By Joseph Walter
But what is it about the score that resonates so deeply with so many?
One reason is that John Williams is able to channel and define pure emotion in the form of music. Very few scores are able to take an undefinable feeling and perfectly capture it musically.
Perhaps another reason for its enduring legacy is the structure of the music.
"Star Wars" is often considered a space opera, and with good reason. The music itself is operatic in nature, using many recurring themes and motifs that represent characters, situations and more. Because of this, it's almost entirely possible to listen to only the scores of the original trilogy and be able to understand the story just using the music.
Understanding theses themes and motifs enriches your viewing and listening experience exponentially, so I'm going to explain most of the major (and some minor) elements of these scores for your future enjoyment!
Each film in the original triloy is going to get a dedicated section in time, but we're starting with the one who pioneered the core: "A New Hope". We're going to start with a brief overview of the score, and then immediately delve into the themes that are established in the film. Being that this is mostly about the themes or motifs in their native form, I'm only going to quickly go over their arc throughout the movies (as not to spoil the fun of your newfound listening knowledge!) However, if the theme is evolved to a point in a later movie where it requires its own entry, it will be there.
At the conclusion of this article, we're going to listen to the "Battle of Yavin" sequence from "A New Hope," and you'll be able to put your new musical knowledge to the test.
I've linked the music I discuss to the pieces in question so you can listen while you read!
"A New HoPE"
Many of the musical threads for the entire franchise were born here, with a few having a concise arc (such as the "Imperial Power" motif). Others grow throughout the franchise, despite their seemingly complete evolutions in this single movie.
Because the themes are so well-established here, most of them are inseparable from the franchise, and many have become legendary on their own. Of course, a few aren't quite as prominent, or never truly appear again, but four out of the six I'll be discussing are intrinsically linked to the next two films and beyond.
It's a rousing, triumphant piece that effectively excites the listener and gets them ready for a sweeping journey to a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Most prominent in "A New Hope," the "Main Titles" piece is injected throughout the score, typically in the action pieces. It has no specific meaning other than the fact that it is the theme for the series, and it is an effective glue that binds the various set pieces together. Later on in the trilogy, its use is more sparing, and sometimes only comes out for moments of superb triumph (like during the escape from the second Death Star as it explodes in "Return of the Jedi.")
Fun Fact: The main titles for nearly every "Star Wars" film have unique touches that separate them from one another. The keenest of listeners will be able to discern exactly what film each version belongs to from the various embellishments. When we reach "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" I'll be sure to point out the differences so you can listen, enjoy and impress your friends!
It's first established at the opening of the film, directly after the "Main Title." You can hear this theme, in both its initial occurrence in a grand, but defiant, accompaniment to Princess Leia's ship, the Tantive IV, as it struggles against a Star Destroyer at 1:36 - 1:43, and with a more complete rendition at 1:57 - 2:07.
Perhaps its most well-known form is during the famous battle between the escaping Millennium Falcon and the pursuing force of TIE fighters. I typically think of this as the "full version," starting at 2:04, where it is the centerpiece of the action material, with its most discernible blasting of the fanfare at 2:11 - 2:20.
Lastly, it can be heard at the start of the "End Titles" during the credits of the films. What's most interesting about this part is that it includes an extended sequence, with driving strings and horns, best heard from 1:55 - 2:24. This particular version will be referred to as the "Rebel Theme," rather than fanfare, later in the article.
It figures prominently through the sequels, but perhaps its best (and most nostalgic) use is during the Battle of Endor in "Return of the Jedi," as the Millennium Falcon and Wedge roar through the still-under-construction Death Star II to deliver the fatal blow to the generator. I can only imagine how the serious "Star Wars" fans felt in the theaters watching it for the first time, as the triumphant "TIE Fighter" attack cue blasted through the speakers in a glorious bookend.
The Force Theme
While, thematically, it seems that Williams didn't always intend for this to represent the power of the Force (instead, opting for something closer to destiny) its evolution throughout the many entries in this series points decidedly that it represents this binding life-energy.
However, in "A New Hope," where the theme is tailored more towards destiny or defining moments, it accompanies pivotal emotional sequences, and is, surprisingly, versatile in its orchestration.
It's most famous appearance is during Luke's forlorn look towards the binary sunset at his homestead on Tatooine, unaware that he's about to go through a difficult-yet-fantastic journey, heard best at 2:16 - 2:54.
