Star Wars: John Williams' Epic Tribute Album

It's never been any secret that the score for the original Star Wars film was intended to draw on classical conventions such as the leitmotifs of Wagner and Dvorak and the bellicosity of Gustav Holst's The Planets. The latter is said to have been used by George Lucas during the early cuts of the film as a temp track to convey the emotion and tempo of scenes to whomever would ultimately compose an original symphonic suite for the film.

As we all know, that composer turned out to be John Williams who up to then had worked on dozens of orchestral scores for television in addition to scoring JAWS in 1975 for which he received an academy award. He would receive another just a couple years later for Star Wars.

Conventional film soundtracks of the 70's tended toward the dissonant or minimal, even form long established composers like Bernard Herman whose score for Taxi Driver incorporated some light electronic effects and reverberation. Original symphonic film music was for a large part absent, replaced in films like Easy Rider with contemporary rock. Thus when audiences were slammed with the opening titles of Star Wars, then wrapped for two hours in wall to wall music, the score like most elements in the film, seemed so new and different.

Just as the characters and plots in Star Wars were archetypes clearly lifted from myths, literature, and entire other films, Williams' score followed the same pattern, employing long-used techniques such as the leitmotif, that is, particular themes for particular characters and ideas. Even the casual listener could quickly pick out Princess Leia's Theme from the battle cues. This formula would be used by Williams in all six Star Wars films.

Likewise, one can certainly detect the influence Williams would take from Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries when it came time to craft a leitmotif for Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. What's more interesting to notice is the borrowing of pieces, both subtle and heavy-handed, from other famous works that were an influence on Williams' score. There are two which most dramatically stick out, the first being Gustav Holst's suite The Planets, and a fellow film composer named Erich Wolfgang Korngold, notably his score for the 1942 film King's Row.

Gustav Holst Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Holst was an early 20th century English composer whose work could be considered a blueprint for all symphonic film scores that would later follow. The Williams' score for the Star Wars films can be described as a frenzied re-imagining of Holst's The Planets suite, borrowing particularly from the pieces Jupiter and Mars.

It may be a case of the old saying "having painted oneself into a corner" in that George Lucas used these pieces when temp-tracking the film and in doing so tied Williams with very little where else to go musically for many scenes. And we all know George has a reputation as something of a CONTROL FREAK.

When it comes to the opening score that would eventually accompany all six Star Wars films and as the most easily recognized fanfares in all of cinema, one cannot help but wince and squirm with discomfort at the appropriation by Williams of a theme by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

If the work of Holst could be considered "influential," on the music of Star Wars, then with regards to Korngold, there's clearly a Cold Play versus Joe Satriani thing going on. In summation, I leave you with the following clip to enjoy and discuss. It is the opening theme from a film written 35 years before John Williams' Oscar winning score, juxtaposed with another familiar opening theme that according to one reviewer "revolutionized the field of contemporary movie music."

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