Do I dare? What on earth can I say about this magnum opus which single handedly transformed film scoring, just as the film it accompanies reinvented the blockbuster. So much has already been written about the score John Williams wrote for George Lucas’ little space opera – I certainly couldn’t say anything new or improve on the work of people more versed than I. What I can do is share my own guttural reaction to the score. As a raving Star wars fan, whatever I say about the music will be coloured by my love of the film. And in fact, it was this score which started me on my love affair with the music of John Williams.
What an opening! The Fox fanfare has scarcely faded away when that blast of brass and percussion blazes in, and the words “Star Wars” appear on the screen. Every time I hear that chord, and see those words, I feel like a seven year old all over again. Of course, when I was a seven year old, sitting in a cinema to watch Star Wars for the first time, I didn’t know what I was in for. But that first introductory brass fanfare gives you a clue. This is no less than one of the defining moments of cinema history, and the music leaves you in little doubt about it.
And then that iconic theme. I use this theme in my teaching to illustrate how strong intervals create a sense of adventure, of reaching beyond. This theme is full of them – the opening two notes have the perfect 5th. then the melody steps down three steps, but only because it’s saving it’s energy for the leap from the C to the B flat. And that is all about reaching for the stars. It’s about blasting off from the confines of one’s little planetary existence. It’s about realising your dreams. And all played by the immense power of the London Symphony Orchestra brass. It really is a musical archetype, which has rightfully entered our modern psyche. It’s a true hero archetype. There is a funny story about this theme. Mark Hamill apparently expressed some disappointment that John Williams had written themes for Princess Leia, for Ben Kenobi. The imperials had a theme; heck, even the jawas had a theme. And he (or his character, Luke Skywalker) didn’t. Then John Williams pointed out that the main theme was Luke’s theme. Imagine not just having your own theme, but it being the main theme of the score!
The main theme, after it’s gorgeous second idea for strings (0:26), reiterates the first melody, this time lead by the horns. And then the music, with the magical tones of piano, flute and celeste, sweeps us away to a galaxy far far away. The camera pans down in a sea of stars, and we see below us a desert planet. But we are not allowed to enjoy the moment, for the music has taken a dark turn.
Many people have remarked on the next musical section’s (1:30) similarity to a part of Mars from Holst’s Planets Suite. It’s not a direct quote, but the mood, and the instrumentation, is undeniably similar. And of course Williams has taken his cue from that piece. As a composer, I do it all the time – in fact, many directors will give their films “temp tracks” for their composers to create bespoke music “In the style of”. I would not be at all surprised if Holst was not mentioned at this point in the first musical discussions between Lucas and Williams. Quite apart from that, Holst is a great composer to be emulating.
From here on, so as not to write an entire volume, I will be picking out snippets of the score to share with you. The next bit that struck me even at an early age is the beautiful string passage Williams wrote for the escaping droids as they board the escape pod. A rather magnificent theme for two nonhuman characters to depart their sinking ship on!
The passage is at 4:20 in the above track. But of course everything hinges on these two droids. If they do not find their way down to the planet, then they do not get bought by a moisture farmer, and they never meet a young man called Luke Skywalker. And so the message which Artoo-Detoo carries inside his rusty innards will never find it’s way to an aging Jedi Knight in hiding called Ben Kenobi. So Luke will never hear of the princess, he will never meet Han Solo and his furry companion, and the film would have been markedly shorter. The point is, that this section might seem overcharged for the droid’s escape, but it really is one of the defining moments of the whole saga. And as such, it needs music which sounds portentous. And quite apart from anything else, the melody, formed by a series of interlocking falling lines which rise a step or two every time, is simply beautiful. It comes to a climax with a wonderful crash of the percussion, which was a hallmark of Williams’ work back then, and then we hear two chords in the brass, F and B, and back to the F, then repeated. This motif appears from time to time in the score, often accompanying Imperial action. The two chords form a perhaps overused science fiction trope, using the interplay between a chord and the chord an augmented fourth above it. James Horner uses it a lot in his two scores for the Star Trek franchise. But somehow, when Williams uses it here, it feels fresh. Maybe it’s because he forms a three note pattern with the chords – F B F, or I IV(aug) I. So it carries a sense of purpose and finality which it wouldn’t if it had ended on the augmented chord rather than finding home again
One of the most famous passages and indeed secondary themes in the Star Wars music universe is the music which accompanies Luke Skywalker as he watches the twin setting suns. It is known as the binary sunset music. Have a listen to it below at 2:20.
