Long time ago in a land far, far away… the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner would employ a dramatic technique of “leitmotif” into his works and associate certain musical ideas with different characters, places or concepts. He didn’t invent musical themes as such, of course, but his extensive work on The Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle popularized this notion and it carried over into the next century when the film was born. It proved to be a perfect tool in helping to understand the narrative, especially when the new exciting medium started to experiment more extensively with editing and montages. Music, and all its components, would help to tie everything together into one grand design and makes dramatic and emotional sense.
Hollywood started to use this leitmotif technique quite early on, of course. The original King Kong score by Max Steiner was among the first sound films to use the full symphonic scores to employ this approach. The previous experiments with in American cinema were mostly limited to inserting random background music. The film was immensely successful and many critics praised this innovative use of original thematic-driven composition. Soon, this sort of approach spread all over Hollywood and thus Golden Age of film music came to be. Some of most legendary film scores were written at this point.
Towards the late 60’s and early 70’s, however, things started to change. The emergence of popular music complicated thing and it also influenced how studios came to approach music in films. Many decisions were made to cater to modern audiences and that also meant employing more pop into films. The tradition of the full orchestral accompaniment started to fizzle away.
Things would take one more surprising turn when young directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas entered the film world in grand way. Both gentlemen would collaborate with one composer to bring back the grand romance of symphony orchestra back into cinemas. John Williams was no stranger to Hollywood at this point, of course. He was a session musician on many Golden Age scores of Henry Mancini and Alfred Newman back in the glory days. His own composing career started as early as in the late 1950’s. And while he’s done already a considerable amount of work before meeting Spielberg and Lucas, nothing could prepare him for what was to come soon after.
Lucas wanted a state-of-the-art space epic to be accompanied with a 19th century symphonic music, something that would be considered very old-fashioned in the mid-1970’s. Production of the film was already plagued with many misfortunes and outright disasters so it comes as no surprise that director had no real faith in anything towards the end. But then Williams started recording his music… and it turned out to be the only aspect of Star Wars that exceeded’s Lucas’ expectations.
The music of this space opera got back to the great tradition of leitmotif. Williams composed themes for principal characters and helped its film to achieve an almost mythic status. The audiences rushed to the theaters… and to the record shops. Another generation of listeners was introduced to symphonic music and inspired countless young people into studying instruments and composition. After three years, The Empire Strikes Back hit cinemas and it gave Williams an opportunity to expand his lexicon of musical ideas. Same happened with Return of the Jedi… and all the other subsequent films.
As The Force Awakens is about to open later this week, with brand new material like to be written for debuting characters, we take a look at all the musical ideas from all previous Star Wars six films, starting with the original three. This list is not necessarily complete, as the idea of a theme in music is broad and can often be associated with really small ideas or even motifs appearing in single pieces of music. But we picked what is, in our opinion, the most essential material from Lucas’ space saga…
Luke’s Theme/Main Theme
This famous piece doesn’t need any introduction. The march is among the most famous orchestral pieces of 20th century and is instantly recognizable to almost anybody. The heroic tune opens every single film and accompanies each text crawl. In the original Star Wars film, this theme was associated with Luke Skywalker and his naive optimism. With each new chapter, that aspect got more and more neglected, as main protagonist gains wisdom and becomes a true Jedi Knight.
The melody was carried over to the prequel trilogy, but in a more symbolical way. By that time, its role was reduced to simply representing Star Wars as a saga and didn’t have any associations with specific characters. Williams, for the most part, would use it only in the opening titles. In a controversial move, a decision was made not to re-record the piece for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith opening sequences. Williams only recorded the cue for The Phantom Menace and it was later re-used for the sequels, with some mixing tweaks here and there. A shame, to be sure.
Luke’s theme is used sparingly throughout the actual prequel films: a couple of action statements in The Phantom Menace help to build some necessary swashbuckling excitement, otherwise lacking from films themselves. It never appears in the second film (outside of the title sequences, that is) but returns briefly in the opening battle of Revenge of the Sith. One last statement can he heard at the very end, when we see baby Luke being delivered to Owen and Beru on Tatooine.
Princess Leia’s Theme
This is an interesting theme to discuss because, unlike many other musical ideas, it sort of serves as a counterpoint to what it portrays. When composing the melody, John Williams must have been thinking of the idea of ‘a princess’, a mythical archetype behind countless classic stories. The character as portrayed by Carrie Fisher doesn’t necessarily embody all of that. She’s stubborn, determined and certainly not helpless. And yet the music helps to give her this sense of innocence and fragility that the onscreen performance might have been lacking.
