Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > STAR WARS – John Williams

STAR WARS – John Williams


Original Review by Craig Lysy

George Lucas conceived of a space adventure drawn from the Flash Gordon sequels in 1971 following the completion of his first feature film, THX 1138. When his efforts to secure film rights were rebuffed, he resolved to create his own fantasy adventure. He wrote a script in 1973 and producer Larry Kurtz assisted him in securing financing, but United Artists, Disney and Universal Studios all declined, stating that they found the story strange. Lucas however persevered and finally obtained backing by 20th Century Studio exec Alan Ladd Jr. The script evolved through several incarnations, finally coalescing into the film version in 1975. Lucas formed a visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic to realize his technical vision, which would demand visuals not seen before by the industry. The film and company would provide a seminal event, which would usher in a new age of filmmaking.

Lucas conceived his hero would be an adolescent, and so selected a youthful Mark Hamill to play Luke Skywalker. Joining him would be Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa, Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Kenny Baker as R2-D2, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and David Prowse as Lord Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). The story is a morality play, set in a galaxy far, far away where an evil empire governed by an emperor and his fearsome apprentice, Darth Vader, wage war against a rebel alliance seeking to overthrow them. The narrative of freedom fighters waging war against a totalitarian regime was not new, but what made this retelling unique was the infusion of mysticism involving the Force. The Force is explained as a ubiquitous and pervasive energy found in all living things, and which binds the universe together.

Rare and gifted mystics had the potential to harness the Force for good or ill, with the ‘light side’ exemplified by the virtuous Jedi Knights, opposed by the Sith Lords of the ‘dark side’ who covet personal power and dominion over others. Against this backdrop a young man rises, mentored by an aged Jedi Knight, ultimately leading the rebel fleet to victory over the empire’s planet killing monstrosity, the Death Star. The film was a stunning commercial success, with a box office take of $775 million, or 70 times its $11 million budget. The film transformed and catalyzed a resurgence of the science fiction genre and had a lasting effect on popular culture, spawning a franchise of soon to exceed ten films over 40 years. It also secured critical acclaim, securing ten Academy Award nominations, winning six for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Film Score.

Lucas hired John Williams to score the film based on his friend Steven Spielberg’s advice. Lucas advised Williams that, given the off world alien setting, that he wanted music that was familiar to the audience to ground the story. As such he presented Williams with a temp track of his favorite orchestral pieces. Fortunately, Williams was able to bring Lucas around to his vision, arguing that a unique classical orchestral score with leitmotifs would better serve and unify the film. Williams’s score, while uniquely his own, did experience some bleed in from these temps with some minor and in my judgment, inconsequential referencing of Korngold and Cicognini. Notable about this score is that Williams’s tremendous success served to catalyzed a renaissance of the grand multi-thematic orchestral scores of the Golden and early Silver Ages, which had given way in the 1970s to the more modern sensibility of pop, rock, jazz and avant garde scores. After Star Wars neo-classical orchestral scores returned, restoring much of their former glory.

Williams understood that Star Wars offered both an adventure and a clash of worldviews – totalitarianism versus democracy, tyranny versus freedom, and the mystical versus the technological. His music would have to speak to, and contrast these competing forces. The score’s construct is supported by three primary themes: Luke’s Theme serves as his personal identity, but also as a transpersonal heroic construct (Main Theme) for the forces of good in the franchise. Bold horn declarations empower its expression in its A Phrase, providing both strength, and noble purpose, while its B Phrase is more lyrical, youthful and expressive. Leia’s Theme serves as her personal identity as the only feminine construct in the score. The theme is woodwind rich with its emotive A Phrase born of repeating nine note phrases that is exquisitely romantic, while it’s B Phrase is less forthright in its articulation, instead expressing both yearning, and vulnerability. Ben Kenobi’s Theme serves as his personal identity, one of reserved nobility and wisdom. Yet it also serves as a transpersonal construct of the Force. Its articulation is in many ways, intangible, mystical and inspirational. Lastly we have the Jawa Theme, which serves as the collective identity of their species. Given their small stature and shrill method of speech, Williams imbues them with a playful child-like staccato march replete with pizzicato strings, which is both quirky, and endearing.

