The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Leitmotif: German for “leading motive,” an image or phrase that recurs throughout a work, each time evoking past associations in such a way as to serve as a subtly unifying element of the work as a whole. The term comes from music criticism, where it refers to a brief melodic phrase associated with a particular character, idea, object, or situation; the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, provide the leitmotif of the entire work. The leitmotif is not necessarily the predominant feature of a work, whether literary or musical, rather, it is a repeated element of the work that casts a revealing light on central themes and issues.
EXAMPLES: Mr. Brooke’s recurring comment in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1872): “I looked into that at one time but found you could go too far.” Examples of verbal and visual leitmotifs in film include “Rosebud” as a word and image in Citizen Kane (1941) and the image of a vortex in Vertigo (1958), visible both in the swirl of the lead female character’s hair and in the effect created by a camera tracking back quickly while zooming forward. Film score composer John Williams has created numerous leitmotifs, including the two-note musical phrase in Jaws (1975) that signals a shark attack; themes associated with various characters in the Star Wars saga (1977— ), such as Darth Vader’s “Imperial March”; and the mysterious “Hedwig’s Theme” that recurs throughout the Harry Potter movies (2001—11).