NEW YORK: In an era when many classical musicians despair for their art’s future, the heroic brass opening of Star Wars is one of the most instantly recognized melodies in the world.
When figures ranging from former US vice president Dick Cheney to university sports teams have wanted to toy with their images for ruthlessness, they have made entrances to Darth Vader’s theme—and crowds needed no explanation.
With more than three-quarters of Americans having seen a Star Wars film, covers and parodies of the music—including one recent one by a singing toddler—have generated millions of views on YouTube.
The force behind the music is 83-year-old John Williams, who has written the music for all of the films in the blockbuster science-fiction series including the hotly anticipated seventh movie, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, which opens next month.
Williams has been one of the most prolific composers in Hollywood, also writing music for the Indiana Jones series and most of Steven Spielberg’s films including Jaws, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.
His influence is so overwhelming in the movie industry—and in shaping the films themselves—that he has received more Oscar nominations than any single person except the late Walt Disney.
He has won five Academy Awards, including one for best original score for the first Star Wars film, in which the enduring themes first appeared.
“Every time I conduct the music of John Williams with any orchestra around the country, it’s always a big seller,” said Michael Krajewski, principal pops conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, who is leading concerts featuring Williams’s music ahead of the release of the new Star Wars film.
“Whenever I give these concerts, I feel like turning around and telling the audience, ‘If you like this music, you ought to be coming out to the classical concerts that this orchestra puts on, because this is so very close to the music you’re going to hear’,” he said.
Telling plot through music
Even as Williams creates the sounds of “a galaxy far, far away,” his music is firmly rooted in the classical tradition.
With earlier scores performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Star Wars music has little of the special-effects glitz that made the film so pioneering in its cinematography.
Rossen Milanov, music director at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio who also recently led Williams-based concerts, said that Star Wars has been so influential in part because classical music had turned so abstract by the time of the first film in 1977.
“You hear this great horn-soaring melody, you hear fantastically romantic string playing and incredibly inventive writing for woodwinds, and just this general kind of neo-Romanticism that we kind of lacked at the time in more serious classical music circles,” Milanov said.
The grand romantic themes of Star Wars have sometimes brought comparisons to Wagner. Like the opera canon, much of the action in the film is told through the music, from the evil power of Darth Vader to the youthful hopefulness of Luke Skywalker to the tense lightsaber duels.
Williams uses the music to offer subtle clues on the Star Wars plot. In the prequels released from 1999 to 2005, notes from Darth Vader’s “Imper ial March” are woven into scenes with the young Anakin Skywalker to foreshadow his turn to the Dark Side.
George Lucas, who created the franchise but for the first time is not directing this latest film, has said that he initially asked Williams to imagine an early silent film in which the music can serve in the place of dialogue.
‘Immediate emotional appeal’
Williams has yet to reveal much about his score for The Force Awakens, which is set 30 years after the events in 1983’s Return of the Jedi that culminated in Luke’s patricidal killing of Vader.
In a promotional video for the movie, Williams said he had not initially anticipated more than one Star Wars film, let alone seven, and expected the latest episode again to make references to the earlier music.
“The galaxy far, far away—I actually feel I’m still in it, that I’ve never really left it,” Williams said.
In the first prequel, 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Williams showed himself to be increasingly experimental by incorporating choral music.
Duel of the Fates, a haunting sequence to accompany a lightsaber battle, takes verses from the medieval Welsh poem “Cad Goddeu” that are sung in Sanskrit translation.
Williams has also composed non-film works and is respected by the classical music establishment, even if some purists scoff at bringing Hollywood to concert halls.
In 1984, Williams quit abruptly as director of the Boston Pops Orchestra after at least one performer hissed when reading a musical selection, although the composer later attributed the resignation to a heavy workload.
Milanov said Williams showed the modern direction of artistic expression, which no longer needed to be “very lofty or difficult to understand” but instead possessed “an immediate emotional appeal.”
Williams served as a “connecting link” able to bring together musical traditionalists and contemporary-minded audiences, Milanov said.
“For many people, this is the closest they are going to get to classical music,” Milanov said.