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What would Star Wars be without it’s musical score? What if we had never heard the soaring brass as Luke stood, looking out over the dunes of Tatooine? If Darth Vader had never stalked into our lives to the sounds of trombones blaring? Without even the incidental flutters of flutes and crashing cymbals, audiences would not feel the intensity of George Lucas’ epic as viscerally as we do. Throughout the 40 years and 8 films (so far) in the main Star Wars saga, one man has created the soundscape on which we hear heroes and villains clash. Inspired by giants of composition before him, John Williams reinvented what it means to be a film composer and created the opportunity for many that followed in his footsteps. Where he got his inspiration is as important to understanding his work as is direct study of the scores themselves. He stood on the shoulders of a megalomaniacal opportunist and a genius ahead of his time to create the sound we now associate with some of our fondest cinematic memories.
One of the keys to the success of the music of the Star Wars saga is a well-used technique in film music known as the leitmotif. This technique dates back to the 1850s when it was used in spades by German composer and noted terrible human being, Richard Wagner. In his 18-hour long, quadrilogical opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner gave every character their very own theme in the orchestra to let the audience know when they came on stage. It was a handy way to alert the members of the audience too far away to tell the difference between Siegfried and Sigmund or which of the Valkyries had ridden onto the stage, horned helmets and vocal folds ablaze.
This composition technique remained popular in opera during the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, but was falling out of favor with the modernist classical composers coming into their own post-World War One. Enter another composer from the Germanic states, Austrian Erich Korngold. Unlike Wagner, Korngold was a decent human being and left Germany during the rise of the Nazis in 1934 at the request of film director Max Reinhardt. His arrangement of Mendelsohn’s ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a film score helped introduce the world to actress Olivia de Haviland who he would reunite with in scoring 1935’s Captain Blood. While scoring a film about pirates did not appeal to his classical roots, seeing star Errol Flynn work during filming inspired him to create an “opera without singing” as a film score. He would continue to score films until the end of World War II in 1945. The critical scorn he received for having literally gone Hollywood would obscure his work for many years, both on film and in the classical realm. It wasn’t until 1972 when a recording of his best work, recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, titled The Sea Hawk, was released that his scores reached a contemporary audience and reintroduced cinema-goers to the fully orchestral film score.
From Wagner to Korngold we head to perhaps the greatest film composer of all time, John Williams. A composer for television and film since the late 1950s, Williams won his first Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1975 for Steven Spielberg’s epic, Jaws. Their second collaboration, this film and its iconic two-note alternating theme put both Spielberg and Williams on the map. After cementing his place in the film world with his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams was suggested as composer for Spielberg’s close friend George Lucas and his new space opera, Star Wars in 1977. The pairing would produce (as of December, 2017) scores for eight films over a span of four decades, creating some of the most memorable moments in film score history. Williams use of a neo-romantic style and embracing of modern tonal changes with a more populist flair, along with his whole-hearted embracing of the leitmotif, brought the audio world of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Korngold to a global audience.
Several themes are recognizable throughout the series and have become iconic both on and off-screen. Their appearances in the original trilogy of films has cemented not only their notes in the collective pop zeitgeist, but also the emotions and memories attached to each. While “Luke’s Theme” is the first major leitmotif to appear in Star Wars: A New Hope, the most often-played and recognized theme did not appear until 1981’s The Empire Strikes Back: “The Imperial March.” Other famous themes include “Rebel Fanfare,” “Force Theme,” Han Solo and the Princess,” and the only theme of real note from the Prequel trilogy, “Duel of the Fates.”
In addition to his work in leitmotifs, Williams, along with several other composers, purposefully wrote music to appear in-scene, rather than as external scores. These occasionally ambient, occasionally front-and-center pieces are called diegetic music. The most prominent example of these works is the Cantina band scene in A New Hope. Other examples include “Lapti Nek” and “Ewok Celebration” from the original cut of Return of the Jedi and “Jabba Flow” from The Force Awakens, written by Broadway favorite, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Well into his 80s, Williams is composing fewer and fewer films, focusing on those by his longtime partner, Spielberg, and the dynasty where he has made his most significant mark, Star Wars. In his decades of work, he has racked up 50 Academy Award nominations (second-most only to Walt Disney himself), and his score for A New Hope has been named by the American Film Institute as the greatest film score of all time. His compositions for the Olympics and for other iconic films such as Superman and the Harry Potter series have imprinted his work indelibly on generations of movie fans. The next time you watch A New Hope or The Force Awakens or any of the 60+ films he has scored since Jaws, listen for the leitmotifs. They’re not just theme songs, they’re part of history.