Just before Christmas I had the wonderful experience of watching The Return of the Jedi screened with a live orchestra playing the score. I’d seen the first two films in the saga in the same way a few years ago – and this one was held back a year by the pandemic. It’s a curious experience, which I would encourage any film music buff to try. As someone who has listened to the Star Wars scores countless times, I knew every beat, every note. But having a live orchestra play the music brings it to life in a new way. For one thing, as an audience member I was in awe of the split-second timing they played to. They didn’t miss one single synchronisation of music to action. Which is astonishing in a film score of such complexity. But the other thing it does is give one a fresh appreciation for the richness of William’s orchestrations.
That’s what always amazes me about John William’s music. He is master of melody, and of rhythmic intensity. He can write tender and empathetic music as easily as he writes his famous bombast. But his orchestrations – the sounds he mixes together, the chromatic way he puts his harmonies together in the different instrument families – his music is always a fascinating study in marshalling the power of a symphony orchestra.
As he did with the first two films in the saga, in this third outing he provides us with an immensely rich tapestry of motifs and themes. Some are returnees from the earlier offerings in the franchise, but many of them are new. Music for the ewoks for example is a masterful mixture of cute and primitive.
The Emperor’s theme is chilling, with it’s wordless male choir (that by the way was missing from the live orchestra concert – presumably due to constraints of space and cost.
There is also a beautiful new theme for Luke and Leia, a theme which starts tentatively, as if searching for an identity, but soon develops into a mature soaring theme which is one of the hallmarks of Williams’ writing.
Jabba the Hutt, too, gets a slithery theme played by the tuba, a perfect musical painting of the immense slug-like creature that he is. (at 2:47 below)
But added to this there are countless minor motifs, such as a heart-rending little melody for the heroic Ewok who dies in the battle: (at 6:00)
But my absolute favourite part of the score, and this ranks as one of my favourite parts of the entire Star Wars saga music lexicon, is the music Williams writes for the final lightsabre battle between Luke and Vader. Luke is almost seduced to the dark side, as he beats Vader into submission. The music is spine-chilling. Again, a male choir sings wordlessly, but the music is almost sacred in it’s character.
The music starts with a slow figure in the bass, insinuating and sinister, as Vader suggests turning Leia to the dark side. It builds, with the addition of swelling strings, and then this wonderful cathedral-like tune comes forth. It’s somehow made all the more chilling by the fact that the singing seems to be a fraction behind the orchestra. It feels fateful, treading a fine line between heaven and hell. The orchestra is mainly the strings here, playing wonderful leaps between minor and major chords, playing too in octave layers to give a sense of awesome space. This for me is one of those pieces which works at a very deep level, but I don’t always understand why. I can hear what Williams is doing harmonically and melodically, I can understand which instruments are playing, but in the end, when I hear this section (and it’s only short) I don’t need to understand. I just need to feel. It’s the sort of music I’d like to be played at my funeral.