Music in the movies: celebrating John Williams’ Star Wars original trilogy scores

In this week’s Music in the movies, Glen takes a timely look back at John Williams’ classic scores for the original Star Wars trilogy...

John Williams is a composer who over the years has earned a reputation as one of the finest of his generation. A long working relationship with Spielberg (previously explored in two instalments of this very column), and his prolific output has helped to cement his deserved renown. Now approaching his 80s, his workrate has understandably slowed, but his body of music speaks for itself. And for many, his contribution to the Star Wars franchise marks the high point of his career.

With the Star Wars saga recently making its Blu-ray debut, I though it appropriate to look at and appreciate each of his scores for the series. This first instalment will look at the original trilogy, and a look at the prequels will follow next week.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

I can still vividly recall my first experience watching Star Wars and being instantly engrossed. That’s largely down to the quality of Williams’ score, and the instant impact it continues to have on audiences. The many themes created here provided the blueprint for the franchise, as well as a number of action blockbusters in the following years.

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Williams had at this point formed a strong working relationship with Steven Spielberg, creating a number of hugely memorable scores, and unlike many of his contemporaries, Williams chose to use traditional orchestras in his compositions.

The score for A New Hope is classical in the sense that it used traditional instrumentation and compositional techniques, but the way it was performed was hugely modern in many ways. This is a quality that has defined Williams’ career, and although he wrote many great works before and after Star Wars, it’s his work here that, for many, stands as his best.

Williams’ outstanding work earned him an Oscar win for Original Score. It’s almost a cliché to say that his music is like a character in the film, but this is definitely the case in this instance. It’s impossible to imagine Star Wars having the impact it does without Williams’ exceptional score.

From the main title through to the closing cue of Throne Room, the soundtrack is an absolute masterpiece of modern composition; a score that not only complements the themes of the film but, also enhances them.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

An argument could be made that The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest sequel of all time, as well as one of the all-time great action movies, and the same argument could be made that the soundtrack is also one of the greatest follow-ups. Williams set the bar high with his Oscar winning score for the previous film, but he incredibly managed to improve on the themes that he had already established, and further expand on the themes of romance and adventure.

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Having previously established a number of character themes, Williams seems relaxed enough to push things further here, and explore the film’s thematic dark side as he masterfully composes for scenes depicting both the external and internal struggles of the key characters. Nevertheless, there are light moments tucked away here, particularly in the piece Han Solo And The Princess.

Like A New Hope, the Empire score starts strongly, and the quality continues right through to the end credits. The opening cue accompanying the battle on the ice planet Hoth is absolutely exhilarating, and stands as one of the single greatest action cues in the history of cinema.

The narrative arc of this film covers more ground than the previous instalment, and with characters and musical themes already established, there’s freedom to cram a lot more in, given that audiences were already emotionally invested. This level of investment isn’t wasted, as one of the most memorable, downbeat finales in mainstream blockbuster cinema is accompanied by close to half an hour of brilliant music.

It’s a shame that Williams didn’t also take home the Oscar for Empire; instead, that honour went to Michael Gore’s score for Fame.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi

Whereas The Empire Strikes Back provided the highpoint for the franchise both cinematically and musically, Return Of The Jedi is often regarded as the weaker of the original trilogy, and I’ve heard numerous arguments that it doesn’t stack up favourably against the prequels either.

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I don’t think it’s a terrible film by any means, and indeed, there is much to enjoy. It features some excellent set pieces that perhaps don’t rival what was seen in Empire, but they’re gripping all the same. I would say that, for me, furry creatures having a little dance isn’t the ideal way to end the series, but hey, what do I know?

At the point of the film’s release, Williams obviously had the two previous Star Wars scores under his belt, as well as scores for the likes of E.T. and Indiana Jones. Needless to say that expectations were high, and unless he produced the greatest score ever composed, it would be a disappointment on some levels. It doesn’t match the quality of much of his work of that time, but it’s by no means a disappointment. It further expands on the themes previously explored, as well as introducing new motifs that complement the mood of the film brilliantly.

The scenes in Jabba’s palace feature brass-heavy pieces that are playful in tone, until the dramatic shift occurs, and the love theme for Leia also changes in tone, as the truth about her relationship with Luke is revealed. The stand outs for me, here, are the pieces that accompany the action sequences, particularly those for the sail barge and the forest battle scenes. The Emperor’s choral lead number seems to have a similar feel to parts of Jerry Goldsmith’s Omen score, which is by no means a bad way to portray evil.

Perhaps not the score I would choose as my stand out, Return Of The Jedi is still an outstanding piece of work, full of the magnificence typically associated with Williams. It’s yet another example of his understanding of what makes a brilliant blockbuster score.

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