Motif in Music
Early History Of The Motif
It is apparent in the earliest surviving music that composers were aware of the cohesive power of the motif. For example, the medieval sequence Dies irae (Day of wrath), a chant later incorporated into the Catholic requiem mass, opens with a descending eight-note melodic motif that unifies the entire chant by reappearing repeatedly through the course of the eighteen verses. The somber associations of its intervallic patterns, coupled with an ominous text concerning the biblical Judgment Day, have ensured the chant's opening motif a lasting place in music that strives to evoke the supernatural, ranging from Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (1830) to Stanley Kubrick's horror film The Shining (1980).
An early assessment of musical motifs appeared in Denis Diderot's monumental Encyclopédie in 1765. The motivo (as it is called there) is described as the principal thought or idea of an aria and thus constitutes "musical genius most particularly" (Grimm, p. 766a). Similar and expanded descriptions continued to appear on into the twentieth century. In 1906 the music theorist Heinrich Schenker argued that the "fundamental purpose" of a cyclical form is "to represent the destiny, the real personal fate, of a motif or of several motifs simultaneously" (p. 12). He added, "At one time, [the motif's] melodic character is tested; at another time, a harmonic peculiarity must prove its valor in unaccustomed surroundings; a third time, again, the motif is subjected to rhythmic change: in other words, the motif lives through its fate, like a personage in a drama" (p. 13).