May the fourth be with you! Today, in honour of Star Wars Day, we're exploring John Williams and the inimitable music of Star Wars.
There is no doubt that the Star Wars franchise has had an incomprehensible impact on pop-culture ever since the release of the original 1977 film. It has since gone on to become a massive phenomenon, spanning TV, publishing, video-games, merchandise and theme park attractions. It is in no small part due to the music of John Williams, who has been there since the beginning. Let’s celebrate May the 4th by looking at the most memorable moments in Star Wars music from the legendary film composer.
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Main Title Theme – Every Star Wars Film (1977-2019)
The first thing anyone heard from this franchise, sitting in a quiet theatre in 1977, was this grand, mythic, epic and majestic theme, suggesting that the audience is in for a larger than life story in a galaxy far far away. Williams makes use of every section of the orchestra, each having a moment to shine. It is bold and loud, with the melody continuing to grow and build throughout the piece. It truly is the curtain raiser for each film in the franchise, and continues to be used in all different types of Star Wars media to this day as opening music. It is without a doubt the most recognisable and memorable of all of John Williams’ Star Wars music.
Duel of the Fates – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
A climactic battle between the Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Sith Lord Darth Maul, is perhaps the most memorable part of this entry in the franchise. John Williams elevates it with a piece that sets the tone from the beginning, featuring a chorus for the first time in Star Wars music. The strings and horns build to an epic height and pace to match the action on screen, with each section of the orchestra having a moment to shine. The theme appears multiple times throughout the prequel era of films in pivotal character moments tied to a young Anakin Skywalker, with the outcomes of these pivotal scenes affecting the trajectory of the galaxy.
Across the Stars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Williams captures the beauty and tragedy of a doomed romance in a war torn galaxy in this piece. The love theme of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala is featured as a motif throughout this film and the follow-up. Starting with a smaller intimate rendition of the motif on woodwind and harp building to a full orchestra of sweeping strings and deep horns, Williams us of the danger this romance will pose to the saga and Anakin’s eventual turn to the dark-side.
Battle of the Heroes – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
This finale of the Prequel era delivers the inevitable downfall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire, and Williams matches the scale in the score. This song plays over the duel between our heroes, the master Obi-Wan and his fallen apprentice Anakin, which occurs over raging lava. The operatic chorus. The bombastic horns. The crashing symbols as lightsabers clash and lava explodes. Tying in motifs from every film before it, this truly feels like the culmination of the franchise, as the rise of Darth Vader unfolds in a very operatic score.
Binary Sunset – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Also known as the Force Theme, this is probably the music most associated with the light side and the Jedi in Star Wars and has appeared in every entry of the franchise. As the young farm boy Luke Skywalker stares out to the Tatooine twin sunset, in a moment right before his world, and the galaxy, is about to change, Williams channels the entire Star Wars universe itself calling out to Luke. As he contemplates the future, and the journey ahead, we are there with him. This theme returns throughout the franchise whenever characters are channeling the light or speaking of the force.
Han Solo and the Princess – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Han Solo and Princess Leia have a gripping romance In Empire, and John Williams makes sure to give them an equally poignant and memorable theme in the score. The use of Princess Leia’s theme, with a melody that is sweet and romantic, introduces the idea of a relationship in the moment they share their first kiss aboard the Millennium Falcon. It returns later in the film, and introduces the larger orchestra to reinforce the romance between the Princess and the Scoundrel, in a more certain and dominant use of strings that builds to an epic climax as Leia and Han share one final exchange of “I love you”, “I know.”
The Imperial March – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Also known as Darth Vader’s theme, this leitmotif is all you need to hear to know the Dark Lord is approaching, and is probably one of the most iconic villain themes in film history. It has been used throughout the franchise as the representation of power and tyranny in the galaxy. As suggested by the title, Williams constructed this theme around a militaristic drum pattern, with the use of horns evoking music used in propaganda pieces of World War Two.
Finale/End Title Theme – Every Star Wars Film (1977-2019)
What makes this section of every John Williams score special, is how unique each version from every film is whilst keeping to a similar format each time. They all begin the same way, with a rendition of the main title theme, this time in a faster paced, upbeat, more triumphant and celebratory tone. Williams has retained this aspect of the score, much like the opening title music, in every episodic film in the franchise. It then leads into a compilation of the films previous musical highlights including the many leitmotifs, and defining tracks that appeared in that film. This medley plays over the credits, much like a highlight reel, as we get to experience the best of the films music together in one place, really highlighting just how masterful John Williams is.
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