Friday, October 14, 2016

Star Wars

No. 232 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


The next few podcasts in our ongoing series will explore stage music – that is to say music intended (or inspired by) works of the stage and screen. If we set aside ballet, before the advent of film – and I literally mean film and not necessarily sound motion pictures – stage music falls mainly in the category of what we like to call incidental music, that is to say “background” or “mood” music that accompanies a play: an overture, interludes between scenes (to fill the void in the action during set or costume changes), and maybe the odd song. In a way, the music is there as an enhancement or an embellishment to the stage performance.

Music for film before the advent of sound has a very different intention – music actually plays a part in the performance, to convey aspects of the action – urgency, danger, romance… In other words, the music is part and parcel of the action, not just an aside or an artifice. Music continues to play that role when spoken dialog appears in film, in that case to “amplify” mood and add to the experience.
The production of the musical score for a film is a craft in itself – the best film composers not only have a flair for providing the right musical setting to amplify the mood in specific scenes, they also understand continuity, that is to say that the music like the characters and the action aren’t static, they evolve organically as the film progresses.

As film entered its Golden Age around the 1940’s, great composers were “on retainer” for the major studios. In Hollywood, for instance, the likes of Franz Waxman, Erich Korngold and Max Steiner scored some of the greatest films of the era, and made copious use of a device that was made famous in opera by Richard Wagner: the leitmotiv, or associating musical themes with characters or distinct elements of the action. Great examples include the theme Steiner attributed to the O’Hara plantation Tara in Gone with the Wind, or the one Korngold assigned to the main protagonist in Captain Blood.

After his studies at Juilliard, and the Eastman School of Music, John Williams returned to his native Califormia, where he began working as an orchestrator at film studios. Among other composers, Williams worked with Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and Alfred Newman. Williams composed original scores (for fillm and television) through the 1960’s, and in 1974 director Steven Spielberg approached him to compose the music for his feature directorial debut, The Sugarland Express. They teamed up again a year later for Spielberg's second film, Jaws. Shortly thereafter, Spielberg and Williams began a long collaboration for their next feature film together, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. During the same period, Spielberg recommended Williams to his friend and fellow director George Lucas, who needed a composer to score his ambitious 1977 space epic film Star Wars. Williams delivered a grand symphonic score in the fashion of Richard Strauss and Golden Age Hollywood composers Steiner and Korngold. Its main theme, "Luke's Theme" is among the most widely recognized in film history, and the "Force Theme" and "Princess Leia's Theme" are well-known examples of leitmotiv. Both the film and its score were immensely successful—it remains the highest grossing non-popular music recording of all-time. In 1980, Williams returned to score The Empire Strikes Back, where he introduced "The Imperial March" as the theme for Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire, "Yoda's Theme", and "Han Solo and the Princess". The original Star Wars trilogy concluded with the 1983 film Return of the Jedi, for which Williams' score provided most notably the "Emperor's Theme", "Parade of the Ewoks", and "Luke and Leia".

Many of these themes, familiar to many of us, are part of our montage made up of highlights from the “Original Trilogy” films, taken from the original soundtrack Williams performed with the London Symphony, and in the many Lucas re-editions (with a purpose-formed orchestra Lucas named the “Skywalker Symphony”).

I remember reading (I think it was in the two-LP liner notes for the Star Wars soundtrack) that Lucas used Gustav Holst‘s great orchestral suite The Planets as a placeholder. There are indeed interesting parallels between Holst’s Mars and Williams’ “Main Title” music, with the epic opening galactic fight sequence - do you agree (Look starting at 2:00 or so...)?

Williams composed the scores for the so-called “Prequel Trilogy” and was involved in scoring the first of the “Sequel Trilogy” films directed by J. J. Abrams. However, for me at least, the original Trilogy music stands out for its originality and its Post-Romantic character. Williams even provides a nudge and a wink to his Jazz pianist years (he’s the pianist for the great Peter Gunn theme on television) in the form of the eclectic Cantina Band music from “A New Hope” (I added both Cantina Band music sequences in this week’s montage, the well-travelled section and an equally imaginative second section heard on the film that hadn’t made it to the original LPs. Williams’ Jazz influences are more prevalent in other scores – most notably for the Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can.
Star Wars , like I said earlier, is best known for its great galactic fight sequences, none more famous that the climactic Battle of Yavin 4 (the so-called Death Star attack sequence) from “A New Hope”, which makes it on the montage as well.

I think you will love this music too

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