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.

My life as a Freelancer

I took a risk at Easter. I left teaching, in order to give my time to painting and to music composition. So far, it’s been the best decision I could have made, because I’ve had more work than I know what to do with. In fact, I’ve been so busy doing paid work for other people that I haven’t actually had any time to do things for myself. But that is the reality of freelancing – you have to follow the jobs.

So I’ve completed the music for another TV series, this one about an ex-soldier who suffers terrible PTSD, and whilst in a fit of unknowing rage, murders someone. It’s about how we treat those who have mental illness as much as about his need for redemption. It stretched my musical language, as the director wanted things to be quite atonal and confusing for much of it. I will post a link to it when i know the details of showing times.

At the same time, I was working on a large commission for a client in the States, who wanted a view of Carmel Beach from Pebble Beach Golf Links. That was a challenge, as there were no clear photos that I could find of the exact view he wanted, so I created the view from a number of different photos. The issue with that, as any artist will tell you, is that different photos might have been taken in different weather conditions, at different times of the day. So creating a picture which feels realistic, with the light falling from the same direction, is a huge challenge.

Then, I was busy preparing paintings for taking part in the Warwickshire Open Studios. I never have as much work on show as I’d like, especially because my painting style is pretty detailed, so each painting takes a fair amount of time to complete. But There were a good ten new paintings available to buy, as well as some older work, and in addition I’d had coasters and mugs printed with some of my artwork. And I have never sold as many originals as I did this year. It’s been a wonderful experience, confirming that I made the right decision at Easter.

I’m sure things won’t always be as smooth. there will be times when the work dries up, and people don’t buy my artwork. That is what most freelancers go through I’d expect. But that’s not coming yet – I have three painting commissions to complete before Christmas, and there is always the work on The Moons of Jupiter to return to in my music, as well as the small matter of a TV film to compose for, based on the life of St Bernadette of Lourdes. So at least in the short term, I have more than enough to keep me busy. And so I am more than content.

A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 10: 1979 – Dracula

Dracula, scored in 1979, is perhaps one of john Williams’ lesser known works. It is however a mighty work, built mainly around the lush and dangerous theme Williams provided for the central character. This theme features firstly in the Main Title and Storm Sequence :

John Williams has said that he tries not to know too much about the books on which the films are often based. In the case of Dracula, he came to the film, if you like, a further step removed – he’d never even seen a Dracula film! Not one. So he had no preconceptions about what a Dracula theme should do. And so what we get in the main theme is a heady mixture of sensuality and threat. It is a sinuous melody. Some of its intervals, and especially the fall at the end of the first two phrases of the melody, play a similar trick to the theme from Superman, in that one can almost hear the word “Dracula” being sung in the orchestra.

There are indeed other links to the Superman score from the previous year. At 1:14 we hear the low strings intoning a ponderous ostinato with trills. Williams used the same trick in Superman, here at 5:30:

There are other themes which wind their way in and out of the score, such as the jaunty brass motif heard at 2:20:

Or the rather threatening brass and piano combination here at 6:38

There is also a lovely little travelling piece which sounds for all the world like a hunt. This may be because of the instrumentation at the beginning – a horn plays a questing little up-down melody before the piece begins in earnest, full of racing strings and woodwind. There is a marvellous melody on the horns, which shows Williams’ mastery of the French horn’s capabilities.

There is one standout variation of the main theme in the score, where john Williams takes it to it’s rapturous extreme, in “The Love Scene”. After a wonderful intro on the horns, the strings come to the fore. They seem to swell like the waves of the ocean, coming to a climax at 1:10. And it really does feel like a climax – its surely the musical version of an orgasm. The piece becomes tender as it draws to a close, but there is always an underlying sense of menace, which pervades the entire score.

There is not much beauty in this score. That’s not to say that the main theme is not majestic, and marvellous. But it’s not a beautiful piece of music. It’s far too dangerous for that.

There are moments of lightness, such as the lovely little motif played on the woodwind in “Give Me Your Loyalty”, at 0:42.