Rounding out the score are six motifs, four of which support the Empire, including the Imperial Motif, which emotes with overt menace born of repeating six-note horn declarations that sound over a contrapuntal string line. The Storm Trooper Motif emotes as repeating four note phrases by horns and strings, which speaks to their menace, cruelty, and lethality. The Death Star Motif offers a simple ascending four-note construct emoted by blaring horns, which speaks of its enormity, power and terror, and lastly, the Tie Fighter Motif, which is carried by an aggressive string ostinato and horn counter. The Sand People Motif is non-melodic and primal in its articulation, empowered by horns barbaro and a torrent of chattering percussion, which perfectly captures the menace of these creatures. The remaining motif supports the rebel alliance. The Rebel Motif offers a staggered, repeating, horn declared triplet and is used as an attack anthem. Williams was rewarded with an Academy Award for his score and the American Film Institute has assigned it the number one ranking on its 100 years of Film Scores list.

We open grandly with Alfred Newman’s iconic “20th Century Fox Fanfare”, which supports the studio logo and later, Lucasfilm Limited. The film’s setting is established with a display of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” “Main Title” provides a rousing, powerful and full rendering of the Main Theme. The theme is unleashed in all its glory, supporting the film’s Title and narrative crawl upon the screen, which establishes the storyline about to unfold. Williams provides one of the most powerful film openings in cinematic history with this iconic piece, which earns him, immortality. As the crawl dissipates a diminuendo upon piccolo carries the camera’s descent into “Rebel Blockade Runner” where strings furioso and the Rebel Motif support a rebel ship’s futile fleeing from an imposing Star Destroyer. In “Imperial Attack” we are treated to exceptional contested thematic interplay. After the rebel ship’s main power generator is blown, it loses propulsion and is drawn into the star destroyer’s hold. Williams juxtaposes the Rebel Motif, born by beleaguered French horns, with the grim strings and menacing horn declarations of the Imperial Motif, creating great tension. At 1:06 after storm troopers blast through the air lock door all hell is unleashed as the Rebel, Imperial and Storm Trooper Motifs contest to the death. At 2:01 horns of doom announce the arrival of Darth Vader. An interlude of the Force and Leia’s Themes supports her loading the schematics of the Death Star into R2D2. As storm troopers hunt her down, their two themes interplay. At 4:20 a hopeful descending string line carries R2D2 and C-3PO’s escape in a life pod to the planet Tatooine below. There is interplay of Leia’s Theme and the Imperial Motif as she is remanded to Lord Vader. At 6:14 as Lord Vader boasts of his victory, the Death Star Motif rears its ugly head. We close with harps of uncertainty as R2D2 and C-3PO quarrel and part ways. This cue just offers masterful scoring.

“The Dune Sea of Tatooine” reveals C-3PO wandering lost among massive dunes, which Williams supports with formless woodwinds and strings, which never coalesce into a melody. A scene shift to R2D2 wandering in a canyon and being captured by Jawas is not supported by music. At 0:58 the playful Jawa Theme supports their carrying of R2D2 to their massive sandcrawler. This theme is infectious, and the way Williams weaves its articulation to and fro, is wonderful! At 3:35 we segue with trepidation into “Jawa Sandcrawler” as we view the eerie dark interior of the ship, filled with all sorts of captured automatons. Once again Williams bathes us in formless ambiance, which gives way to the Jawa Theme as their ship traverses the desert. In “The Moisture Farm” the playful and bouncing Jawa Theme again carries the ship’s movement and later the Jawa’s interaction with our two droids as they assemble their goods for sale. At 1:20 repeating A Phrases of Luke’s Theme introduces him to us, as he and his uncle seek to barter with the Jawas. We close with Jawa music as Uncle Owen purchases R2D2 and C-3PO. “The Hologram” reveals Luke triggering a holographic message by Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi. We open darkly and a mysterioso unfolds upon a repeating four note phrase, which ushers in Leia’s Theme on oboe as the hologram is triggered. Luke is curious about this discovery and discusses it with his Uncle over dinner. At 1:53 we segue into “Binary Sunset”, where his request to join the academy is refused, as his uncle insists he remain for the harvest. Luke leaves the dinner table frustrated and angry, and his theme carries his progress. As he stands outside watching the binary sunset a stirring rendering of the Force Theme unfolds, with interplay of the Rebel Motif, an allusion of his destiny.

