)

Also, I admit there till say some main characters that have had no time dedicated to them since there are way too many variables up in the air to decide to spend hundreds of hours only to see it all by the wayside when the next two books come out.

That’s been all for this month. I hope you enjoyed this diary entry. See you in Summer!

Maester Ludwig

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