Despite its varied use in "A New Hope," the theme of the Force tends to stick mostly with its original, supremely emotional version throughout the sequels, all the way through to its perfect conclusion in VI, though things do get a little more atypical in the prequels (which I will not be covering, as of yet.)
Princess Leia's Theme
When the strings finally materialize with the smooth brass in the background, the theme takes its best form, exemplifying all of the Princes Leia's qualities into the perfect form. The crescendo that nearly concludes the piece is pretty swoon-worthy, if I do say so myself. However, that final, passionate-but-melancholy violin at the end is a perfect punctuation.
One oddity about this piece is that a version of it plays during Obi-Wan's death at the hands of Darth Vader. I'm mind-boggled as to why or what John Williams was thinking, but I'm curious as to whether or not it's a leftover artifact from a previous version of the script, or perhaps, much like "The Force Theme," this theme wasn't concretely meant to represent Leia at the time. Or maybe it's because rescuing Leia was the mission and it was being accomplished, but who knows! It's all speculation, though!
Also, fun fact: During the credits suite, when the "Leia's Theme" movement comes, listen to how John William's expertly mixes it with faint, fleeting and romantic bursts of the "Rebel Fanfare," representing how she and the Rebellion are deeply entwined.
Darth Vader's Motif
As for this motif, it's a knowingly-cheesy, imposing brass fanfare, which can be heard here, at 1:59 - 2:05.
"Imperial Power" Motif
However, it's very first appearance is after the famous text scroll, where it accompanies the Star Destroyer's awesome might as it pursues the Tantive IV. It's heard here between 1:41 - 1:57, but it's best use is its ironic conclusion during the Battle of Yavin, which we will get to at the conclusion of the article.
Listen: "The BAttle of Yavin"
The next major moment we need to consider is 2:45 - 2:55, which is a quick, uncomfortable version of that same "Rebel Theme" reference, which shows the duress the Rebels are under.
At 3:26 again we're given another taste of the Darth Vader motif, this one particularly high-strung. Perhaps the Empire is beginning to feel threatened by this desperate engagement?
At 3:39 - 4:55, a very forceful (hehe) version of the "Force Theme" fills our eardrums while Luke takes to the offensive. The desperate strings in the background accentuate the danger of combat and the lingering doom, but don't overshadow the heroics on dispaly.
After some time, the trench run begins, and we're treated to a very uncomfortable and droning piece of music. Its ever-building tension draws the viewer in, accentuating the hope that these poor Rebels will be able to successfully make the strike and save the only hope for a free galaxy.
At 6:28, the "Main Title" swoops in, albeit in a cautious form, possibly warning Luke that time's almost up and the rebellion is now in his hands. Finally, we get a reprieve from all the tension at 6:47 where a mystical, calm and gorgeous "Force Theme" forms into being, as Obi-Wan's voice famously tells Luke to "use the Force."
Taking this moment to heart, Luke removes his targeting computer, much to the confusion of the Rebel Command. But it's okay, becauase 7:01 - 7:37 plays a building, driving "Main Titles," which is so supremely exciting in context I can't adequately explain it. Of course it's followed by a waning, unsure version that represents Vader's dogged stalking of the young Skywalker, but it never fully loses hope.
Then, ironically at 7:36, we get the "Imperial Power" motif while the Death Star prepares to fire. This switches back to the tense "Main Titles," the back once more to the buidling "Imperial Power." The best moment of this, however, is that the "Imperial Power" continues to build even as Luke fires the fatal Proton Torpedoes, effectively removing the teeth from what the "Imperial Power" motif stands for.
Finally, at 8:44, with the destruction of the Death Star, we're given an awesome, fleeting, celebratory, even silly version of the "Rebel Fanfare," symbolizing the crushing blow against the Empire and the renewed hope that the Rebellion is more than capable of victory. It's such a perfect moment, because the celebratory theme is so reserved, it's as if they didn't think they would win, yet it contains so much joy regardless. Truly the only way to have concluded "The Battle of Yavin."
Before the Empire Strikes Back...
Of course, it goes without saying that I'm not an expert, and quite a few portions of this list are my own interpretations of the art. I've also likely glazed over, forgotten or even missed prominent musical moments, but with a score as dense as the "Star Wars" saga, it's no surprise!
Regardless, the next time you watch any of these movies, try to listen for these themes and see just how much of the story is told through music!