A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 1980 – The Empire Strikes Back

It’s a while since I wrote one of these posts on the work of my favourite composer, John Williams. I’ve had Covid, but that’s not why. The truth is, since I left teaching to become wholly freelance with my own music and art, I haven’t had a great deal of time to write. And that’s good news. I’ve composed two Television scores, painted at least 10 detailed and often quite largescale pictures, often fulfilling bespoke commissions. I’ve just finished one this week. So I’m pleased in one sense not to have had the time to continue this series.

But as I sit down at my computer on this Sunday evening in September, I’m feeling nostalgic. I’ve been rewatching the original series of Doctor Who, and at the moment I’m working through the Jon Pertwee era. I’m actually too young(!) to remember Jon Pertwee as the doctor, but I do, because I was brought up in Australia, and they were a few years behind the UK, so when UK youngsters of my age were hiding behind the sofa from aliens met during Tom Baker’s exploits, I was being terrified to death of the enormous spiders which clung to people’s backs. My wife refuses to watch any of them with me, because she can’t stand the music. It was either slightly anachronistically cheerful orchestral music, or weird electronic tweets and drones.

When John Williams wrote the groundbreaking score to Star Wars in 1977, I’m sure his grandiose orchestral score raised a few eyebrows. Whatever scifi had graced the silver screen up till then often had an accompanying electronic score, as that was felt to be right and apt for adventures in space. But what we got in Star Wars was a return to the orchestral scores of old, and surely ranks with the best work of Max Steiner and others.

Nobody believed, when the original Star Wars was released in 1977, that this little film would take the world by storm and spawn a whole universe of sequels, prequels, novels, and offshoots. But when it was so successful, it was only natural that a sequel would be made, and so the curtains opened, three years later, on Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back. And the score which Williams gave us for this first sequel feels as if Star Wars has grown up. Sure, it has all the heroism and bombast of the first score, but it’s got a darkness and edge to it which the first score lacked. In keeping with the darker tone of the plot, Williams’ developing musical language for the films is darker, more dangerous. Harmonically this score is more daring and avant-garde than the first. But quite apart from that, it gave us a theme which has surely become the most instantly recognisable film theme of all time. The Imperial March, which to all intents and purposes is Darth Vader’s Theme.

This theme is used a lot in the film, and it often accompanies the dreaded Lord Vader, sweeping around the bridge of his Star Destroyer in his menacing black cape. He’s a bit of a marvel, a stroke of genius on the part of Lucas and his designers. The horrific black helmet, the asthmatic wheezing. Truly the stuff of nightmares. And his theme is astonishing in it’s ability to convey so much about what he is and what he stands for.

It’s really Darth Vader’s film. We see him threaten his minions, we see him do away with a number of his Admirals remotely through the power of the force. We see his single minded pursuit of the Skywalker boy who was responsible for the destruction of the Death Star. And we learn the horrifying truth that he is, in actual fact, the fallen father of said Skywalker boy. His presence is felt in almost every single frame.

And so what was just a Saturday morning adventure, full of swashbuckling heroes and the rescue of princesses (how very politically incorrect), becomes a familial saga of betrayal and temptation. And this darkening of tone, and indeed enlarging of the world in which the film is set, is reflected in the music. The wonderful themes from the first film are back, in the main, but they are added to with a seemingly endless collection of new themes. And the most apparent one is the Imperial March, which is really Darth Vader’s theme.

What an amazing piece! I could listen to this piece over and over and never get bored. It is an almost perfect marriage of harmony, rhythm and melody to not just the visuals but also the character of Vader and what he represents. It is a theme that takes you in it’s iron grip and does not allow escape until it’s thunderous climax. It is somehow brutal, inexorable, darkness personified. Yet it is surprisingly simple.

The main idea is built around what would appear to be a major tune if played without the harmonic context, built as it is around an E flat major triad. But add the chords in, and it becomes a very different beast. It is actually in the key of G minor, and when it drops to the E flat, the chord changes to E flat minor. The juxtaposition of these two chords is what informs the mood of the piece. Simple, yet devastatingly effective.

Williams is notoriously self-critical, and almost never listens to his past musical glories. But of the Imperial March, he says this: “There are some individual things that I’ve done – The Imperial March seems to me a perfectly shaped piece that works very well.” Very well indeed.

The theme represents the militaristic might of the Empire, and as such, it perhaps represents the loss of Anakin Skywalker’s individuality as he is subsumed by the Emperor’s will – he becomes one with the Empire itself.

But it’s by no means the only new theme in the film score. In fact, the score is jampacked with new melodies and also new treatments and variations on themes from the original film. Other new themes include a beautiful love theme for Han Solo and the Princess, which whilst reminiscent of Leia’s theme from the first film (sharing the same opening interval), is a much more grown up affair. Harmonically it is a fascinating piece, using chord sequences which would never normally be seen together, but which in the context of the melody sound entirely natural. The initial sequence is as follows: D flat – A – D D flat.

There is some marvellous music written for Cloud City, complete with ethereal female choir. There is some absolutely wonderful action music for the flight through an asteroid field which I honestly don’t think Williams has ever bettered.

The Imperial March makes a statement here, accompanied by rushing strings and percussion, then we have a wonderful little scherzo on sliding strings, before one of William’s fantastic soaring themes comes in. This is Williams at his best, using the full force of the brass section with screaming runs on the woodwind. I could listen to this all day. But then, I am biased.

But the other new theme for this film is a little different to the others, the theme for the Jedi master Yoda. Again, it’s deceptive in its simplicity. There is something almost innocent in it’s melodic shape and harmonies. But its also stately, and somehow ancient. It’s heard in it’s fullest form in the film when Luke tries and fails to lift his X-wing fighter out of the swamp with the power of the force. Yoda then proves that it is not a matter of size. He seemingly effortlessly lifts the X-wing out of the swamp, as his theme swells majestically. It starts at about 2 minutes 20 into the following recording. The crescendo of brass towards the end, which is brought down again to a quiet rendition of the theme as the ship is brought in to land, is spine-tingling. It’s a sign of Williams’ skill that he is able to make such varied use of one single theme, so that it conveys gentleness and power all in the space of a few seconds. It is spine-tingling stuff, and one of my very favourite moments in John Williams’ vast musical repertoire.

A truly monumental score, this is one of my all time favourite scores by JW. This and ET are on a whole new level in the way they transform what we see on screen into something so so much more. The ability Williams has in this score to tell us more about characters, to weave ever deeper the story of the Skywalker clan, there is something magical about it. Something of the force itself.

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