John Williams and the Music of 'Star Wars' John Williams was already an established composer when he took on Star Wars. That was long ago and far away, in 1976. Nearly 30 years later, he reflects on his role in the making of a cultural milestone.
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John Williams and the Music of 'Star Wars'

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John Williams and the Music of 'Star Wars'

John Williams and the Music of 'Star Wars'

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

There are now six movies that begin exactly the same way.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

KAST: The words "Star Wars" are sprawled across thousands of movie screens this weekend, along with the familiar yellow lettering that crawls slowly to the horizon. And John Williams' score heralds the final installment in the "Star Wars" saga, "The Revenge of the Sith." NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr spoke with Williams and explores the music written for a galaxy far, far away.

JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR reporting:

The first time John Williams saw the original "Star Wars," before any music had been written for it, he thought it was terrific, but it was just another job.

Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS (Composer): We all thought, this is going to be a great Saturday morning show for young people, and it should have two or three really great weekends, but at that time in 1976, I had no idea whether I'd even be here in 2005, let alone be still working on the same project.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Williams was already a well-established film composer. Steven Spielberg had just worked with him on "Jaws" and recommended him to director George Lucas. Lucas and Williams decided to use a full symphonic orchestra in the soundtrack. Its lush textures and stirring rhythms hark back to the Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventures scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold came to Hollywood in the 1930s from Vienna, where he had been an opera composer praised by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Williams says the story of "Star Wars" was a sprawling epic and seemed to call for that kind of treatment.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The translation of heroic impulses and feelings and reactions, and thinking in terms of melodrama and opera bring us in the direction of a symphony orchestra rather than with a group synthesizers or computers that might produce the spacey, otherworldly sounds you might expect.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: So although a disco version of the main title did hit the top of the Billboard chart in 1977, the symphonic version, which only reached number 10, remains familiar but timeless. The decision to use the old Hollywood late romantic style meant there would be an almost wall-to-wall score. More than two-thirds of the original "Star Wars" had music. Williams says the other movies are similarly jam-packed.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We begin to play when the film begins and stop at the end of the film. There are some pauses in this latest film, but not very many. Usually, the scenes will require, because of the style, some kind of orchestral accompaniment, and it's a happy assignment for a composer, because it will mean that you can have a large canvas to work on.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Film music scholar Royal Brown says Williams has done an amazing job unifying the series through its ups and downs.

Mr. ROYAL BROWN (Film Music Scholar): It has remained remarkably consistent. The difference is, of course, is that by the time we get to the "Revenge of the Sith," it's not as fresh as it was, not because Williams is doing anything wrong, but because he's pretty much locked in to a particular requirement for this particular kind of movie, and he doesn't have a lot of wiggle room here.

FREYMANN-WEYR: What Williams has done is assign certain characters and ideas, like the Empire or the Force, specific music that accompanies them on the screen.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It isn't anything new. It's been done for centuries in opera and also in film, as a way of connecting through a melodic fragment or a full melody in the audience's mind, making a connection between that and a character.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Those themes can also be used to make connections from film to film, reminding viewers of events they've already seen. For example, in "The Empire Strikes Back," we hear the theme for Yoda, the ancient Jedi master, as he, using the power of the Force, raises Luke Skywalker's crashed spaceship from a swamp.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: In "Attack of the Clones," the second in the prequel trilogy, the theme reappears as Yoda keeps another enormous object suspended in the air: During a battle with the evil Count Dooku, saving Luke's father, who's trapped beneath.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: But the most famous of all the light motifs or recurring themes is the one associated with Darth Vader. The familiar Imperial March actually didn't show up until the second movie. In "Star Wars," the Empire's theme sounded a little more plodding.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: And Darth Vader's very first appearance on screen was accompanied by these ominous forms.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Together, they contain the genetic material for Vader's Theme from "The Empire Strikes Back."

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: As the series continued, it became clear that it was Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, whose story was being told. "The Phantom Menace" was the first of the prequels released in 1999, telling the story of Anakin's childhood. John Williams says the backwards chronology presented him with an opportunity.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I wanted to create a theme for the boy Anakin and, within it, try--just for fun, to try to suggest Darth Vader's Imperial March and begin to put the pieces together or take apart the pieces of the Imperial March that had already existed for 15 years and recompose it into something youthful and hopeful and potential in a positive way.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Royal Brown says even though the transformation from Anakin to Vader doesn't happen until the final chapter, the foreshadowing of the music keeps reminding the audience of its inevitability.

Mr. BROWN: That's quite ingenious. I mean, he's basically giving you a piece of information, by the music alone, and then finally the film catches up with it, the narrative catches up with it.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: The Darth Vader theme is also woven through the climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the final installment, "Revenge of the Sith."

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: In sheer quantity of music spent telling a single prolonged story, John Williams is in the same league with composer Richard Wagner, whose "Ring Cycle" is another larger-than-life story of good and evil and dysfunctional families, but Williams says he's only been doing his job.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I would never--I never want to be comparing myself to Wagner or anybody else, but I do often think to myself, my God, a hundred films and probably an average of an hour in each one of them, I probably have written as much music as Heiden, none of it nearly as good as any of Heiden. I'm well aware of that, and probably in terms of power, it's more than Wagner.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Since he won the Academy Award for "Star Wars" in 1978, beating out his own score for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," there have been only six years John Williams hasn't been up for an Oscar or two. Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

KAST: To hear more from the interview with John Williams, go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" music)

KAST: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

KAST: Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.

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