Turn Back The Clock
The Music of the Original Star Wars Trilogy
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Who can forget their first experience with Star Wars - the powerful music broadcast in the background as the words scrolled up the movie screen. That music spoke of exciting adventures to come. Throughout the movie, composer John Williams wowed us with the beauty of his musical creations as he set the tone for each scene through his musical score, enhancing the visuals of the movie and making the story created by George Lucas even more dramatic and amazing. This is a celebration of the music of the Original Star Wars Trilogy.
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When I first saw Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, I was mesmerized. George Lucas captivated me with his story of a rebellion led by unlikely heroes against a tyrannical empire led by a dark clad powerful abomination. I saw the movie multiple times after that first showing and begged my parents for the soundtrack album. Back then, soundtracks were vinyl and I'm amazed that I never wore the record through with how many times I listened to the thing.
The music of Star Wars was very distinctive. Not only had John Williams come up with themes for each character of the film, he had come up with themes for every location. When you listen to the soundtrack of Star Wars: A New Hope, you can completely replay the scenes of the film in your mind. There can be no confusing scenes on the Death Star with scenes on the deserts of Tatooine. There is no confusing scenes containing Luke Skywalker with scenes containing Darth Vader. This style of composing was created in the 1930s, but perfected by John Williams.
To adequately describe how the music defined the film, one must look at the various styles in which John Williams defined the characters and places within the movie. Members of the rebellion were usually musically described through woodwinds like flutes, clarinets and oboes and strings, mostly violins. The sounds were in the higher ranges of the instruments, sometimes casting a solemn and humble tone, other times projecting hope and a sense of peacefulness. These instruments are used to describe characters like Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi and Princess Leia Organa. They are also used to describe the desert planet of Tatooine.
The villains of the tyrannical Empire receive quite the opposite treatment. They are heralded by crisp horns and tympani drums. Their theme music is harsh and militaristic in sound, adequately describing an Imperial army bent on destruction of all resistance. Every time the scene switches to an Imperial creation such as a star destroyer or the Death Star, we hear this theme and know that our heroes are in trouble.
Action sequences are met with enthusiastic trumpets and percussion. There is no denying when a fight scene is taking place. Whether it's a space battle between starships or a shootout between individuals, the excitement of the scene is perfectly enhanced by the loud and fast-paced performances composed and conducted by John Williams.
Having listened to the soundtrack numerous times in various incarnations (I've owned it on vinyl record, cassette tape and CD), I have developed an affinity toward certain tracks. I love how the first track of the album is the 20th Century Fox Fanfare, composed by Alfred Newman in 1954. This track puts you right into the theater, hands wrapped around your favorite confections, waiting in joyous expectation for the movie to begin. Who out there can't say that they love the Main Title? This is a track that appears in just about every Star Wars film in some way, shape or form. The striking brass, the melodic flutes, the beauty of the orchestra - this composition promised an epic adventure and will go down in history as one of the most popular movie compositions of all time.
Two other tracks stand out for me - Cantina Band and Princess Leia's Theme. The music of the Cantina Band is a great deal of fun - jazz mixed with swing and the island flare of steel drums. Who could have thought these styles would mix so well with one another creating a track that is incredibly enjoyable and absolutely memorable. Princess Leia's Theme is perhaps the most beautiful piece of musical scoring to be found on the album. The theme serves to recreate Leia's purity of soul through the use of flutes and violins. The finale of the theme, performed by violins in a rising crescendo represents Leia's determination of spirit. The beauty of this track is striking and will remain with you long after the music has ended.
The second movie in the Original Star Wars Trilogy sought to further acquaint us with the characters of A New Hope. Each of our heroes experiences some sort of personal growth while the villains become decidedly more determined to destroy all rebellion. Darth Vader, in particular, becomes single-minded in purpose as he realizes just who Luke Skywalker is.
