John Williams is justly celebrated for the film scores he has composed for many iconic film series. But in the end, if there is one series that he will be most remembered for, it has to be his music for the nine films that make up the Star Wars Skywalker saga.
Not since Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle of operas has a composer helped articulate characters, themes and plot with such dramatic success! Agreed, that discussing John Williams in the context of serious classical music was frowned upon in the early days. But the idea has since gained legitimacy as renowned symphony orchestras the world over continue to organise live concerts - playing his scores to enthusiastic audiences as the films are screened.
Lavish and grand in expression, Williams’ music does justice to the swashbuckling space operas conceived by George Lucas. Of course, not everything is blustering fortissimos and showy marches. Expansive and soaring at some points, the music can also be intimate and intricate at others. Ballistic heft comes in during the inter-galactic battle scenes. But serene melody makes the quieter moments deeply felt and unforgettable.
It has remained amongst the most popular film scores for many reasons:
First, John Williams approaches the music with a childish exuberance and passion that is a perfect fit to George Lucas’ straight-shooting approach to storytelling – an approach that fans have come to love (as the box office returns of each film in the series has repeatedly confirmed).
More importantly, the music drives the story through its masterful use of recurring musical motifs (or short themes) to represent characters, objects and plot ideas. Who can forget the ominous brass heavy Darth Vader motif, the heroic Luke Skywalker motif, the rousing rebels motif, the majestic Force motif, or the soulful Princess Leia motif.
These themes are subject to endlessly inventive variations to emphasise, foreshadow, harken back or just plain mesmerise. Over time (and with each new addition to the Star Wars franchise), these motifs have made these soundtracks the most recognisable film music universe there is.
Read film music scholar, Frank Lehman's Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in Star Wars (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1xJ0Jj-mLfOPUCtcAm_HDGIkFwvHL5gbX/view) for a more detailed commentary on some of the main motifs.
Of course, Williams drew inspiration from a diverse range of composers who came before him – Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Holst, Orff, Elgar, Stravinsky, Korngold, to name a few. But that takes nothing away from his own genius in creating such a powerful and sweeping musical legacy with colour, melody, rhythm, harmony and orchestration that resonates so compelling with successive generations of cinema goers.