In “Landspeeder Search” Luke and C-3PO set-off in a landspeeder in search of R2D2. Williams propels them with interplay of syncopated woodwinds animato and Luke’s Theme. At 0:32 blaring horns barbaro introduce the primal percussive and chattering dissonance of the Sand People Motif, as they observe Luke and move to ambush him. When R2D2 alerts him of their presence, Luke moves to observe them and their motif portends danger. As he observes them through binoculars a twinkling ambiance belies the danger. At 1:28 we segue into “Attack of the Sand People” as Luke is ambushed and captured by the creatures. The ferocious cacophony of the Sand People Motif carries their attack. A kindred primal line supports their ransacking of his speeder. At 2:10 a mysterioso erupts as Ben Kenobi arrives and scares off the raiders. As he kneels by Luke, Williams creates a sense of wonderment atop the Force Theme. In “Tales of a Jedi Knight” Luke relates that R2D2 is seeking his owner, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Ben admits that that was his true name. Williams speaks to the mystical using shimmering and twinkling textures, which grace the Force Theme during this revelation. Luke’s Theme joins as we observe them bonding. The moment is shattered at 0:45 by the Sand People Motif as they threaten to return. We close with a tender rendering of Luke’s Theme as he insists to an injured C-3PO that he will not leave him behind. At 1:40“ we segue into Learn About the Force” where Ben relates to Luke tales of his father, the Jedi Knights, and their weapon, the light saber. A dark rendering of the Imperial Motif supports Ben relating how Luke’s father died and how the Jedi Knights were killed. As Ben speaks solemnly of the Force, the theme emotes with nobility and reverence, stirring interest within Luke. At 2:40 R2D2 triggers the hologram of Leia beseeching Obi-Wan to aid them in their struggle by delivering the Death Star plans in R2D2. Her theme draped in a shimmering radiance supports the moment. As Luke turns down Ben request to join him on the journey, plaintive strings inform us that he is torn between his aspirations and his duty to his family.

As Ben counsels him to learn the ways of the Force, the theme beckons to him. We conclude in a scene change atop the Imperial Motif as Vader’s star destroyer approaches the Death Star. In “Burning Homestead” we open with elegiac trumpet as Ben and Luke survey the destroyed Jawa sandcrawler. When they deduce that storm troopers seeking the droids did this, Luke fears for his family and sets off with desperation for home. Williams propels his fight with an energetic rendering of the Force Theme. When Luke arrives home he discovers it has been burned, as well as the charred remains of his uncle and aunt. Williams creates great pathos by a joining of the Force Theme and Dies Irae Theme, reflecting Luke’s profound anguish. We scene change to the Death Star at 1:49 carried by the Death Star Motif. As Lord Vader and interrogators walk to Leia’s cell, the Imperial Motif emotes as a marcia del terrore, joined by a tentative Leia’s Theme. We conclude grimly with dissonant horror as Lord Vader brings in a mechanical interrogator bearing a threatening syringe. “Mos Eisley Spaceport” reveals Luke’s return to Ben, who he asks to be trained in the Jedi arts. The Force Theme informs us of Luke accepting his destiny. Woodwinds animato propel their flight atop Luke’s speeder with faux fanfare at 0:53 supporting their view of Mos Eisley, home to both scum and villainy. As they enter the town, dissociated percussion speaks to both its backwardness and depravity. At 1:21 a storm trooper questions them about the droids, supported by the Imperial Theme. As Ben uses the Force to alter the man’s mind, the Force Theme supports his efforts. Regarding the next two cues, George Lucas had asked Williams to create a “Benny Goodman” sound for the scene. He responded with two festive jazz pieces for a small ensemble of solo trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, piano, synthesizer, steel drum and assorted percussion, which were equalized to create a more alien, and otherworldly sound. Both have a dance-like sensibility and were perfect in creating the ambiance Lucas desired for the bar. In “Cantina Band” Ben and Luke enter the Cantina to hire a pilot to fly them to Alderaan. The first up-tempo piece supports their entry, establishes the ambiance, and Ben’s coming to Luke’s defense when a thug attacks him. “Cantina Band #2” is more playful and supports Ben and Han’s negotiations to book their services.

