The music of Star Wars has become a character of the films much as the characters of the films have become global icons. John Williams’ contribution to the films (he composed for all six Star Wars films) is among the most widely-known and popular contributions to modern film music. When Williams set out to compose the music for the first film, Star Wars (later re-titled, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) in 1977, he only had one Oscar to his name for the score to the 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws.
He utilized a variety of musical styles drawing from the golden age of Hollywood and the scores of Max Steiner as well as the late romantic period of Richard Strauss. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, wanted the feel of the old movie serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Williams is credited with reviving the symphonic scores because of his Star War compositions and of using a technique called leitmotiv most often associated with the operas of Wagner and with Steiner-esque film scores.
The use of the leitmotiv anchors the characters of the Star Wars original trilogy, which I will discuss in detail. These themes signify the individual characters as well as plot elements, locations, moods and relationships. This use of motifs is the films are strong enough to latch the audience onto the elements of the film while being strong enough to undergo variation and development, which we will see in the development of the sequels from the original film.
Star Wars (1977)
Main Title – Used in all six films, this is the anthem of the film series. It is recognizable globally and is generally associated with the rebel forces, Luke Skywalker and elements involving heroism and adventure. This theme is heard over the opening crawl and is used as a base for the end credits.
Rebel Fanfare – Used in all six films as well, this is a short motif used mostly in Episode IV: A New Hope to represent the Rebel Alliance. It is used less in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and brought back but with less frequency in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It uses brass elements to give it the fanfare flavor.
Jedi Theme – This theme is also titled Binary Sunset in the film score from the scene in which Luke is watching the sunset on Tatooine and contemplating his future in Episode IV. This is the one motif in the trilogy that is consistently developed throughout all three films. The theme represents Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi Knights and The Force. In later films, it is used to represent ideas of fate and destiny. It is an uplifting theme and can be heard throughout the trilogy. There are also brief instances of it in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Princess Leia’s Theme (aka Love Theme) – This theme represents the romantic side of the trilogy. It is most often used in Episode IV to represent Leia when she is alone (on the merchant ship in the beginning), vulnerable (when she is about to be tortured for information on the Death Star) or shown on the screen. In subsequent episodes, it is developed into a Love Theme between her and Han Solo. This theme also appears later in Episode III after she is born.
Imperial Motif – Used only in Episode IV, this motif represents the Empire and Darth Vader for this film (although it makes a cameo when Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star, is seen in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith). The music is militaristic and not as ominous as the Imperial March introduced in Episode V. The rhythmic and harmonic aspects are developed into the Imperial March in The Empire Strikes Back.
Death Star Motif – Introduced in Episode IV, it is a four chord motif that plays when the Death Star is shown or when it’s place is suggested. It is also heard as a more developed theme when the Star Destroyer hits the second Death Star in Episode VI.
Jawa Theme/Droid Theme – A playful theme used in Episode IV when the Jawas are introduced and later developed into a motif to represent the droids in Episodes V and VI when R2D2 and C3PO are together.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Imperial March (aka Darth Vader’s Theme) – This theme represents the Galactic Empire and, more specifically Darth Vader, starting with Episode V and carrying on through the rest of the films. This theme has achieved an iconic status as representing evil and is used outside of the films to introduce evil (i.e. when Mr. Burns shows up on The Simpsons). Williams retrogrades the theme for the prequel trilogy, embedding it into Anakin’s theme and his downward spiral to the dark side as well as the rise of the Republic into the Empire. Williams also uses it effectively when Vader dies in Episode VI.
Love Theme – Developed from Leia’s Theme in Episode IV, it is heard in Episode V and VI in scenes of romance and when the two characters are sacrificing, including the scene in which Han is frozen and the final moments of Empire when Lando Calrissian is leaving to rescue Han from Jabba The Hut.
Yoda’s Theme – This theme is introduced in Episode V and is used throughout the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. It is mostly associated with Yoda’s teachings and abilities but can be heard when Luke is utilizing what Yoda has taught him. It is used sparingly in the prequels and mostly for key moments with Yoda. As a side, Williams uses this theme in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial when a little kid is seen in a Yoda costume.
