MARCH 3, 2019 | 3 PM

In April 1975, Star Wars writer/director George Lucas and composer John Williams met for the first time. Some years after Star Wars: A New Hope opened to huge box-office success in 1977, Williams remembered his and Lucas’s conversation. “I looked at the movie [script] and liked it….I thought the film would give me the opportunity to write an old-fashioned swashbuckling symphonic score, so that’s what I did.”Like           Lucas’s film, Williams’s Star Wars score was a hit. The 1977 double LP – 74 minutes of symphonic movie music – sold more than four million copies, at that time the best-selling symphonic album ever. In 1998, Tom Shone, writing in the London Sunday Times, observed, “If, as some argue, American cinema has conquered the world, then [John] Williams can lay claim to have written the victory march.” In fact, according to Star Wars historian Chris Taylor, the “Star Wars March” has frequently been voted the “greatest tune in movie history.” And, in 2005, the American Film Institute named Williams’s score “the best film score of all time.”

  Not that Williams is without naysayers. When Star Wars opened in January 1977, The [New York] Village Voice critic dismissed Williams’s music as “corny romanticism.” More recently (2011), a contributor to the New York Times “artsbeat” blog referred to John Williams as “the Andrew Lloyd Webber of film music. Lots of pretty melodies but…nothing that really supports the tone and mood of the films.”

Critical comments like these raise larger and more interesting questions: What exactly does music do in movies? Does movie music have functions other than supporting a film’s “tone and mood”? And, precisely, what does John Williams’s music do for George Lucas’s Star Wars saga?

  From the beginning – even when movies were silent – music had one principal function: to help audiences follow plots and identify characters. Musicologist Emilio Audissino calls this "the spatial perceptive function” of movie music. I’d prefer to call it music’s “narrative function.”

  How does music help us follow a movie’s story and identify its characters? Specifically, how does John Williams’s Star Wars music perform this narrative function? Williams uses two musical forms – theme-and-variations and leitmotivs – to help George Lucas tell his Star Wars story. Crafton Beck and the Lima Symphony Orchestra play examples of both these forms in their Star Wars Family Concert. Think of the following paragraphs as an introduction to themes and leitmotivs and a listener’s guide to them in John Williams’s music.

Theme and Variations in Star Wars:

Williams’s main-title music for Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV) begins with a full symphonic “20th Century Fox Fanfare” (Alfred Newman’s composition) followed, after a brief silence, by Williams’s fortissimo B-flat major chord, synchronized with Star Wars on the screen. In Hollywood talk, this is a “stinger” – a sforzando chord that underlines something important on the screen. Here the stinger says: “Hey! The movie is beginning!” A canon-structured fanfare and the film’s main theme follow. Of the theme, Williams says:


    The opening of the film was visually so stunning, with that lettering

    …and the spaceships and so on, that it was clear that music had to

    kind of smack you right in the eye and do something very strong….

    I tried to construct something that…would have this idealistic,

    uplifting but military flair to it, and set it in the brass instruments…

    so you almost…want to…stand up and salute.


According to Audissino, Williams’s Star Wars main theme pays homage to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the greatest composer of Hollywood’s classical music style during the 1930s and ‘40s. Williams’s theme, says Audissino, “is not only similar in spirit to many of Korngold’s themes like Captain Blood ( 1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood(1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940), but is almost a direct quote of Kings Row (1942).” In 1981, Williams said of these Korngold references: “[A] lot of these references are deliberate. They’re an attempt to evoke a response in the audience where we want to elicit a certain kind of reaction…[to] specific backgrounds, specific [time] periods, certain kinds of characters and so on.”


It’s old-fashioned swashbuckling music for an old-fashioned movie. As Lucas said to Spielberg in an early talk about Star Wars, “I want a classical score; I want the Korngold kind of feel about this thing. It’s an old-fashioned kind of movie and I want that kind of grand soundtrack they used to have [in] movies.” And Lucas got it. Like other famous movie music – think Max Steiner’s theme for Gone With the Wind (1939) – Williams’s Star Wars theme opens, closes and runs throughout the saga, a theme and variations, helping audiences follow the Star Wars narrative.


Leitmotivs in Star Wars

Williams employs a second narrative technique – the leitmotiv – in his Star Wars music. A leitmotiv is a musical theme or motif associated with a particular character, situation or idea that recurs in a music drama or film. Famously used by Wagner in his “Ring” operas and by Prokofiev in his children’s musical story Peter and the Wolf, leitmotivs are also in the Star Wars cycle. (Listen for them in other film music, Howard Shore’s music for Lord of the Rings for example.) During LSO’s Family Concert, we’ll hear leitmotivs for characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader (militaristic march), Yoda, (serene), young Anakin, and Rey’s theme.   Indeed, in Star Wars, leitmotivs are everywhere. All it takes to cue the music is the character’s appearance on the screen. 


Also in the LSO program are themes for situations and ideas: Anakin and Padme’s love theme, for example, the Cantina Band, Parade of the Ewoks (a Prokofiev-inspired march), and Duel of the Fates. Chris Taylor writes that the music for Duel of the Fates (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) became “the first classical work in MTV’s music video rotation; it was bombastic, ominous, choral, and it would inspire the presence of apocalyptic choirs in Hollywood soundtracks for years to come.”


Other situation and idea themes in the LSO program include The Jedi Steps, March of the Resistance and The Rebellion is Reborn from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  Of John Williams’ music for The Last Jedi, film writer-director Rian Johnson said: “I want The Last Jedi to have all the things tonally that I associate with Star Wars.  Not just the Wagner but also the Flash Gordon.”  Listen for both of them. 


If themes-and-variations and leitmotivs sound like late 19th-century classical music, they should. Hollywood’s inspiration for classical symphonic film music, especially during its heyday (1933 – 1958), were the romantic compositions of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninov. John Williams’s major contribution, says Audissino, is rediscovering and revitalizing Hollywood’s symphonic, neoclassical tradition of movie music. “After years of mostly market-oriented popular music, William’s narrative-oriented scores, brought back to the general attention the importance and power of music as a device of cinematic art, and the fundamental help that it can give to film narration.”

Program Note Credit: David Adams