“The Millennium Falcon” reveals Ben and Luke making preparations to leave. As they walk the narrow streets a sinister agent trails them. Williams sows tension with interplay of intangible, menacing and serpentine music and a bright and hopeful variant of Luke’s Theme. As they board storm troopers close in, supported with menace by their theme. At 1:50 all hell breaks loose as they enter bay 94 and open fire. A martial rendering of the Force Theme carries their escape and ascent into space. At 2:10 we segue into “Imperial Cruiser Pursuit” as star destroyers pursue and open fire. Their aggression is supported by interplay of the Imperial Motif, and Force Theme, with Williams building tension with truly fierce writing until the Millennium Falcon launches into hyperspace and barely escapes. We close with a scene change to the Death Star entering the Alderaan system, carried darkly by its motif. In “Destruction of Alderaan” Grand Moff Tarkin brings Leia to the bridge to coerce her into disclosing the location of the rebel base. His coercion is the threat to annihilate her home plant Alderaan. She relents and discloses the location, only to be betrayed as Tarkin orders the destruction to make a larger point. The music enters with Tarkin issuing his threat and builds to a horrific crescendo of death as the Death Star charges its weapon and fires its planet-destroying ray.

“The Death Star” reveals the Millennium Falcon exiting hyperspace and impacting the planetary debris of Alderaan. A Tie fighter discovers them and they move in to kill only to discover the fighter’s base – the Death Star. Grim horns of the Imperial Motif portend doom as they are prevented from fleeing by a tractor beam. As the ship is pulled in a bravado statement of the Rebel Anthem carries their progress informing us of both pride and defiance. At 1:21 we segue into “The Stormtroopers” carried by their motif as they deploy to the hanger bay. Ben uses the Force to shield them from detection in the ship’s hold as interplay of the Force and Imperial Themes creates suspense. They manage to ambush two guards and move to take control of the hanger deck control room, supported by the Imperial Motif. The cue ends with Luke’s Theme, which affirms their victory. In “Wookie Prisoner” they resolve to escort Chewbacca to the detention center, take out the guards, and free Leia.

Their trip to the detention center is supported by ambient textural writing carried by low register strings, and an array of percussion, which create unease. Luke’s Theme supports their arrival and at 2:01 we segue into “Detention Block Ambush” as all hell breaks out during a fierce shoot-out, which takes out the guards. Luke’s and the Rebel Theme support their victory and the search for Leia. We close with Luke freeing Leia, their themes entwining to commemorate their introduction.

