A long time ago in a galaxy, far far away…
The year was 1977, and no was expecting something like this! Star Wars took the world by storm with his visual effects, its original storytelling, its wondrous world, and beyond all its incredibly bombastic music. You see, at this time in Hollywood the majority of film studios wanted the music in movies to feature the popular songs and sounds that the young people were listening to. They saw this as a way to draw people into the theatre and boost soundtrack sales. However, George Lucas knew this wouldn’t work for Star Wars.
When creating Star Wars, George Lucas wanted it to be a giant homage to the films he grew up on: The Classic Westerns, Serialized Comics, and above all, Space Operas. Even the plot of Star Wars is a “colour-by-numbers” retelling of Joseph Cambell’s monomyth or “The Hero’s Journey” – which can also be echoed in great stories like The Lord of the Rings and the Hunger Games. Obviously, with a movie that harkened back to such a different era of storytelling, the music would have to do the same, in order to provide any sort of justice to the film’s emotion and narrative!
Enter John Williams. The famous composer responsible for such classic movie scores such as E.T, Jaws, Harry Potter, and Schindler’s List. While, Star Wars was far from Williams’ first big project, it was pivotal in reshaping the way the film world utilized music. John Williams was a connoisseur of many genres of music, mirroring Lucas’s love of film, so Williams drew influences from the films Lucas was referencing. Some of these inspirations included Erik Korngold’s scores for the Errol Flynn pirate films and the golden age scores of Max Steiner (such as Gone With the Wind.) Apart from film scores, John Williams paid his own homages to the great romantic and classical composers of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, like Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst, Igor Stravinsky, and of coarse, Richard Wagner.
We’ll get to Wagner’s influence on Star Wars very shortly, but let’s first talk about how some of those other composers influenced Williams’ work. Seeing as Star Wars was set in space, Williams only saw it fitting that much of the music should be orchestrated in the style of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. We can hear some of these influences in the big battle pieces and some of the more romantic writing like Princess Leia’s theme. However, perhaps Williams homages went a little too far at times, as some music critics have stated that the music for Tatooine’s sounds a little too similar to Igor Stravinky’s The Rite of Spring. As for the inspiration from Erik Korngold, Max Steiner, and the classic Western movies? Well those are found right in the opening theme of Star Wars, itself! The music’s grand fanfare captures the spirit and energy of these classic scores so well, that one would have thought that Star Wars itself came from that era. It’s perfect!
However, regardless of how influential these above examples are, nothing was more influenced Williams’ writing style more than Richard Wagner. As mentioned before, George Lucas wanted Star Wars to be a Space Opera. He recently told Vulture Magazine that he always saw the six films as a Soap Opera set in space, “about family problems first, not space battles.” So obviously, Williams wanted to play with this and craft the music to be an opera itself. As I’m sure many will tell you, there is no higher king in opera than Richard Wagner!
Wagner was renowned for creating grandiose operas, inspired by ancient tales and myths, about single heroes on a journey, meeting various characters, battling evil villains, and wielding magical powers (hey, kinda like Star Wars!). To help tie together the story of the music, Wagner’s claim to fame was the Leitmotif, a musical figure that represents a person, place, thing, or idea – kind of like a musical noun. This leitmotif would be heard whenever that character entered the stage or did something significant. John Williams took this idea and applied it with ease to the Star Wars music, creating countless leitmotifs throughout the six movies. Let’s take a look at some of the most used ones below!
Probably the grandest of all the themes and represents our hero, Luke Skywalker. This theme is heard in all its glory in the opening titles of Star Wars. I guarantee you, even if you haven’t seen the films, you’ll know this melody.
Princess Leia’s Theme
A theme truly inspired by the Holst and Richard Strauss. This romantic melody captures Leia’s heart along with her strength. Making for one of the most memorable and powerful melodies of the films.
The Imperial March
Otherwise known as Darth Vader’s theme, this melody captures the evil of Darth Vader as well as the Empire. For this theme, John Williams wanted to create a military march for the Empire that told the audience that the empire was here for business, so watch out! (Fun fact: although Darth Vader and the Empire show up in Episode IV, this theme doesn’t appear until Episode V.)
A mystical theme for our master Jedi, Yoda. Built in the Lydian mode, this theme captures Yoda’s wisdom, his patience, and his masterful skill of the force.
Anakin & Padme’s Love Theme
This theme first shows up in Episode II: Attack of the Clones representing the forbidden love between Anakin and Padme. Interestingly enough, this theme is based on similar melodic shapes of Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, and the force theme! Good work, John Williams!
Star Wars has been a huge influence on many films to come out since, in all aspects of filmmaking. In film Star Wars revolutionized the way visual effects and sound was done on pictures, while proving people wanted grand epics as much as story. In the music, Star Wars proved that audiences like hearing grand orchestral scores to capture the emotion and story. Through John Williams’ exceptional orchestration and writing, Star Wars has influenced generations of composers aspiring to write for film and TV, with his biggest contribution to modern film scores being revival of the leitmotif. Without Star Wars, we would probably have very different music for films like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Avengers, or Lord of the Rings (can you imagine! Ahh!) Only time will tell what these new Star Wars films will be like, but one thing’s for sure, we will never forget the wonders of the classics. Star Wars will live on forever!