In one of the more curious scoring moves, John Williams chose to use this theme to underscore the emotional moment right after Obi-Wan’s death. From a musical point of view, this doesn’t make any sense. But the composer needed something that would help in this scene and Leia’s theme seemed to serve this purpose best.
Throughout the other films in this trilogy, the theme is perhaps underutilized but we need to remember that Williams penned two more romantic themes to compliment it and describe two evolving relationships in princess’ life – with Han and Luke. respectively. In the prequel trilogy, we can briefly hear this melody stated when baby Leia is delivered to Alderaan. Along with her brother’s theme, it helps to bring us back into the original trilogy.
Force Theme/Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi’s Theme
It may be THE most important theme in the entirety of Star Wars saga. The Force theme connects all the films more strongly than any other idea John Williams penned for George Lucas’ series, much in the same way the mysterious Force does. Obi-Wan’s own words, it “is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”.
Originally, Williams composed this theme for the character Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi in Star Wars. But even in that movie, it seemed to represent Luke’s path as well as the mysterious Force itself. With each sequel (and prequel, for that matter), the melody had less to do with specific characters but with everything tied to grander destiny and something bigger. And is a witness of many pivotal moments in the galaxy far, far away.
Imperial Theme/Death Star Motif
While The Imperial March is a more famous piece to portray the martial might of Galactic Empire, it wasn’t the first one to serve that purpose. The original Star Wars had a much more understated, purely militaristic theme which depicted the villains in a more strictly evil, but somewhat anonymous, fashion. Darth Vader wasn’t then a major villain, but a creepy henchman for Grand Moff Tarkin (played by the ever-wonderful Peter Cushing). So the melody wasn’t necessarily associated with him per se, even if the composer himself describes it as Vader’s theme in the original album’s notes: “For his theme, l use a lot of bassoons and muted trombones and other sorts of low sounds”. However, even that menacing sound is nothing compared to what’s to come in The Empire Strikes Back and its own grandiose and iconic theme. The original Imperial theme doesn’t come back in any of the following films.
The other crucial, if somewhat small, element of the original score was the Death Star motif. It was in fact yet another brief musical phrase to sell the idea of Galactic Empire’s might and its ultimate superweapon. However, its first appearance had nothing to do with the dreaded battle station and accompanied a shot of a Star Destroyer and punctuated the ending of an iconic rebel blockade runner sequence.
Just as Empire has its own musical identities, so does the Rebel Alliance receive its own theme. Because it’s been so closely associated with the main theme in the opening and closing sequences (which happens in all six films), many people might assume it is simply an integral part of it. But Williams utilizes Rebel fanfare on its own all throughout the scores, and in many different guises. The film speaks to the heroism and idealism of all protagonists. But it can also depict their struggles extremely successfully, as it does in the very first slow-moving opening sequence of Star Wars.
The theme is used in the prequels in the opening statements of the end credits, as it does in all the other films. And it receives one surprising cameo appearance in the battle over Coruscant (in Revenge of the Sith) to signal R2’s brief moment of triumph over trouble-causing buzz-droids.
While stranded on the desert planet of Tatooine. R2-D2 and C-3PO have an argument and split up. They both, however, end up in the same place in the end – the Jawa’s sandcrawler. Those “little people”, as Williams described them on the original soundtrack album, are small hooded figures with glowing eyes that seem to be only scavenging for droid other technological scraps.
Their music is comedic in nature, but never sugary. Williams associates the theme primarily with oboe that gives it a nice balanced quality of quirkiness that doesn’t overstate its point. While the Jawa theme appears only twice in the actual score, Williams decided to include it in his original symphonic suite that was performed in concert around the time of films’ release. However, it is not often performed and/or included on the more recent Star Wars album compilations.
As a direct result of a badly executed rescue of princess Leia aboard the Death Star, our heroes end up in the trash compactor and encounter a strange, largely unseen, carnivorous creature that drags unsuspecting Luke Skywalker underwater with its tentacles. When it realizes that the walls are about to close, it releases him, and escapes.
The material developed for the tense trash compactor sequence in Star Wars can’t be necessarily called a separate recurring theme, given that it appears in two consecutive cues and one of them ended up being unused in the film. It is, however, included as a unique idea with which Williams describes a specific environment and a curious “life form” living in it. A short snippet of this unused cue was used in the Special Edition for an extended introduction of Mos Eisley spaceport.