With their escape route cut-off, a fierce firefight begins in “Shootout in the Cell Bay”, offering one of the best action cues of the score. Williams drives the battle with inspired and aggressive interplay of the Rebel and Imperial Motifs. At 2:12 they all escape into the trash compactor in “Dianoga”, the name of the beast, which dwells there. Undercurrents of the Imperial Motif flow, and Williams sows tension with trilling woodwinds and textural writing, which heightens our unease that the creature will strike at any moment. We build to a crescendo as it strikes and pulls Luke under, closing on a diminuendo of death as he is nowhere to be found. In “The Trash Compactor” Luke is released as the Dianoga flees at the sound of the compactor’s gears. As the walls begin closing, Williams begins a relentless and ever swelling cadence of doom born of the Imperial Theme, which rises from the orchestra’s lower register and is countered by upper register woodwinds and strings. Tension gives way to panic as the walls close in and Luke makes a frantic plea for R2D2 to shut the compactor down. We build to a deafening crescendo of horror that dissipates at the last moment when R2D2 intervenes.

In “The Tractor Beam” Ben uses stealth and the Force to gain access to the tractor beam controls. Williams sows suspense and unease using formless textural writing. In a scene change, Leia, Luke, Han and Chewbacca make their way back the hanger deck with the Main Theme carrying their progress. At 2:20 we segue into one of the finest action cues of the score in “Chasm Crossfire”. The team has split up and storm troopers are pursuing Luke and Leia. The Storm Trooper and Imperial Motifs dominate and threaten. They end up trapped on a retracted bridge under intense fire, yet our heroes will not be denied and they fight back, supported by a heroic full rendering of Luke’s Theme in all its glory. In homage to Korngold, Williams propels their escape with spirited swashbuckling energy, providing one of the score’s finest moments! A kiss by Leia for good luck, supported by her theme launches their freedom as she and Luke swing across the chasm and escape! The cue concludes with several scene changes offering a driving Storm Trooper Motif supporting their pursuit of our heroes, Luke’s Theme for our two droids hiding in the hanger deck control room, and quiet textural interludes as Ben walks stealthily to his destiny, a rematch with his former pupil.

In “Ben Kenobi’s Death” master, and pupil again meet with light sabers drawn, as there will be no reconciliation. Their duel is not scored as Lucas preferred to have dialogue and the crackle of the light saber strikes carry the scene. The guards leave the path to the Falcon open when they see Ben and Lord Vader dueling. As our heroes run to the ship, Luke pauses to see Ben allow Lord Vader to strike him down. The Force Theme carries Ben’s death, joined by an impassioned Leia’s Theme as she begs Luke to join them. As the Falcon launches to freedom, the Rebel Anthem propels their escape. In a scene change to the galley, a plaintive Force Theme supports Leia comforting Luke who is distraught. But there is no time to grieve, as we segue at 1:32 into “Tie Fighter Attack”, which begins with a twinkling ostinato that supports Han and Luke readying their lasers canons. As the fighters descend upon them Williams supports the battle with dynamic interplay of the Rebel and Tie Fighter Motifs. Our heroes triumph and we conclude atop the Death Star Motif as Lord Vader and Tarkin feel confident that the transponder planted on the Falcon will reveal the location of the rebel base.

The Death Star schematics reveal an exploitable weakness, which brings us to the film’s pivotal scene “The Battle of Yavin”. We open with the launch of the rebel fighter squadrons, which are carried by languid strings. As they assemble in space a martial percussive construct propels them to the Death Star, which contests with its and the other Imperial motifs. As the battle is joined, so too are the themes. For the first half of the cue there is dynamic interplay with the rebels being supported by a militarized Force Theme and the Death Star and Tie fighters by the Death Star and Imperial Themes. Woven within this fabric are shifting ostinati that sow tension while the fighters navigate the narrow channel they must fly to reach their target. When Luke moves to the forefront his theme and the Force Theme carry his progress. At 6:47 he accepts Ben’s counsel and turns off his targeting computer, choosing to use the Force to guide him. Williams supports the poignant moment with a shimmering, transcendent rendering of the Force Theme. As Vader achieves a target lock on Luke’s fighter, Han arrives to dislodge Vader’s pursuit and send him spiraling out of control. Luke is now at ease, one with the Force, with his theme carrying him forward to his destiny. He takes the shot, hits the target and a dramatic crescendo builds mightily, cresting as the Death Star explodes at the moment it was about to fire on the rebel base. We close with the Rebel Motif as Ben counsels Luke “Remember, the Force will be with you. Always.”