Lando’s Theme (Cloud City Theme) – A march that is heard during the Bespin scenes in Episode V. It is used throughout the Cloud City scenes and a variation is used when Luke arrives to save Leia and Han.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Jabba’s Theme – This is heard in the opening of Episode VI when the scene takes place in Jabba’s Palace. It is mostly tuba and is rolling and bulbous. It was added in the special edition version of Episode IV when a young (and much leaner?!) Jabba confront Han Solo in the hanger of the Millennium Falcon. There is also a disguised version of it in Episode I when Jabba officiates the pod race.
Emperor’s Theme – An ominous theme first used in Episode VI, and developed more in the prequel trilogies. It represents the Emperor whenever he is on screen. Williams also uses it conspicuously in the victory celebration at the end of Phantom Menace.
Ewok’s Theme – Titled Parade of the Ewoks in the score for Episode VI, it is a light-hearted theme played during scenes in the Ewok village, during the Endor battle and in the end credits.
Luke and Leia’s Theme – This theme is heard only twice and only in Episode VI. It links Luke and Leia as brother and sister. It is more mature than the Love Theme and Leia’s Theme from the previous films.
Victory Celebration – This theme is used for the victory of the Alliance.
In addition to these major motifs, there are minor themes used throughout the series that are used to represent some of the other characters and scenes in the original trilogy. These motifs are generally heard once and not much development took place for further use.
- Arrival on Tatooine – This is used in Episode IV and then again in Episode I.
- Tusken Raiders Theme – Used when the Tusken Raiders are first introduced in Episode IV and when they attack Luke. Later used when Anakin destroys their camp in Episode II.
- Throne Room March – Used in the original trilogy when Vader is present and later when the Emperor is shown in Episode VI.
The final elements of music John Williams wrote for the original trilogy were the pieces that were performed as part of ‘live’ sequences. Before he became a film composer, John Williams was a jazz pianist going by the name of Johnny Williams. The ‘live’ elements reflect his earlier musical career with the use of jazz, classical and world music elements. These were: The two songs played in the Cantina on Tatooine entitled, Cantina Band and Cantina Band #2. They were in a swing style and the first tune became popular on the radio after the initial film release in 1977, while #2 could only be heard when Obi-Wan is speaking with Han Solo for the first time. Jabba’s Baroque Recital is heard when R2D2 and C3PO arrive to give Jabba the message from Luke Skywalker in Episode VI. Jedi Rocks is also from Episode VI heard in Jabba’s Palace just before Leia (disguised as a bounty hunter) brings Chewbacca in for a ransom. This song replaced Lapti Nek, when the special editions were released and it was not included on the re-release of the soundtrack. Max Rebo Band Jams is heard twice in the film, once after Chewbacca is sent to the jail cell and on the sail barge. This song doesn’t appear on the soundtrack as recordings of it have apparently been lost forever. The music of the Ewoks is heard throughout Episode VI when Luke and company are in the village and after the battle of Endor. They are titled Ewok Feast, Part of the Tribe, and Ewok Celebration.
8notes.com (2008) Williams, John [Online]. Available from: http://www.8notes.com/biographies/john_williams.asp [Accessed: 11 October 2009]
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 1997. Producer, Gary Kurtz; director: George Lucas. Lucasfilms, Ltd. [DVD Recording]
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. 1997. Producer, Gary Kurtz; director: Irving Kershner. Lucasfilms, Ltd. [DVD Recording]
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. 1997. Producer, Howard Kazanjian; director: Richard Marquand. Lucasfilms, Ltd. [DVD Recording]
Empire of Dreams: The Story of the ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy. 2004. Producer, Edith Becker; directors: Edith Becker and Kevin Burns. Prometheus Entertainment. [DVD Recording]
Williams, John. (2000). Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Ultimate Edition). [CD] USA. Sony Classical.
Williams, John. (2002). Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [CD] USA. Sony Classical.
Williams, John. (2005). Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [CD] USA. Sony Classical.
Williams, John. (1997). Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Special Edition). [CD] USA. RCA Victor.
Williams, John. (1997). Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Special Edition). [CD] USA. RCA Victor.