Throne Room Theme
After the destruction of Death Star, our heroes — Luke, Han and Chewbacca, are awarded medals by Princess Leia during a victory ceremony. The theme is largely dependent on Williams’ Force theme, which receives its triumphant variations here. However, there is also a secondary noble theme that feels more ceremonial and hymnal and its tied very nicely into the B section of Luke’s theme. John Williams must have thought it was important enough to be expanded upon in the concert suite version of this very piece and it received two additional statements, one of which closes the concert version of end titles. That last portion is also reprised at the very end of Return of the Jedi end title.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)
Few composers are able to follow up one iconic main theme with yet another one written for a sequel that might be just as popular. The Imperial March can be found everywhere, from political propaganda videos to metal band covers. Williams managed to replace his functional Imperial theme established in Star Wars and replace it with something even more appropriate as Darth Vader becomes the main villian in The Empire Strikes Back.
Galactic Empire does indeed strike back and you can hear it through the music. Williams makes no apologies and puts dozens of variations of The Imperial March all over the score in countless variations – from the innocent piccolo hint right after opening text crawl to the absolutely grandiose declamations of power whenever we cut to the Star Destroyer fleet. Many film and music fans would even point out that there is too much of it in The Empire Strikes Back. At the same time, however, one needs to admire the composer’s craft who comes up with many different orchestrations and never repeat himself.
The theme is used in all the subsequent films and Williams keeps playing with this iconic melody. In Return of the Jedi, for instance, we get to hear a curiously delicate and tender variations for Darth Vader’s death scene. Orchestrating this cue was Thomas Newman’s first job in the movie business and he later became a very well known Hollywood composer (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Skyfall).
Williams, of course, needed to bring back the material for prequels as they depict Anakin Skywalker’s journey, and his eventual downfall. In an ingenious move, Williams creates a separate theme for 9-year old Anakin that deconstructs the ominous march into something more sweet and innocent (which we will talk about in the second part). Apart from that, Williams makes a lot of clever nods in different parts of The Phantom Menace that hint at Darth Vader’s material. For instance, the the entire space battle cue seems to be derived from this theme and there are also some subtle statements in quieter scenes, most notably when Yoda expresses his worries about Anakin’s future.
In Attack of the Clones, Anakin is ten years older and the theme appears during his traumatic trip to Tatooine after suffering from several nightmares involving his mother. After her death, Anakin makes disturbing decisions and decides to slaughter the entire Tusken camp. It is only more appropriate that The Imperial March should rear its ugly head at this point. Finally, we get to hear the fully formed version as we see Palpatine observing countless Clone Troopers being shipped off to systems involved in Clone Wars.
Revenge of the Sith bridges the gap between the two trilogies and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is complete. What is curious, from a scoring point of view, that Williams never tries to fully embrace the militaristic tone of Darth Vader’s theme and instead uses it in its more darker and personal variations. We never get to hear the fully formed march, even when the legendary black suit and breathing mask make an appearance. Instead, we get a mournful statement, tied to Force and Funeral themes (discussed in the prequels article). By doing that, Williams puts an emphasis on the tragedy of this situation..
Han Solo and the Princess (Love Theme)
The relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia was hinted at in the original Star Wars film. But it never quite had a chance to be develop past few brief exchanges. By The Empire Strikes Back, the two knew each other for three years and we can see a clear progression. Leia doesn’t want Han to leave but can’t express it. She will be only able to admit her true feelings towards the end, just as captain Solo is about to be frozen in a carbonite.
Williams penned a new theme for those two characters. It does both link the theme to Leia’s own melody but also gives it a bit of a rougish charm that Harrison Ford brings into the mix. It does appear early in the score and receives some notable performances towards the end of battle of Hoth and asteroid field sequences. But it is in the third act that it really takes flight and receive its most epic statements in Cloud City sequences. Curiously, the grandest statements are used after the two characters are separated. It also obligatorily reprised in Return of the Jedi when Han and Leia are finally happily reunited.
Other than Obi-Wan Kenobi, there is yet another figure that ended up being crucial in the process of turning Luke Skywalker into a real Jedi Knight. Our young protagonist ventures into the remote bog planet Dagobah right after escaping the Imperial invasion on Hoth. There, he starts his proper physical and mental training, and not without many failures along the way.
John Williams decided to write a major theme for Yoda that describes his gentleness, kindness and wisdom. With a slight touch of mischief as well. The theme also accompanies Luke when he’s venturing to Cloud City in an attempt to save his friends. It comes back in all the other films as well, albeit used quite sparingly.
It is curious that two major droid characters that drive the first third of Star Wars never get their own musical identification. John Williams rectified this in The Empire Strikes Back where they receive their own theme that is used all the way throughout this score. It’s a comical, but not entirely silly, idea that perfectly encapsulates the personality of this odd couple. Strangely, it’s never reprised in any of the follow-up films.