Much like the heroes in this film, the music of Star Wars goes through a period of growth in The Empire Strikes Back. The original 20th Century Fox Fanfare is still there, but the Main Theme has undergone slight alterations. Three new themes were created for this film. There is a love theme that represents Han and Leia's new relationship to one another. This theme, in various styles, appears mixed throughout the soundtrack of this film and the next. Most often it appears as a sweepingly beautiful composition performed by strings and horns that perfectly describe newfound love in all its glory. The Imperial March consists of harsh brass and percussion played in a sort of militaristic march style. This theme is performed every time we see Darth Vader. The theme for Jedi Master Yoda is quite different than that of the other characters in the film. Created through the use of strings, horns flutes and the mystical qualities of the harp, the theme offers up a feeling of wonderment as well as mystical enlightenment. This is a character who has known triumph and sorrow and handles both with the wisdom and serenity of an old sage.
Despite the addition of the new themes to the film score, what makes this soundtrack incredibly different from the last are the brooding and ominous undertones. We have come upon the Rebellion's most desperate hour. Their leaders are scattered all over the universe and the Imperials are hunting them down mercilessly. Even trusted allies are no longer safe - secrets, subterfuge and betrayal abound in this film. An ominous theme deserves the ominous scoring provided by John Williams.
Although I enjoy the beauty of the love theme, no other music on The Empire Strikes Back Soundtrack really stand out for me. This was not my favorite films of the trilogy and so, I guess it's fitting that this is not my favorite soundtrack of the series either.
As the third and final installment of the Star Wars Trilogy, Return of the Jedi promised to provide loads of excitement and a bit of closure for all Star Wars fans. The Empire had created a new Death Star and the Rebels were preparing an all out effort to destroy the new weapon. But first, a carbonite-encased Han Solo must be rescued from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Luke Skywalker must return to his home planet of Tatooine to accomplish the task, but this time as a Jedi Knight. Finally, he must once again face Vader in a final battle, one that can tilt the balance of the galaxy into either favor - that of the Empire or the Rebellion. Who can say for certain what the outcome will be?
Whereas the musical score of The Empire Strikes Back represented growth as well as despair, the score for Return of the Jedi must offer some finality, sort of tying everything together. Thus, this album is completely different from all of the others. Although some of the themes evident in the first two albums find their way onto this soundtrack, there are new themes created to represent newcomers to the trilogy and the new themes somewhat define the musical score.
One such theme is that of Jabba the Hutt. A large, obnoxious creature, it is somewhat fitting that Jabba's theme would feature the deep and ominous sounds of the tuba. Meanwhile, the small, furry denizens of the Endor jungle known as the Ewoks receive a playful, childlike theme. For the evil Emperor's theme, John Williams presents us with a dark and sinister orchestral suite, complete with the worldless intonations of an all male choir. This ominous choral addition to his musical scoring would later be perfected in the prequel film, The Phantom Menace.
I have two favorites in this soundtrack, one of which was removed from the film when the Special Edition was created. First is Threepio's Bedtime Story created as background music for Threepio's relating the story of the Rebellion to the Ewoks in hopes that they will join the fight. The music for this scene blends all of the various themes presented throughout the movies. This blend is performed in a primitive and almost childlike orchestration which never fails to evoke a smile from me every time I hear it. My other favorite is Ewok Celebration, also known as the Yub Nub song. The song featured the Ewoks singing in their language accompanied by primitive drums, woodwinds, bells and other primitive instruments. To me, this was the perfect way to score the celebration on Endor and I was disappointed when it was removed for the Special Edition. It will always have a special place in my heart.
In closing, the music of the Original Star Wars Trilogy stands out as some of the most well-known and influential film scoring in our lifetime. John Williams was admired before he composed the musical score for Star Wars. Afterwards, he was celebrated as THE composer that everyone wanted. Now, he is worshipped as the film music composing guru of our time. His musical influence has shaped the film scoring industry and created a legacy which is certainly not easy to follow.
This is music I can listen to over and over again, reliving the memories associated with each piece as my mind reconstructs each scene the music was created for. I may have to buy another set of CDs thanks to how many times the ones I currently own have been played. I can't get enough of the Original Star Wars Trilogy Soundtracks and I will never grow tired of listening to them.