SCENE & HEARD: ‘Star Wars’

Star Wars

Written by UTG critic Grace DuffyScene & Heard takes a look at the music that makes our favorite films so memorable. Whether it’s the 400-piece orchestra Christopher Nolan used for ‘The Dark Knight,’ or the dozen or so bands that contributed to the soundtrack of ‘Top Gun,’ there is no denying the impact music has on movies and this column hopes to highlight the best of the best.

Earlier this week, the producers of the new Star Wars trilogy finally announced their main cast. After over 18 months of frenzied speculation, this was the first piece of concrete news to emerge from the camp since J.J. Abrams was confirmed to direct – and, more importantly, John Williams was confirmed as composer. There are many reasons why George Lucas’s epic space saga continues to dominate the public consciousness, such that announcements like these make mainstream news. After all, Star Wars was an unprecedented phenomenon when it burst onto cinema screens in 1977 – a hitherto unheard of property that managed to create an entire universe of potential. It didn’t just set up its primary heroes, villains, and storylines, but instigated a mythology so vast that the possibilities for more are all but limitless. Over the years, Lucas’s own extensive world-building has been enhanced by extended universe novels, games, and serials, such that the franchise now occupies a unique niche – it’s so big that new stories can be added all but seamlessly, without the originals ever needing to be rebooted.

Of course, the merits of adding to it with further films are open to debate. Indeed, there are probably many more fans outraged at the prospect of a new trilogy as there are ones entranced by it. Regardless of which side of the divide you occupy, one thing that should invite unanimous agreement is the return of Williams as composer for the films. Williams’s music is one of the primary reasons for Star Wars‘s enduring appeal and his scores for both the original and prequel trilogies rank among the most well-known film music ever composed. He took the universe created by the films and filled it with such evocative, sweeping, breathtaking music that it felt complete – whole and broad and real, with history and culture as powerful as any inhabiting ours. Here were the great tales and legends and heroes, and each one had their own songs.

Williams’s work on the original trilogy helped revive a new era of grandiose symphonic scores, showcasing all his primary classical influences and providing a fittingly epic accompaniment to the expansive mythology birthed by the films. From the outset, he attributes certain themes to specific characters or events, anchoring the music in something familiar and thereby allowing him to subtly usher in elements of those themes in later movements. As a result, the score for the films is alive with foreshadowing – major plot and character developments are heralded long before they occur, creating richer and more complex musical cues as the saga unfolds. A snippet of “Dies Irae”, which appears in the original music for A New Hope, is included in “The Immolation Scene” on Revenge of the Sith. “Anakin’s Theme” from The Phantom Menace has a very subtle trace of “The Imperial March”. The main theme for the Force is deployed at various moments throughout the six films – to evoke Luke’s wishful longing on “Binary Sunset” from A New Hope, as a ceremonial march in “The Throne Room”, and, later, as a poignant addendum to “Birth of the Twins and Padmé’s Destiny” in RotS. In this way, the music acts as an important unifying factor, linking important characters and events across decades and worlds.

When composing for the prequel trilogy, Williams added prominent choral elements to bring an added rush and power to the music. “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” are two of the most well-known of all the pieces in the films, and both feature significant choral elements. “Duel of the Fates” is shriller and more commanding, interspersed with sweeping kinetic movements to accompany the onscreen battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul in Phantom Menace. The choir oscillates between solemn and excitable, marking both the vagaries of the battle and the seriousness of what’s at stake. By contrast to this bold, epic movement, “Battle of the Heroes” is a far more tragic and even muted piece. It appears in RotS, underscoring the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and acts as an aural indication of the extent to which evil has infiltrated the galaxy. The choir is bleaker and more restrained, lamenting the downfall of an heroic age and the hope that Anakin once represented.

In addition to these two compositions, the most recognisable and significant of the themes composed for the prequel trilogy is “Across the Stars.” While this doesn’t feature a choir, it’s used as the love theme for Anakin and Padmé and captures every stroke of their doomed relationship in its lengthy and vivid throes. It opens gently to mark the forbidden union’s hushed beginnings, moves to lush, sweeping heights as they fall in love and secretly get married, and finally succumbs to a clipped, poignant ending that reflects the abrupt and tragic parting. A harp plays the final notes, seeming both mournful and wistful as it casts an elegiac eye over what has become of the treasured ideal the couple dreamed up in happier times.

However, possibly the most well-known of all Star Wars music (aside from the opening fanfare) is Darth Vader’s main theme, “The Imperial March.” This iconic piece has seeped into pop culture as symbolic of inherent villainy, inspiring metal covers and tongue-in-cheek use in other films and television shows. It’s a highly commanding piece, echoing Vader’s authority and the fearful  obedience he inspires, but it also incorporates elements of menace and foreboding to reflect the character’s legend and position as the Emperor’s right-hand man. It’s notable in that it is used to signify only his power and villainy, with barely a reflective moment to represent the man he used to be. “Battle of the Heroes” comes much later and mourns Anakin’s downfall, but “The Imperial March” is entirely dehumanised, training its eyes on the character as emblematic of a wider evil. After all, while he may pose a significant threat himself, Vader remains an instrument of the Emperor and a vessel for a darkness far more insidious and appalling than he himself represents. In this sense, the tightly militaristic and emotionless throes of “The Imperial March” are a perfect accompaniment for the character; stripped of any personal flourishes and focusing intently on the Dark Side as an instigator of rigid control.

It’s a sign of the sheer richness and majesty of Williams’s work on this saga that commenting on each individual piece far exceeds the scope of this article. On this day of days, it seems fitting to reflect upon one of the primary reasons Star Wars has managed to linger in our collective consciousness, and one of the key reasons you should be (at least partially) excited about the new films. No matter what comes of the characters or storylines, the music should still be stunning, adding layers of emotion and intensity to everything unfolding onscreen. May the Fourth Be With You. Always.

Written by Grace Duffy

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