In “The Throne Room” Princess Leia and the Rebel governing Council have arranged a grand ceremony to commemorate their victory and award our heroes the Medal of Honor. As Luke, Han and Chewbacca walk down the aisle towards the dais, Williams honors them with heraldic fanfare, which ushers in the A Phrase of the Main Theme, expressed as a regal marcia della vittoria. As she awards the medals, fanfare ushers in the B Phrase of the Main Theme to support the awards. We conclude grandly with a celebratory full rendering of the Main Theme. At 1:45 we segue into the “End Title” where we are graced with a wondrous parade of Williams themes for the forces of Good, including the Main Theme, Rebel Theme, and Leia’s Theme, concluding with the brilliant horn declarations of the Rebel Theme, which culminates gloriously in a flourish! The album includes two bonus cues. “Princess Leia’s Theme” is a treasure, a concert piece created by the Maestro, which graces us with exquisite romanticism. It is a woodwind lovers dream come true and my personal favorite from the album. The second bonus cue is “Binary Sunset (Alternate)”, which offers an alternative take on the pivotal scene, which I believe is no less stirring or potent in its emotive power. Included in the cue are five alternative recordings takes of the Main Title.

I would like to thank George Lucas and Sony Classical for this enhanced and remastered presentation of John Williams’ masterpiece, “Star Wars IV: A New Hope”. The sound quality is exceptional, and provides a superior listening experience. In many ways this score by the Maestro was a seminal event in cinematic history, in that it served as a catalyst in launching the Neo-classical style of film scoring. By the late 1970s, most films had shifted to scores with more contemporaneous styles, such as Jazz, Rock, Pop and electronica. The success of this film and score brilliantly demonstrated the emotive power of grand, thematic orchestral scores. In my judgment, Williams ushered in a renaissance for cinematic scoring that to this day remains popular and vibrant. For this score Williams understood Lucas’ narrative and the importance of creating a bold, memorable theme to support our hero, and the forces of good. The Star Wars anthem is an iconic melody that has passed unto legend, indelibly ingrained and instantly recognizable to our collective consciousness. His secondary themes for the Force, Leia, and the Rebels were often joined with compelling interplay with the themes, which supported the forces of evil. Indeed a remarkable synergy was often achieved, which enhanced the conflict and story-telling of Lucas’ film. I believe this score to be one of the finest of the Silver Age, a masterpiece in John William’s canon and essential to collectors and lovers of film score art.

Buy the Star Wars soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 20th Century Fox Fanfare (0:23)
  • Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner (2:14)
  • Imperial Attack (6:43)
  • The Dune Sea of Tatooine/Jawa Sandcrawler (5:01)
  • The Moisture Farm (2:25)
  • The Hologram/Binary Sunset (4:10)
  • Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand People (3:20)
  • Tales of a Jedi Knight/Learn About the Force (4:29)
  • Burning Homestead (2:50)
  • Mos Eisley Spaceport (2:16)
  • Cantina Band (2:47)
  • Cantina Band #2 (3:56)
  • Binary Sunset (Alternate) (2:19)
  • Princess Leia’s Theme (4:27)
  • The Millennium Falcon/Imperial Cruiser Pursuit (3:51)
  • Destruction of Alderaan (1:32)
  • The Death Star/The Stormtroopers (3:35)
  • Wookiee Prisoner/Detention Block Ambush (4:01)
  • Shootout in the Cell Bay/Dianoga (3:48)
  • The Trash Compactor (3:07)
  • The Tractor Beam/Chasm Crossfire (5:18)
  • Ben Kenobi’s Death/Tie Fighter Attack (3:51)
  • The Batle of Yavin (9:07)
  • The Throne Room/End Titlle (5:38)

Running Time: 105 minutes 34 seconds

Sony Classical S2K-92950 (1977/2004)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: