It’s likely the most famous film music of all time. Naturally, it would not be so, had the films themselves not been successful and achieved cultural icon status. It’s the music of the Star Wars; well, the Star Wars’ empire, if you like, attributed to Hollywood veteran composer John Williams (though several lesser-knowns have also scored for the series). To date, a total of 10 complete scores exist, doing everything film music is supposed to do: principally, keep the viewer riveted to the screen action.
Conductor Scott Gregg and The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra perform selections from the films on Thursday, Dec. 3, in up-to-the-minute fashion with the actual selection being announced from the stage, rather than following a concert program. This is probably a nod to the vast scope of the music and the six films and the difficulty of choosing from a seemingly infinite sound well that runs the gamut of the martial to the romantic, to the strange and back again.
John Williams was inspired, like any good soundtrack scribe, by what had come before him. One must remember that for all the dazzle razz of the Star Wars series’ special effects, set designs, costumes, and the like, any real film relies on a plot of substance, character development, and believable script. That last aspect brings up a point; I must admit that I lost interest in anything Star Wars after the Jar Jar Binks fiasco of the fourth film in the franchise, The Phantom Menace.
Fittingly, this had Williams taking a step back to the massive symphonists of the late 19th century: Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Richard Wagner (also, the symphony reminded us of the influence of Gustav Holst’s 1911 The Planets at a recent concert). Not to mention the influence of the classic Hollywood scores of the likes of Max Steiner and Erich Korngold. Said writer/director George Lucas of the first film: “I could have gone with ’50s sci-fi electronic bleeps and Theremins, but I wanted instead a more heroic, orchestral score like Steiner did for King Kong in 1933.”
It is probably Richard Wagner and his groundbreaking “leitmotif” system he employed for his own gargantuan music dramas that bring effectiveness to the score. Derided by Igor Stravinsky (ironically, another Williams idol) as “a musical telephone directory,” the leitmotif is simply a theme or tone cluster attached to a certain character, place, or event in a film, when it appears the audience is clued in immediately to what the game is. Take the triumphant trumpet blasts that mark the appearance of Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark series (another Williams’ opus) or the pulsating bass staccatos that Williams pinched from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps that served as the dinner bell for Bruce the wonder shark in Jaws.
As the franchise evolved, so did the music, expanding into more modernist territory. The scope, like the evolution of music itself in a way, moved on from the famous main fanfare (which again Williams turned sideways for Indiana Jones) to the pointillist eeriness of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Going back further in time, the Gregorian Dies Irae (“day of wrath” from the Catholic liturgy) was employed, embellished and used to evoke varying degrees of doom in the first film as well as in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. (I like to think there’s a Benedictine brother somewhere who did better royalty-wise from Star Wars than he did for The Omen). From Princess Leia to the Death Star itself, there is a leitmotif for every size and shape throughout the series.
The music has remained a mainstay in the lighter end of the repertoire for orchestras all over the world. Most “serious” composers have tried their hands at composing for commercial filmdom (Aaron Copland for North Star (’43), Georges Auric for Beauty and the Beast (’46), John Corigliano for 1981’s Altered States), but it’s John Williams who came to the Star Wars universe after an already lengthy and stellar Hollywood career in TV as well as mainstream popcorn fare like ’67’s Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure (’72), The Towering Inferno (’74) … the list goes on and on. Like any virtuoso composer, he ably utilizes the orchestra itself as his instrument, often making great demands on the most seasoned players. “Williams’ string writing can be very busy, often exhaustively so,” says symphony concertmaster-violinist Philip Pan, of Williams’ sometimes-arduous compositions. “Maybe it’s because he has had the stellar string section of the Boston Symphony at his disposal for so many years.”
Whatever the take may be, the music of Star Wars has a vastness and sonic depth that would have dumbfounded Richard Wagner himself. At present, there are no anthologies or volumes written on this music. Although surely there will be; as a phenomenon in the history of cinema, it’s inevitable. This can only be due to the fact that the series has yet to fully run its course. You can bet that when the final credits roll and the last fermata is held, the force will have been with John Williams. How’s that for a neat wrap?