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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 5 February 2016

Star Wars: The Musical Saga

by Aleksey Shegolev / February 1, 2016

Version française...

 Warning: spoiler alert!

John WilliamsStar Wars, a saga that has gripped fans for almost forty years, is back on the big screen. Last December, the seventh installment, entitled The Force Awakens, was released in theatres across the city. For the first time since the first trilogy, corresponding to episodes IV, V and VI, audiences get to see the original heroes: Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and even – in the final minutes of the film – Luke Skywalker. Apart from the lovable Chewy, the furry humanoid whose costume hasn’t aged, the characters show the marks of time. Still, you can’t help but be glad when Harrison Ford (Solo) appears onscreen in a remarkable moment. Towards the end of the first quarter of the film, Solo and his faithful companion enter, for the first time in years, the famous Millennium Falcon, the vessel that served them so well over the series. Their entrance is accompanied by the timeless leitmotif from the film’s main theme:

Example 1 — The Main Theme

Music certainly plays a major part in the design of a movie, and the Star Wars theme is one of the most famous examples. But how has this music, written by none other than John Williams, become so popular? I will try to answer this by listing the main themes of the soundtrack, and relating them to the story.

Having only seen the film once, in the comfort of a movie theatre, I cannot claim to be able to reproduce every detail that a second or third viewing would allow me to notice. However, I think I grasped the key themes in the musical score. This seventh chapter contains at least fifteen themes characteristic enough to stand out on the first viewing, and five of them were part of the preceding movies. First, there’s the main theme (example 1), presented right at the beginning. Next comes the theme of the Millennium Falcon:

Example 2 — The Millenium Falcon

Aboard the ship that used to belong to Solo we twice hear the Jedi theme:

Example 3 — Jedi

Later, when Kylo Ren, the new masked villain, speaks to the helmet of Darth Vader, his maternal grandfather, the soundtrack plays the first notes of the Imperial March:

Example 4 — Imperial March

There’s a surprise awaiting us at the end of the movie: When Princess Leia, now promoted to leader of the Resistance, first appears, the scene is clearly marked by her theme:

Example 5 — Leia

I think that among the new ear-catching themes in the movie, the most important is that of the Resistance:

Example 6 — The Resistance

It has a strong personality, great energy and an epic style. It appears at least three times: after Rey’s capture, when Finn and Solo try to repulse the attack by the troops of the First Order; in the scene that takes place on the military base of the Resistance; and when the Resistance leads a counter-attack.

A second major leitmotif, recurring at least five times, is Rey’s theme:

Example 7 — Rey

Sweet and tender, this reflects the heroine’s femininity – though she’s also as plucky as anyone. We hear it first on the near-deserted planet Jakku: Rey has managed to get a small ration of food, and has stopped to eat it. The theme recurs in other scenes: when she is captured, when Finn and Solo find her on board the enemy ship, when she says goodbye to Finn, and when she lands on the planet where Luke Skywalker has taken refuge.

As for Kylo Ren, aspiring disciple of the dark side of the Force, he is assigned one or two themes (examples 8 and 9):

Example 8 — First Kylo Ren Theme

I only caught this theme twice: just after the beginning and at the point where Ren captures Rey, whereas the following (example 9) recurs more often:

Example 9 — Second Kylo Ren Theme

Finally, the theme of the First Order holds prime position in the soundtrack. Its rhythmic pattern recalls the Imperial March.

Example 10 — Theme of the First Order

The themes of both the Imperial March and the First Order have a military pulse inspired by the first movement of the famous Planets by Holst: “Mars.” Their rhythmic energy evokes the heaviness and rigidity of war.

There are five other secondary themes studding the soundtrack, which has acquired an impressive number of admirers. Obviously, it’s the huge success of the movie that makes its music popular, not the other way round. Without the tremendous production work, the special effects, and the talent of the cast, John Williams’ music would not have attained such heights of popularity. But I do think his success is due to the clarity of his musical material, allied with brilliant orchestration. On top of that we have great economy of means so that the viewer’s attention doesn’t waver. The easily recognizable themes act as reference points in a huge sonic universe in which one’s attention would otherwise founder. Williams’s music is simple, clear and effective – much like many classical masterpieces.

Translation: Cecilia Grayson

Download the complete comparative table of themes here. 

Version française...
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