Academic Features

John Williams and the Revival of Classical Music in Star Wars

Written by Kat Jivkova. For many Star Wars fans, John Williams' musical scores continue to evoke a deep nostalgia. Where did his ideas come from? How do his compositions fit within the broader history of film music?

In the 1960s, classical Hollywood cinema began to favour a new genre of film music, one strongly influenced by a “European style”. European cinema began to dominate the international scene, with prominent filmmakers, the auteurs, using music “as a navigator of feeling” to portray the inwardness of characters on screen. While the previous Hollywood style consisted of continuous streams of music and leitmotifs, musical scores associated with certain characters or events, this European tradition was largely based on Italian and French operas. It favoured closed musical numbers to create specific tones of feeling throughout the film. Due to the success of European film in this decade, the style spread, and one of its main advocators was conductor Ennio Morricone, score composer of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti-Westerns, who argued that it was important “to isolate music and give the audience the time to listen to it in the best way”. Furthermore, the benefit of using the closed musical number technique was that it could easily be transformed into a marketing album in contrast to the continuous flow of a classical score. Thus, economic motivation was a large factor in the decline of classical Hollywood music, which was replaced with the rise of European cinema and the corresponding versatility of its musical style. This trend, though tending towards the complete demise of the classical style, was reversed by John Williams.

Of course, classical music scores were not completely abandoned in the 1960s. There were still traces of the old style in films such as John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. However, the stylistic change was evident by the second half of the decade, marked by the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s partnership with composer Bernard Herrmann, who refused to follow the European style in his score of the 1966 film Torn Curtain. Film scores became increasingly commercialised, aiming to “play on the viewer’s pocketbook” rather than solely as compliments to the action of a film. It was during this musical shift that director George Lucas began envisioning the Star Wars universe. Lucas’ vision for Star Wars was confusing to producers. His concepts did not quite fit the criteria of a sci-fi film, which was probably for the best considering the genre had become unpopular by the 1970s. It was unclear whether Lucas wanted to use the traditional musical style or if he wished to follow a completely different trajectory.

The music used for sci-fi genres usually consisted of aleatoric music and electronic instruments to create scores which could easily be associated with futuristic worlds. In Planet of the Apes, Jerry Goldsmith used interesting instrumental techniques and Forbidden Planet was marked by “electronic tonalities”. Another technique, used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, was use orchestral pieces, creating an impressive dimension to the film in order to emphasise space as unseen and extraordinary. George Lucas chose this approach. He wrote the script to the first Star Wars film while listening to romantic composers of the nineteenth century: Richard Wagner, Maurice Ravel, and Gustav Holst. Lucas was able to fashion his film into a sort of space opera, which blended sci-fi with romanticism, mythology, and technology. All he needed was a composer who could capture his ideas.

Lucas met with John Williams for the first time in 1975. Williams believed that Star Wars would be a great opportunity “to write an old-fashioned swashbuckling symphonic score”. And thus, the notorious European style was rejected, with Williams daringly reviving the old Hollywood classical tradition. The Star Wars score utilised leitmotifs in a continuous flow of music, with each character, and certain events, having their own theme. The “Main Theme” evokes a sense of heroic excitement, right from the first note that is struck, which became such an iconic and nostalgic feature of the films. Its explosive and orchestral nature served to transport watchers into a new world. Williams weaved together a timeless and deeply nostalgic composition. From the minor key harmonies used to magnify the evil of Darth Vader in “The Imperial March” to the charming minor harmonic progressions that express the longing felt between Han Solo and Princess Leia in “Han Solo and the Princess”. Notably, Buhler’s scholarly work on Williams’ Star Wars scores offer an insight into his use of Wagner’s leitmotif concept and particularly the way in which he juxtaposes his music to represent good and evil in the form of the Rebels and the Empire, and the light and the dark side.

The most legendary piece of music in the Star Wars original trilogy is the “Binary Sunset”. This score appears during one of the most defining moments of the trilogy: Luke gazing longingly at the Tatooine twin suns. The beautiful cinematography of the twin sunsets foreshadows the beginning of the adventure whilst the swelling music evokes a calm before the storm feeling. The score is certainly the backbone of the scene and is used in later films to remind us of Luke’s incredible character arc. Through these examples, it is clear that Williams always seemed to favour the classical Hollywood and late romantic style which had been considered dead.

Williams’ style certainly did not fit the musical trends of contemporary Hollywood. Not only did he have an older symphonic style, but his methods were also far from modern. He did not use a computer. He did not need a team. Williams preferred to compose the “old-fashioned” way: with a pen, paper, and a piano. His ability to compose a wide range of music, from his more traditional romantic music to jazz and even pop, has enabled him to sustain his career despite the constant flux of musical styles over the decades. His neoclassical scores extend beyond Star Wars, and include Superman, Indiana Jones, and the first few Harry Potter films – and they do not disappoint. Williams’ loyalty to classical Hollywood music is admirable and we should be thankful that he was able to revive the style amidst the growing commercialisation of music in the 1960s and 1970s. There were concerns that George Lucas’ Star Wars debut film would flop, however it was deemed a success both by the impressive new camera technology that allowed the universe to come to life, and John William’s beautiful music score.

Written by Kat Jivkova

Bibliography

Audissino, Emilio. John Williams’s Film Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style. Wisconsin Film Studies. London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

Audissino, Emilio. “John Williams and Contemporary Film Music.” In Contemporary Film Music, 221-36. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Scheurer, Timothy E. “John Williams and Film Music since 1971.” Popular Music and Society 21, no. 1 (1997): 59-72.

Thornton, Daniel. “Star Wars Soundtracks: The Worship Music of John Williams.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 31, no. 1 (2019): 87-100.

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