Arias, ‘leit-characteristics’ and expressive states
Ligeti refers to ‘leit-characteristics’,1 as opposed to leitmotifs, to describe expressive characters or states in Le Grand Macabre. The term suggests an approach to composing opera that contrasts from traditional concepts of thematic development by which motivic signifiers and their variations are identified with persons, places or narrative themes, and instead emphasises expressive identifying qualities in the music. In Wagner’s operas the ‘leading motives’ are commonly the focus of analyses that seek to attribute functional roles to the musical material in the context of the dramatic structure of an opera as a whole.2 Repetition or variation is thereby often traced to a primary motif. This chapter will argue that in Ligeti’s opera the emphasis is instead on intervallic qualities, the exploration of timbre and a spectrum of expressive faculties which do not originate from an incipient motif but from an expressive idea or character. The identity of these characters is strengthened on the basis of the expressive differences that they display in relation to one another, marking a distinct contrast from the continuous musical textures of Wagner.