Thinking About Star Wars Music

I only occasionally read “top 10” type posts on Facebook, but I could not resist writing a little along that line tonight.

I drove to Sarasota today from Tallahassee. It’s about a 5-hour drive south (for all of you readers who live outside of Florida)—barring traffic jams around Tampa! I was asked to attend a College of Music event “on the road” tomorrow, and I folded into the trip an additional meeting this afternoon at the Ringley Museum in Sarasota. The Museum is situated on the (western) Gulf Coast, and the view this afternoon was gorgeous. (Check out a couple of photographs I took and have posted at the end of this blog.)

Knowing that I’d have a long drive by myself today, I decided to bring along and listen to some of my older CDs of film music. Among those CDs was the soundtrack to Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

We are surrounded right now by Star Wars hype, what with the December 18th premier of the seventh movie (which I have been waiting for since 1980, when I used to listen to my two-LP set of music from The Empire Strikes Back).

I’ve been trying to cite many of my sources of information in my blogs … but is it even necessary to corroborate my reference to Star Wars hype right now? Is my Facebook feed the only Star Wars-saturated feed right now? 

I have been trying to avoid learning too much about the new movie ahead of time. I would like some surprises with this new trilogy. But the hype has motivated me to think about my own 38-year love of all things Star Wars… and especially John Williams’s six Star Wars soundtracks.

So here’s my horrible Star Wars secret: I LIKED Episode 1 – and particularly its music. Yes, I know, Jar Jar Binks…. But put him aside: the dramatic scenes with a young Obi-Wan, his master Qui-Gon Jinn, and the energetic Sith Lord, Darth Maul, more than make up for Jar Jar. And be honest with me: Episode 1 is at least as entertaining as Return of the Jedi, and more so than the original Star Wars (you know, “A New Hope”).

But it’s the music…. I still love the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back best, but in my opinion, Episode 1 is Williams’s second best Star Wars soundtrack. Williams was at the height of his power when he composed it; he had an established mythology to work with and an established body of musical themes to reference, reuse, and add to. Granted, there would be few surprises in the new trilogy—the main outline was set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But that means there were also no “retrospective omissions” (compositionally speaking). Empire’s soundtrack is amazing in part because of the significant new themes it introduced to what was then only a two-film series: “Yoda’s Theme,” the new theme for Leia and Han, the “City in the Clouds,” and most importantly, “Darth Vader’s Theme.” I mean really – doesn’t it bother you to watch the original Star Wars and NOT hear Vader’s theme? And the cues “The Battle in the Snow,” “The Asteroid Field,” “The Magic Tree,” “The Duel,” and “Hyperspace” from Empire are simply amazing for their energy, their moods, and their orchestrations. In my opinion, nothing quite rises to their level in Return of the Jedi, not even the long accompaniment to the battle on Endor.
So what about Episode 1? “Duel of the Fates.” Enough said.

Not convinced: “Anakin’s Theme.” Not only is that a gorgeous track in its own right, it is Williams at his best without the brassy bombast of his many march-based tracks. Furthermore, the manner in which he subtly alters the cadences of the theme’s opening phrases so that later iterations mimic the cadences of Darth Vader’s theme is musical magic. Go back and listen to “Anakin’s Theme.” Note the cadences at 0:34 and 0:44, then compare how Williams begins to reshape them for the cadence at 1:56, before allowing Vader’s cadence to (softly) sound at the most significant formal moment up to that point: the conclusion of the B section and the return to the (modified) opening materials. And then Williams simply allows Vader’s cadence to extend and repeat from 2:30 to the end of the track. It is so easy for people to refer to Williams’s “leitmotifs,” but this is a real example of subtle thematic transformation that truly add to our perception of the object or person. Can we ever see or hear Vader or Anakin the same way again as his/their two themes and all associated meanings coalesce in our inner ear and mind’s eye?

So I will grant that George Lucas may not have gotten it all right in Episode 1 (or Episodes 2 and 3), but Williams’s music suggests that the composer understand the tragedy inherent in the series as a whole. His music for the boy from Tatooine is a study in musical anguish. Indeed, listen for all the iterations of the “Force” theme in Episode 1: they simply add to the anguished quality of the whole. There is virtually nothing triumphant, as least not lastingly so, about Episode 1’s music: even the “Star Wars” heroic theme is almost—almost!—mute. And yet the soundtrack is outstanding Star Wars music. It is outstanding film music.

And I could go on. The opening moments of “Sith Spacecraft” are brilliant. If you prefer a brassy Williams march, there’s “Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors.” (I cannot listen to that track just once!) And I love the way in which Williams uses so much familiar material to maximize the sense of both sentimentality and sadness in the cue “The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral.”

Here’s my bottom line: What Episode 1’s dialogue lacks, its music makes up for. Common on, this is space opera! And in opera, music often does cover over a multitude of textual deficits!

So to conclude, here’s my list of the Star Wars movies in (descending) order of great to not-so-great. My assessment of their soundtracks inevitably plays into this list (but my assessment of the merits of the soundtracks and of the films do not completely overlap).

  1. The Empire Strikes Back (episode 5)
  2. Revenge of the Sith (episode 3)
  3. Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (episode 1)
  4. Return of the Jedi (episode 6)
  5. Star Wars (you know, the original 1) (episode 4)
  6. that other one (episode 2)

And just for some more fun, here are a few more of my ranked media lists:

“Original” Star Trek Movies in descending order: 6 4 2 3 5 1

Seasons of Dexter: 4 2 1 3 5 {Are the last three even worth ranking?}

Seasons of the revived Doctor Who: 4 5 6 2 9 1 7 8 3

Please feel free to offer your counter lists.

One more thing: if you love John Williams, consider checking out his soundtrack to The Cowboys (1972). It is one of my favorite film soundtracks, certainly one of my favorites to a Western. The film itself is one of my favorite Westerns, and one of my favorite John Wayne movies.

Oh…. And see you on or around December 18 for my review of the new music for Episode 7!

[NB: As I have been writing, I’ve been listening to the recordings included in Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology Box Set, which was released in 1993. The fourth disc – with alternate tracks – remains one of my favorite film music finds. The box set can still be purchased online.]

(November 20, 2015)

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Two views at the Ringley Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Taken by Stan Pelkey, November 20, 2015.

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