The Music of Star Wars - The Original Trilogy
When it comes to film scores, there is one man who stands above all others. John Williams is the second most nominated individual in Academy Award history behind only Walt Disney, with five wins from a whopping forty-nine nominations, and has been responsible for some of the most iconic tunes of the silver screen. Ever heard of Jaws, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park or Harry Potter? Williams is the genius behind the scores to all of these. Yet of all his great works, perhaps his greatest achievement – and certainly his most memorable – is in scoring the Star Wars films.
Ask anyone to sing you the main theme to Star Wars and they’ll probably go red with embarrassment, but they’ll be able to do it. The famous opening fanfare, accompanied by the equally famous trawl of introductory text, is as much a part of the films as lightsabers and Han Solo. It’s therefore brilliant news that Williams is set to return to a galaxy far, far away for Episode VII, even though he’s now eighty-two years of age.
What shape and flavour Williams will bring to this new score is impossible to say. His approach is so tailored to each film that, without reading the script for Episode VII (a privilege we were strangely denied), guessing what the music will be like is a task best left to prophets. Whether it’s the dark imperialism of Episode V or the tragic love story of Episode II, Williams has always managed to capture the character of the films with astute perfection. With that in mind, we decided it might be better to look back at his legacy rather than second guess his next move.
Episode IV: A New HopeThis is where it all began, and there’s no way to overstate how important that is. Stories abound of the trouble A New Hope suffered in production, with both cast and crew believing it would suffer an ignominious end at the box office. What exactly saved it from that fate is still an uncertainty, but there’s no doubting that people were captured from the first moment by a truly special opening theme. Brass fanfares are a Williams’ specialty, and he puts them to good use in Superman and Indiana Jones as well, but there are none that quite match the “Main Title” of Star Wars.
Away from the main series theme, A New Hope’s score contributes an equally important piece in the form of the theme for the Force. When Luke stands outside the farm and watches the setting suns of Tatooine, the quiet keening melody of “Binary Sunset”, which grows to a gorgeous crescendo of strings, speaks of the vastness of the universe and everything that lies beyond the tangible. It’s a melody which achieves the impossible by making the audience feel the Force for themselves, and leaves us in no doubt that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s misty eyed lectures are worth listening to.
These two memorable tunes aside, A New Hope’s soundtrack is largely one of brass and strings doing frantic battle, interspersed with a few slower moments. The action pieces in the final third are of particular note, with “Chasm Crossfire”, “Tie Fighter Attack” and “The Battle of Yavin” certainly worth a listen. Also of note, if you’re in a lighter, jokier mood is the jazzy “Cantina Band” – though be warned that it is highly infectious.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackThings took a darker turn in the second Star Wars to be released, and as is fitting, the soundtrack turned darker with it. Darth Vader is one of the greatest movie villains ever and Williams gave him the theme he deserved with “The Imperial March”. As famous as the main theme, its rigid regularity and bold grandeur make it the perfect accompaniment for acts of imperialistic evil. If you’re planning any villainous exploits and want some background music, look no further; your search has come to an end.
Yet in the context of the film, “The Imperial March” works best when compared to “Yoda’s Theme”. He may be tiny and green, but Yoda is given the theme music worthy of the great Jedi Master that he is; never brash or overwhelming, it remains humble even when it swells to its crescendo in “Yoda and the Force”. Together with “The Imperial March”, Williams characterises the opposing halves of the Force in these two pieces: one strong and dominating, one gentle and unassuming.
Also worth listening to are “The Battle of Hoth”, another frantic action set-piece, and “The Asteroid Field”, which features some wonderful comic moments. If you’re in a romantic mood, “Han Solo and the Princess” does wonderfully until interrupted by Darth Vader’s theme, and it’s worth listening out for when it pops up elsewhere in the soundtrack.
Episode VI: Return of the JediBolstered by the standout tracks from the previous instalments, in addition to the ones it adds itself, the concluding chapter of the original trilogy features perhaps William’s best soundtrack of all. Jabba the Hutt’s theme, first introduced in “Bounty for a Wookie”, is understated but fittingly slimy. And whatever you may think of the role of teddy bears in Star Wars, “Parade of the Ewoks” is a charming, light-hearted piece which could not better capture the spirit of its subjects.
Undoubtedly the greatest triumph of this score, however, is the Emperor’s Theme, as heard in “Emperor’s Throne Room”. An ominous bass rumbling, which builds in horror as easily as it builds in volume, it might not be as memorable as “The Imperial March” but it certainly rivals it as one of the greatest tunes a villain has ever inspired. When it swells to its final climax in “The Battle of Endor II” – as the Emperor stands over Luke, torturing him with lightning – the audience is once again exposed to the Force. This time, however, it is the dark side we encounter in all its terrifying power.
The three suites of “ The Battle of Endor” are some of the very best that the original trilogy scores have to offer. Following the blueprint laid down in A New Hope’s “The Battle of Yavin”, Lando’s endeavours in the space battle are a frenetic, frenzied interplay of brass and strings clambering over one another. The fight on Endor itself is much the same, but interspersed with the tribal tunes of the Ewoks.
It’s Luke’s duel with Vader and the Emperor that is the real gem here, though. Williams is clever enough to realise that Luke is not fighting for his life; he is fighting for his soul. The Emperor’s Theme thrums throughout, and it is the choral work that is the real showstopper, particularly when it strikes its most tragic note: Luke angrily lashing out at Vader in the final moments of the duel. Perhaps the most poignant moment comes in Vader’s death scene, when “The Imperial March” is stripped of all its pomp and grandeur. Reduced to a quiet, almost music-box tune, it is the perfect end to the story of Anakin Skywalker, who, because he reached too hard for power, lost everything worth having.