If you’re a Star Warsfan, chances are you’ve absorbed expert-level knowledge about the music that goes along with the films. You’re probably able to identify the iconic theme within a second or two of hearing it — and can even do the same, perhaps, for many other tracks from the scores composed by John Williams.
With The Force Awakens, the latest installment in the epic space opera, Williams is able to draw on all of these associations and stoke your interest through music that combines elements of the familiar with the new. “It’s a bit like adding paragraphs to a letter that’s been going on for a number of years,” as Williams put it in an interview with Vanity Fair in May 2015.
And if you enjoy this music and how it affects you each time you hear it — how it awakens your understanding of these characters and immerses you right back in the world of Star Wars — you’re doing pretty much what any seasoned lover of “classical music” does when he or she returns to a favorite symphony by Beethoven.
In fact, what you’re admiring is classical music, because John Williams uses the very same musical vocabulary developed by the great composers — just as he’s been the go-to source for countless film composers over the past decades. A wizard at painting with the orchestra, Williams learned the tricks of his trade from close study of the masters of orchestration from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
So the sound of Star Wars that wows you is the sound of classical music from specific periods in music history but made fresh by Williams’s treatment and imagination. That in itself has resulted in a landmark, as the American Film Institute recognized when it awarded the top spot on its list of the 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time to Williams’s first Star Wars score (i.e., Episode IV: A New Hope).
In fact, Williams’s career of more than a half a century has included significant achievements entirely apart from the film industry. He’s had global exposure through his music for the Olympics, starting with the theme he wrote for the 1984 Games hosted in Los Angeles. His signature style of memorable, assertive tunes and jaunty rhythms became ultra familiar — even to those who’ve never seen a single Star Wars film — when NBC commissioned Williams to write themes for its Nightly Newssegment and other news spots.
Williams has maintained direct ties to the so-called classical music world as a composer and conductor. He’s written over a dozen concertos as well as other short orchestral pieces and works for solo piano and chamber ensemble. In 1980, the year of the second Star Wars film (The Empire Strikes Back), Williams was appointed chief conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, already a storied musical institution that was approaching its 100th anniversary. He held that post until 1993 and remains the laureate conductor of the Pops.
Over the years, Williams has crafted concert versions of his Star Wars music featuring symphony orchestra and choir — sometimes accompanied by visuals from the films. The latest version is called Star Wars: In Concert and began touring North America in 2009, covering the two trilogies. Meanwhile, American orchestras have been exploring the legacy of film music in efforts to cast the audience net wider. In 2014, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under its head honcho Gustavo Dudamel, opened their season with a concert of Williams’s film music.
And another interesting indication of Williams’s ties to the classical music world can be found on the massive new The Force Awakens soundtrack: He requested Dudamel to conduct the opening and closing music, while composer and conductor William Ross led most of the recording sessions with an orchestra that included some players from the LA Philharmonic.
John Williams’ Early Life
Born in a town on Long Island in 1932, Williams grew up in a musical family: His dad played with a jazz ensemble and was a staff drummer for Columbia Studios, and two of his brothers also became musicians. Williams got his first major exposure to the Hollywood environment in his teens, when the family relocated to Los Angeles, studying privately with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, one of the many European emigre film composers who had settled in America.
As a member of the U.S. Air Force in the early 1950s, Williams got involved with the Air Force Band and then went on to study at Juilliard in New York City, where he also worked the club circuit and found gigs as a studio musician playing jazz piano.
The seeds for his eclectic musical thinking were planted early, and when he returned to L.A., they were further nurtured and grew in the soil of the Hollywood session studios as the American film industry’s golden age was approaching its twilight. That meant Williams got to work with masters of the trade like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane) and Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard) and benefited from their experience and practical wisdom.
History in the Making
Williams nabbed an Oscar for his first Star Wars score, but that was already the third of his five Academy Awards (out of a jaw-dropping 49 nominations to date). The first came in 1971 for Fiddler on the Roof, followed by his win for Jaws in 1975 (No. 6 in the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest all-time film scores).
Jaws marked an important breakthrough and was the second of Williams’s ongoing collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. You can already hear his ability to generate suspense and atmosphere in just the right proportions. His other work for Spielberg’s films over the years has found Williams honing some of the stereotypical gestures of film music presentation into something genuinely compelling and suited for its specific purpose. Think of the way he plays with the simple idea of a march, for instance, whether it’s for the Superman film (1978) or his particularly famous Raiders of the Lost Arktheme (1981). It’s fascinating to compare these with the ominous Imperial March that gives a musical profile of Darth Vader.
But the Star Wars cosmos and its characters require Williams to tap into many different kinds of music. Again and again, he’s taken up the challenge of evoking an unfamiliar world. Give another listen to his music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 — the year the first Star Wars was released) to hear how effectively he does this in another context.
Williams provides much more than mere atmosphere to these sagas: He transforms film composition into sophisticated art, in every way comparable to what the screenwriter or the director does. After all, the camera focuses spectators and controls how they perceive the narrative. Williams’s music does the same thing, influencing our psychological perception of what’s taking place and what it means in relation to other events and characters.
Critics who claim that Williams is merely derivative of great classical composers tend to ignore how he amalgamates the tools and techniques he’s learned to work with into something new — a music that organically enhances and fills out the Star Wars experience (or that of his many other films). It’s a cliche to compare him to Wagner or Richard Strauss, but even that’s not entirely accurate. Williams’s sound world can at times evoke something of theirs (more Strauss than Wagner), but it’s closer to the orchestral painting by the great late 19th century Russians, while the influence of Dmitri Shostakovich is unmissable in some of the most menacing Star Wars music.
What Williams got from Wagner was the technique of the leitmotif — those musical ideas, colors, harmonies, etc. — associated with Princess Leia, Yoda, et al. — and, more generally, the psychology of using the orchestra to voice things a particular character may not be aware of, or to foreshadow what will unfold.
Another aspect of the intricacy involved in his Star Wars music is the way Williams indicates sound that’s heard by the characters, that’s part of their framework in real time — as opposed to the music evoking them (and meant for the audience’s ears). The famous cantina scene, where a mix of cultures are shown enjoying themselves, contains a classic instance. So is the imitation Baroque ambiance Williams amusingly creates for Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Return of the Jedi.
All of these strategies add to the complex, colorful texture of the Star Wars soundtracks. And like the films themselves, Williams’s music is so well constructed it continues to cast its spell no matter how often we come back to it.