‘John Williams and the Music of Star Wars’ (2005)


NPR, May 22, 2005 (Original Audio)

There are now six movies that begin exactly the same way: [we hear the opening blast of the Star Wars Main Title]
The words “Star Wars” are sprawled across thousands of movie screens this weekend, along with the familiar yellow lettering that crawls slowly to the horizon. And John Williams’ score heralds the final installment in the Star Wars saga: The Revenge of the Sith.
NPR’s Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr spoke with Williams and explores the music written for a galaxy far, far away.

The first time John Williams saw the original Star Wars, before any music had been written for it, he thought it was terrific, but it was just another job.
Williams: “We all thought, this is gonna be a great Saturday morning show for young people and it should have two or three really great weekends. But at that time in 1976 I had no idea that, whether I’d even be here in 2005, let alone be still working o­n the same project.”

Williams was already a well-established film composer. Steven Spielberg had just worked with him o­n Jaws and recommended him to George Lucas. Lucas and Williams decided to use a full symphonic orchestra in the soundtrack. Its lush textures and stirring rhythms harken back to the Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventures scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold came toHollywood in the 1930’s from Vienna, where he had been an opera composer praised by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Williams says the story of Star Wars was a sprawling epic and seemed to call for that kind of treatment.
Williams: “The translation of heroic impulses and feelings and reactions, and thinking in the terms of melodrama and opera bring us in the direction of a symphony orchestra rather than a group of synthesizers or computers that might produce the spacey, otherworldy sounds you might expect.”

So although a disco version of the main title did hit the top of the Billboard chart in 1977, the symphonic version – which o­nly reached number 10 – remains familiar but timeless. The decision to use the old Hollywood late Romantic style meant there would be an almost wall-to-wall score; more than two-thirds of the original Star Wars had music. Williams says the other movies are similarly jampacked. Williams: “We begin to play when the film begins and stop at the end of the film. There are some pauses in this latest film, but not very many. Usually scenes will require, because of the style, some kind of orchestral accompaniment. And that’s a happy assignment for a composer, because it will mean that you can have a large canvas to work o­n.”

Film music scholar Royal Brown says Williams has done an amazing job unifying the series through its ups and downs. Brown: “It has remained remarkably consistent. The difference is of course, is that by the time we get to The Revenge of the Sith, it’s not as fresh as it was. Not because Williams is doing anything wrong, but because he’s pretty much locked in to a particular requirement for this particular kind of movie and he doesn’t have a lot of wiggle-room here.”

What Williams has done is assign certain characters and ideas, like the Empire or the Force, specific music that accompanies them o­n the screen. Williams: “It isn’t anything new, because it’s been done for centuries in operas and also in film, as a way of connecting through a melodic fragment or a full melody in the audience’s mind, making a connection between that and a character.”

Those themes can also be used to make connections from film to film, reminding viewers of events they’ve already seen. For example, in The Empire Strikes Back, we hear the theme for Yoda, the ancient Jedi Master, as he, using the power of the Force, raises Luke Skywalker’s crashed spaceship from a swamp. [we hear the corresponding clip from “Yoda and the Force,” with some overlapping sound effects]
In Attack of the Clones, the second in the prequel trilogy, the theme reappears as Yoda keeps another enormous object suspended in the air, during a battle with the evil Count Dooku, saving Luke’s father, who’s trapped beneath. [we hear the corresponding clip from “Yoda Strikes Back,” again, with overlapping sound effects]
But the o­ne most famous of all the leitmotifs or recurring themes is the o­ne associated with Darth Vader. The familiar “Imperial March” actually didn’t show up until the second movie. In Star Wars, the Empire’s theme sounded a little more plonic. [we hear a clip from “Imperial Attack,” but it is in fact the Rebel motif played at a slower pace by the brass section]
And Darth Vader’s very first appearance o­n screen was accompanied by these ominous horns: [we hear the corresponding statement from “Imperial Attack”]
Together they contain the genetic material for Vader’s theme from The Empire Strikes Back. [now we hear the concert version of “The Imperial March”]

As the series continued it became clear that it was Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, whose story was being told. The Phantom Menace was the first of the prequels released in 1999, telling the story of Anakin’s childhood. John Williams says the backwards chronology presented him with an opportunity. Williams: “I wanted to create a theme for the boy Anakin and within it try, just for fun, to try to suggest Darth Vader’s Imperial March, and begin to put the pieces together or take a part of the pieces of the Imperial March, which had already existed for 15 years, and recompose it into something youthful and hopeful and potential, in a positive way.” [we hear a part of Anakin’s theme, which continues playing under the next part]

Royal Brown says even though the transformation from Anakin to Vader doesn’t happen until the final chapter, the foreshadowing of the music keeps reminding the audience of its inevitability. Brown: “That’s quite ingenious. I mean, he’s basically giving you a piece of information, just by the music alone, and then finally, the film catches up with it, the narrative catches up with it.” [Anakin’s melody comes to a close and turns ominously towards Vader’s theme]

The Darth Vader theme is also woven through the climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the final installment, Revenge of the Sith. [we hear part of Anakin vs. Obi-Wan, where Vader’s theme from ESB appears]

In sheer quantity of music spent telling a single prolonged story, John Williams is in the same league with composer Richard Wagner, whose Ring-cycle is another larger-than-life story of good and evil – and disfunctional families. But Williams says, he’s o­nly been doing his job. Williams: “I would never — (pauses) I would never want to be comparing myself to Wagner, or anybody else, but I do often think to myself, ‘my God, a hundred films, and probably an average of an hour in each o­ne of them. I probably have written as much music as Haydn – none of it nearly as good as any of Haydn, I’m well aware of that – and probably in terms of hours more than Wagner.'”

Since he won the Academy Award for Star Wars in 1978, beating out his own score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there have been o­nly six years John Williams hasn’t been up for an Oscar – or two.
– Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News

Score Wars
Williams: “We shouldn’t expect to have the listener’s complete attention the way we would in a concert piece, for example, or hope for 80 or 90% of their attention in a concert hall. But writing for film we will know that the spaceship is gonna zoom by here or something is gonna explode and probably the orchestra has to get out of the way to some degree, and cooperate with the sound effects. And that’s part of the writing. You’d be greatly disappointed if you write the music out without that in mind and then lay it up against the film with all of its competition and find out that it won’t work.”
[the example is the soundtrack of TPM from the Naboo fighters heading into space to the droid commander saying “Cease fire.”]

Writing for Titans
Williams: “That piece I wrote particularly for the laserfight that takes place between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, their final great confrontation. I don’t know how many laserswordfights there are in this picture but quite a few. And I thought, ‘this o­ne needs to be seperated out musically.’ It could have a quasi-lethargical feel to it, if you like, simply because it’s just at that moment of the clash of forces, of bright and dark and evil and good, and so o­n. That would accompany this swift-action laserbeam in a kind of long-line sung, and in this case somewhat choral even, giving it a sense of religiosity that all the other laserfights, as similar as they are from an action point of view, wouldn’t have.”
[the first 45 seconds of Anakin vs. Obi-Wan plays]

A Born Film Composer?
Brown: “I do think that there are some composers who were born to be film composers. By which I mean that they have this sense of being able to seamlessly make a transition from o­ne mood to the other and o­ne sound to the other. And also that they have what I would call an instantaneous access to affect. They have a talent for writing music that immediately gets to your gut.”

From an Era Far, Far Away
[a 45-second clip of the Disco version of the Main Titles]