It is rightly famous, because it is such a clever piece of music. It somehow feels ancient and ageless at the same time, mystical, melancholy yet hopeful – and encapsulates everything about the lost Jedi – I cannot think of a movie theme that does it’s job as well as this one. It becomes Ben Kenobi’s theme. It starts in a minor key, with a step of a fourth. This interval is often used to represent something mystical and ancient. The melody, almost a solo line for french horn, then takes us on a short journey upward, but it soon drops down to it’s starting point. But it soon has another go, and this time reaches a note of hope, in the shape of the C chord (in the key of G minor, this is an unusual chord to land on, and it suffuses the theme with a sense of light, and hope – the Jedi have found their new hope, in the person of Luke Skywalker.) The theme then momentarily swells with full strings – for me this has always been one of those deeply resonant moments, when I erupt in goosebumps. The theme in it’s second half is even more magnificent than it’s first half. Rather like the main theme to Star wars, it reaches up and up, and finally reaches it’s highest point, before resolving peacefully. But it is even more powerful a reaching up in this theme, and I suspect this is because it works it’s way there. It takes longer to get there. You feel that the climax has been well earned. It tells a story of something mystical and ancient, lost, but now regained.
There is an alternative version of this music, completely different – have a listen to the scene with the original. I love the original theme, but I agree with Lucas that Ben’s theme is so much better in this context.
Another section I’d like to share with you is the moment Ben Kenobi shows himself, after frightening off the Tusken Raiders. He kneels by Luke’s side as he lies unconscious in the sand, and then becomes aware of a diminutive droid watching from the safety of an overhanging rock. It’s the passage which starts at 2:14 in the track below. Again, it’s Ben’s theme, but it takes a while to arrive. There is a small two chord motif which is played 5 times on woodwind, brass, and celeste. On the fifth time, the harp plays a gorgeous upward glissando, which feels like a window opening, or a book opening, a secret being revealed. And indeed it is, for it reveals Ben Kenobi to Artoo Detoo and to us, the audience. Williams uses this trick in the soundtrack to ET too, when the camera pans down to show the spaceship in the forest at the beginning. It’s an effective trick of the trade. Then we have a rather heavier version of Ben’s theme, but it peters out before it is able to reach it’s climax. You see, it needs to allude to Ben, but it can’t be too clear, because at this moment we don’t actually know it is Ben.
I’m going to leave this there now. As I said before, I could write a whole book about the thematic richness of the musical Star Wars universe, but I wouldn’t do it as well or as fully as many who have written about it before. I leave you first with a link to a fantastic resource if you’d like to investigate further. It’s a catalogue of the musical themes across all nine Star Wars films by Frank Lehman. It shows the transcription to the innumerable themes created by John Williams across more than 40 years of writing, with many of them linked to sound recordings available on youtube etc.
Another rich source of information can be found at
And finally, I leave you with another of the wonderful themes Williams wrote for this first Star Wars film – the poignantly beautiful theme for Princess Leia, here presented in its concert performance version. It is yet another reason why I fell in love with the music of Star Wars, which then led me into my love affair with the whole ouvre of this amazing composer John Williams. Listen to it from beginning to end, and then tell me that this isn’t worthy of being remembered on into the future, along with the standard repertoire of classical music. It’s like a wave, building up, then crashing on the shore, leaving just an echo of itself imprinted on the sand. Listen to that gorgeous violin cadenza which brings the piece to an end. It always makes my heart soar, just as the notes of the violin disappear into the heights. Simply stunning. But of course, I’m slightly biased!