Cloud City Theme
Towards the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO end up Cloud City, a mining outpost floating above the gas giant of Bespin. The entire final act of this film is set in this sterile locations and some of the most pivotal moments in Star Wars saga happen there – the freezing of Han Solo and Darth Vader’s identity revelation. John Williams wrote a theme for this place that often takes a form of a friendly noble march. At first, it serves as a misleading tool in order to trick the audience, as well as our characters, into thinking that everything is fine. Later, it becomes a heroic theme for Lando as he tries to redeem himself and help our heroes escape the Empire.
Boba Fett’s Theme
Boba Fett is one of Star Wars’ most popular characters. Surprising, given that he only appears very briefly in the original trilogy… and then gets an unfortunate backstory in the prequels. Yet, his cold presence and cool armour resonated with imagination of many fans and made him immortal. Musically, Boba is presented with a motif for bassoon that speaks to his menacing presence. It’s interesting that Williams chose such an instrument, often associated with comedy, to portray such a character. But it works extremely well. This is yet another theme exclusive to The Empire Strikes Back.
Secondary Boba Fett Theme/Ambush Theme
This gravely serious pursuit brass and wind motif from the final act of The Empire Strikes Back creates a menacing mood and Williams uses a couple of times in association with Boba Fett and departure from Cloud City in his Slave I ship, with the frozen Han Solo on board. We hear it twice in the actual film, and there was yet another unused statement recorded, to accompany the beginning of lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader.
RETURN OF THE JEDI
Ewok Theme (Parade of the Ewoks)
As the Star Wars saga grew bigger with each entry, George Lucas started to feel financially more responsible and would introduce material more appropriate for younger audiences. And while he justifies it by trying to present the Ewoks as a parable on a Vietnam War, his argument ends up being a bit thin. The cute teddy bear-like creatures were a key in defeating Empire during the crucial battle of Endor, sure, but his original audience, now being six years older than in 1977, started to feel cynical about the direction this space opera saga was starting to take…
The Ewok theme, especially in its full concert arrangement, forms an interesting tandem with Parade of the Slave Children from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (that Williams would write a year later). They feel oddly similar in their quasi-Prokofiev composition. It’s a joyous and triumphant piece that superimposes its enthusiasm on the seemingly hopeless situation our characters end up in at this point in the story. And, as a result, it helps them to defeat the Galactic Empire. Williams develops this theme’s arc quite carefully. It first appears in a more ethnic and innocent statements, as we are introduced to the tribe. And then later becomes more boisterous and grand in ensuing battle sequences.
Luke and Leia
This theme closes the trilogy of romantic melodies of 1977-1983 films and offers yet another musical extension to the character of Leia. While her original theme represented the archetypal princess of old tales, the love theme tapped into the feisty personality of Han Solo, Luke and Leia is decidedly more mature and speaks to the characters’ evolution and their final journeys. Williams arranges the theme for cellos and lower registers and gives this beautiful melody some more weight and dignity. Sadly, it is used in the film only twice – in the Luke’s revelation scene and when Leia tells Han about her brother. The composer didn’t need the feel the need to reintroduce this melody for the ending of Revenge of the Sith, probably due to this themes’ mature tone, appropriate only to Return of the Jedi.
The Emperor remained a distant presence throughout the first two Star Wars films. He received a brief holographic cameo in The Empire Strikes Back but it wasn’t until Return of the Jedi that we finally got to meet this pivotal character. And he didn’t disappoint. The disturbing make-up of actor Ian McDiarmid was terrifically matched by his iconic reptilian voice performance. The Emperor was pure evil and remained the single most entertaining aspect of prequel films.
His theme is a malevolent and dark melody, most often performed by a low male chorus. It speaks to something ancient and evil, with a slgith touch of a monastery music (that was probably due to the deep cloak that this character wears). In the grander terms, this theme also successfully represents Dark Side of the Force. Williams remembered about it while composing scores for the prequels and decided to use it in all three.
Audiences were anticipating the appearance of Jabba the Hutt for an entire three years. He was initially mentioned in Star Wars by Han Solo, and then again several times in The Empire Strikes Back. And we finally got to see the, surprisingly repulsive slug-like creature in Return of the Jedi. His tuba theme describes the crime boss’ immense size and weight quite well. Williams briefly revisits the idea in The Phantom Menace, in a barely recognizable statement just before the Pod racing sequence in Tatooine. This is when we get to see a slightly younger incarnation of this memorable villain.
This short idea almost serves as an alternate to Rebel fanfare. It appears in the film twice, during the triumphant finale of swashbuckling Sarlacc pit rescue sequence, and once again while the second Death Star is exploding and our heroes, led by Lando Calrissian piloting the Milennium Falcon, narrowly escape death.
All Star Wars soundtracks are available from Sony Classical
This article is meant for educational purposes only – no copyright infringement is intended