But these moments are rare in a score which is overshadowed by the menace and allure of Dracula himself. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. John Williams is a genius. He creates themes which seem inevitable, fitting perfectly to the characters and images portrayed on the silver screen. This version of Dracula portrays the vampire as a seductive handsome stranger who exerts a supernatural power over the women he pursues. The theme he furnishes Dracula with is likewise intoxicating, seductive, sensual, but at the same time, always with a sense of danger, of menace lurking just below the surface.

If you’ve never heard the score, try and get a copy, or find it on youtube – it’s well worth the listening to.

Leaving my Mark

I always thought I’d be rich and famous by the time I was 30. I thought I’d be “discovered”. And here I am, entering my second half century, and still not there. Yes, I make some money out of my paintings, out of my music. But not enough to pay the mortgage. Not enough to give up my dayjob.

I no longer seek those things. I am very driven – but what drives me now is to make my mark, to leave something of real value behind. So that people after me can see that I’ve lived on this Earth, and made an impression. And that’s not the same as fame.

I have two boys. They are 20 and 15 respectively. They are growing up into confident young men. The oldest one is an extremely gifted mathematician, and he has an easy way with people which means that he will carve out a good living, and surround himself with friends. The younger of my sons is very creative. He writes endlessly – he wants to be a film director. He has a number of health issues, but I am very proud of his confidence and his ability to face the world come what may.

My boys, aged 15 and 10 in 2015

What I’m coming to realise is that I have left my mark. It’s there in my boys, in their belief that they can be anything, that they can achieve anything. Life may take them along strange and unexpected paths, but I’m glad they have that confidence that they will be able to navigate them in the following of their dreams.

I’ve also come to realise that in my teaching, I have inspired young people over the years to take up music as a profession. Indeed, some of them make more money out of it than I do. But that’s part of what I am able to leave.

And quite apart from that, there are homes all over the world which have a painting by a certain Adam Tucker hanging on the walls – and some homes have a number of them! Of course I could sell more. Of course I could be better at marketing. But I am already beginning to leave signs of my presence on this planet.

And my music graces people’s television screens all over the world. No, I’m not yet well known. But I have had comments from people from the other side of the world who have heard my music in something they have watched. That’s humbling.

And I realise that it’s not the size of your following, the size of your bank balance, which leaves a mark. It’s about lives which you touch on your journey through your own life. I have a lovely wife, wonderful sons, and I have the best of both worlds – I can create, and I can educate, and pass on my love of creating to the next generation.

So if I ever start to whinge about not being quite successful enough, will you poke me in the eye and remind me of what I am able to do? I am so very fortunate to be fulfilled in what i do, and I know that is a real blessing. Not everyone is as fortunate.

Where does it come from?

I’ve been asked quite often how I go about writing a new piece of music. People it seems are often fascinated with the process a composer, especially a songwriter, go through to create something. And the answer is… I don’t know.

If I’m writing a song, do the lyrics come first or the music? Sometimes it’s one, sometimes, it’s the other. Sometimes they appear together. There is no hard and fast rule it seems.

And if I’m writing a piece of instrumental music – where do my ideas come from for melodies? For the harmonies and instrumental mixes and timbres that make up the piece? Well, that may be a little easier to pin down. I’m a great lover of film music. And I often start, as a visual artist as well, thinking about the images I want my music to create in the listener’s imagination. And I listen. I listen to music from all sorts of traditions, and when I hear something that I like, I listen to it again. I work out what the composer has done to create the particular effect which has caught me. What instruments has he or she used? What rhythmic patterns underly the whole?

That’s not to say I copy. They say there is nothing new under the sun. That’s true of music. But let’s say that I try to hide my sources! I guess by drawing from a number of different influences, from classical, film and popular music, I create my own amalgam. Yes I am sure you can hear the influence of John Williams – the man is afterall a semi-deity and who wouldn’t want to imitate? But I hope too that in coming through my modes of expression, I create something fresh and new.

But here’s the thing. When they say it’s 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, they’re not just spouting a cliche. It’s a long process of editing. Sometimes the idea I first came up with is unrecognisable in the final iteration. But that, for me, is part of the joy of the process – the slow shaping of a song or a piece, sometimes having to be cruel and carving away great chunks of what first inspired me, to create something that, in the end, works and speaks on its own.

Where does it come from? Who really knows? But the journey it takes to get from the first inspiration to final piece is often much more easily traced.