With his 51st Academy Award nomination this year for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it’s clear that the composer John Williams is still at the top of his game even after a career spanning six decades which has produced a string of award-winning film scores including those for Jaws, Superman, E.T., Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones series and, of course, the Star Wars Episodes I – VIII.
Williams’s superbly crafted and memorable scores are not merely musical backdrops but are so woven into the fabric of the films they accompany that they become inseparable from them. From the menacing two-note ostinato in Jaws, to the soulful violin melody in Schindler’s List or the cheerful ditty in Indiana Jones, it’s difficult to recall these films without humming a tune or two.
But it’s the music for the Star Wars series of films that has garnered the most attention. When the first film burst onto the screens back in 1977, it was widely seen as an exhilarating reworking of the classic action-adventure films from the golden era of Hollywood, such as Buck Rodgers (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and it came complete with a breezily-confident and decidedly retro orchestral score from John Williams which artfully mined the classical musical back catalogue, a score worthy of the great Hollywood composer Erich Korngold.
Fast forward 40 years to The Last Jedi (2017) and Williams is still using essentially the same tried and trusted formula, a formula which effectively threads the different Star Wars films into a satisfying whole while maintaining their individual character. As Star Wars is an undisputed classic of the “space opera” sub-genre in science fiction, it seems only fitting that Williams found his inspiration in opera itself, namely Wagner’s epic tetralogy, the Ring Cycle.
Williams, like Wagner before him, achieves this structural unity by the liberal use of so-called leitmotifs, recurring musical themes which represent characters, moods, objects or ideas. These leitmotifs are then used in myriad ways to announce characters, heighten the drama or to make tantalising suggestions or allusions.
For Star Wars Episodes I – VIII, the musicologist Frank Lehman of Tufts University has identified an astonishing 55 leitmotifs and 43 incidental motifs. Many of these are instantly familiar, such as the optimistic two Luke Skywalker themes, the haunting Force/Obi Wan theme or the sardonic Imperial March/Darth Vader theme. For Kylo Ren, the three themes (‘agressive’, ‘hesitant’ and ‘menacing’) suggest ambivalence, changing according to context. These themes pop up prominently when needed or are embedded in the intricate scores where they make a running commentary on the action. So, the seething Emperor Palpatine theme first heard in Return of the Jedi is busy throughout the prequel films (making a brief appearance in The Last Jedi), whereas the brother-sister theme (‘Luke & Leia’) first heard in Return of the Jedi is only heard again much later in the emotional reunion scene in The Last Jedi. With such attention to detail, it’s not surprising that denizens of fans comb the musical scores for clues to future plot developments.
John Williams has created a remarkable body of work for the Star Wars films; full of nods to other composers, these vibrant scores nevertheless bear his unmistakeable stamp. However, now aged 86, and having composed music for all three Star Wars trilogies, he has announced that he is retiring from the franchise following Star Wars Episode IX which is due out in 2019. Other composers however have already started to take up the reins in the stand-alone films: Kevin Kiner with The Clone Wars (2008), Michael Giacchino with Rogue One (2016) and John Powell with Solo (2018).
The score for the first Star Wars film, recorded over just eight sessions in March 1977, received official confirmation of its classic status when in 2005 it was preserved in the National Recording Registry of the US Library of Congress, the registry for works which are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Fittingly, the music has also made it to the concert hall where in sell-out concert performances, the music is played alongside the classical music which inspired it. Even shorn of the visuals however, this fresh, vibrant and optimistic music still packs a punch, making it one of the most popular and memorable film scores ever written.
Published 4 May 2018 on Primephonic.
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