Star Wars

April 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm (Uncategorized)

Another prime example of when a soundtrack has contributed greatly to a film (or in this case series of films) becoming embedded within the public consciousness is that of John Williams’ work with George Lucas in the Star Wars saga. Like Psycho, the Star Wars series has held a strong place within popular culture since the release of the first film in 1977. Some examples of its impact would include a disco dance reworking of the score reaching no.1 in the American Billboard charts for 2 weeks the year of the release and, more recently, a Star Wars clothing line being released by Addidas.

Perhaps part of the reason the Star Wars score has stood out is through its implementation of the leitmotiv. Encyclopedia Britannica (2010) describes the leitmotiv as a “recurring musical theme appearing usually in operas but also in symphonic poems. It is used to reinforce the dramatic action, to provide psychological insight into the characters, and to recall or suggest to the listener extramusical ideas relevant to the dramatic event. In a purely musical sense the repetition or transformation of the theme also gives cohesion to large-scale works.” When examining the music of the Star Wars films against this description, its intentions become much more apparent.

Although Williams used many leitmotivs in the films, the best known of these is most likely Darth Vader’s theme, or as it is better known, the Imperial March. The theme does not actually appear until the second film, although as pointed out in ‘Star Wars’ Comes Full Circle (2005), elements of the Imperial Attack piece and the horn flourish heard at Darth Vader’s first appearance in ‘Star Wars’ combine and evolve into the Imperial March that is first heard in “The Empire Strikes Back” Williams himself said about the piece in an interview for Film Score Monthly that “ Darth Vader’s theme seemed to me to need to have, like all of the themes if possible, strong melodic identification, so that when you heard it or part of the theme you would associate it with the character. The melodic elements needed to have a strong imprint. In the case of Darth Vader, brass suggests itself because of his military bearing and his authority and his ominous look. That would translate into a strong melody that’s military, that grabs you right away, that is, probably simplistically, in a minor mode because he’s threatening. You combine these thoughts into this kind of a military, ceremonial march, and we’ve got something that perhaps will answer the requirement here.”

As stated in the Sparknote ‘Star Wars Episodes IV-VI”(2005), the Imperial March is introduces “as the theme music for Vader’s pursuit of Han and Leia. The march’s rhythm is driving and relentless, capturing Vader’s own relentless progress through the story” However, The Imperial March is much more far-reaching than just this element of pursuit in the second film. Just as this piece contained elements from the Imperial Attack and horns found in the first film, it imprints itself within the music of the prequel trilogy, with hints of the theme becoming associated with the character Anakin Skywalker. As this is the character that turns into Darth Vader by the original trilogy, we ultimately already know his fate. As said in Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr’s article ‘John Williams and the Music of Star Wars’ (2005), “Williams’ musical foreshadowing keeps reminding the audience that it will happen — giving you a piece of information by the music alone.”

Bear in mind that this is only one –albeit probably the largest – of the leitmotivs used by Wiliams in the Star Wars music, and that each one of these leitmotivs is providing us with extra emotional information about the character, event, or group that the theme is associated with. The interweaving of these themes also takes place throughout the films, furthering the depth of importation passed to us through the music. As I quoted earlier, the leitmotiv “gives cohesion to large-scale works”. Without a doubt, the Star Wars saga is a large-scale work, and I feel that the ‘cohesion’ provided by the music must be part of what makes the series so enthralling, even if it is not consciously noticed by the average viewer.

Star Wars – Imperial March

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