Opinion: whatever about the strengths and weaknesses of the Star Wars' films, John Williams' iconic scores have never faltered

The release of the third instalment of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, will bring the core Star Wars saga to a close. Leaving aside the strengths and weaknesses the eight films already released may or may not have according to some fans, It is worth reflecting on the fact that there is one element of the franchise that has never faltered. I am referring to the music of composer John Williams, who has composed the iconic scores for all of the Skywalker saga films.

A towering figure of cinema, Williams' achievements speak for themselves. Rooted in the symphonic tradition of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, his compositional style showcases a mastery of the leitmotif. This technique involves the designation of specific musical themes to individual characters, groups or concepts in a story. The leitmotif, used often by romantic era composers such as Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, is particularly effective in film scoring and it is Williams’ ability to craft uniquely unforgettable such themes that has cemented his position as one of the most revered of Hollywood composers.

Undoubtedly, the most recognisable of the Star Wars themes is the "Main Title" theme which explosively opens all of the main saga films. The theme appears to have either been unconsciously influenced by Erich Korngold's music from Kings Row or to have deliberately used it as a creative point of departure. Whichever the case may be, Williams has at times been unfairly accused of plagiarising Korngold’s theme and others.

Taking an existing idea as the inspiration for the creation of a new one, either deliberately or unintentionally, is a fundamental aspect of musical composition (and indeed the arts generally). Were a melody to be merely copied and pasted into the new work, that would undoubtedly constitute plagiarism. However, if the new melody has its own character and a sufficient degree of originality, then it is nothing of the sort. In the case of the Star Wars "Main Title", the similarity is merely in the pitches (and not the entire rhythm) of the first five notes – after this point, the two melodies go in very different directions.

Indeed, Williams’ ability to subtly reference the literature while still creating strikingly original, memorable music is one of his many compositional strengths. Other examples include the iconic "The Imperial March" and the "Cantina Band" theme. The former simultaneously recalls the melody of Chopin's famous "Funeral March" as well as Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights" and Holst's "Mars" from the ‘The Planets’. In spite of these similarities, however, Williams’ theme stands firmly on its own as an original classic.

The "Cantina Band" theme is an interesting case. Williams was reportedly requested by George Lucas to create a kind of futuristic interpretation of Benny Goodman's music and the theme bears a resemblance to the main theme of "Sing Sing Sing". Williams made it interesting by arranging his own theme for wind and brass ensemble augmented with a Fender Rhodes, Caribbean steel drum and ARP synthesiser for the bass part. The result was something that sounded stylistically familiar yet also uniquely otherworldly.

Also worth mentioning is "Dune Sea of Tatooine", which is an undeniable twin of the "Introduction" movement of the second part of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". This is an apparent example of the composer being requested to adhere to the original temp track, which featured Stravinsky’s piece. Furthermore, the music as it appears in the film functions not as a prominent theme but rather as a kind of passing, incidental music.

Contrary to the above examples, the majority of themes in Williams’ Star Wars scores do not suggest the direct influence of other works. In order to help convey different emotions and characterisations when writing his themes, Williams skilfully uses a wide variety of musical scales and harmonic devices. For instance, careful harmonisation of the open-ended, minor key "Force Theme" conveys a sense of earnestness, hope and destiny. These are the same characteristics present in the melodically richer "Rey’s Theme", which seems to subtly recall the "Force Theme".

A sense of brightness and benevolence is communicated by a combination of the major scale and Lydian mode, a brighter variant of the major scale, in "Yoda’s Theme". A more poignant, tender and mysterious sentiment is conveyed in "Leia’s Theme" through use of the so called "melodic major" scale, a derivative of the melodic minor scale in which the sixth and seventh degrees of the major scale are lowered to create a blending of major and minor tonalities. "Han Solo and the Princess", one of the franchise’s most memorable themes, suggests romantic tension through a similar harmonic approach.

Perhaps one of Williams’ most commendable achievements over the course of his contributions to the Star Wars franchise is the creation of the unforgettably captivating theme "Duel of the Fates" for the deservedly much maligned prequel trilogy. For many fans, Williams’ music is probably one of the only elements of the prequels that stands up to the original trilogy. With regards to the sequels, while most fans have waited with bated breath to discover if the films’ creators have done the franchise justice or not with each film, it is safe to say that, as always, nobody has ever had any doubts as to the quality of what Williams will offer.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