John Williams' throwback to romantic adventure films, the most financially successful score of all time, also borrowed from the past.

As powerful and memorable as the visuals are in Star Wars, it's impossible to imagine it having much of an impact without its groundbreaking sound design and score.

And as hard as it is to talk about visual references without being able to show them, it's even harder to talk about musical cues. Nevertheless, not only because the music is such an integral part of the Star Wars experience, but also because it too has many facets of inspiration throughout, that is nevertheless what we'll attempt in this chapter. The Special Edition version of the soundtrack will be used for reference here, as it is the one most widely available today.

Leonard Maltin: “Tell me about how you first met and worked with John Williams?”

George Lucas: “I had known Steven Spielberg for a long time up to this point. And we were talking about the film real early on when I was writing the script, and I said ‘I want a classical score. I want the Korngold kind of feel about this thing, it’s an old fashioned kind of movie, and I want that grand soundtrack that they used to have on movies,’ and he said, ‘The guy you’ve got to talk to is John Williams. He did Jaws, I love him, he’s the greatest composer that ever lived. You’ve got to talk to him!’ and so I did.”

Whether chalked up to luck or destiny, the pairing of John Williams with Star Wars remains one of the seminal moments in modern cinema. One of those rare combinations that change everything. Lucas was no stranger to the use of sound and music of course, his use the soundtrack in both of his previous feature films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti had been quite revolutionary in their respective ways. Sound Designer and Editor Walter Murch's sound collage work on THX played as large a part in the film's fragmentary, oppressive nature and American Graffiti practically invented the modern day wall-to-wall rock'n'roll soundtrack, 'worldized' by Murch and integrated seamlessly throughout the film through the ubiquitous car radios.

Lucas knew full well the importance not just of sound design, especially for a fantasy film like Star Wars, but of the score. Film history is filled with iconic, instantly recognized scores, the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather, but in the realm of science fiction, when there was budget for an original score, it was either theremins as far as the eye can see, popularized by The Day The Earth Stood Still, or something akin to the 'electronic tonalities' of Forbidden Planet. Even The Planet of the Apes, the only big franchise in science fiction at the time, had a brilliant and innovative score by Jerry Goldsmith, but it was far from the kind of romantic grandiosity that Williams would bring to Star Wars. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey had moments of ballet-like scenes accompanied and indeed carried by the sweeping classical music by Johann Strauss, but that was about the extent of it.

In fact, the music that was closest to the kind Williams would go on to make for Star Wars was that of golden age movie composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Hitchcock-stalwart Bernard Herrmann (that latter two with whom Williams had worked as a pianist in his younger days). These were the composers behind the music for the kinds of adventure films that Lucas drew so much of the frantic action and princess-dashing hero mechanics from in the first place.

Much like the film itself, the score is inspired by a cross-section of those kinds of existing sources, often quite blatantly so; its genius being in how it integrates the many small hints and borrowings into a greater weave of leitmotifs and larger themes. As well as some more eclectic selections, although given the films history in general, it should perhaps come as no surprise. What is surprising is how it continually mixes styles and themes freely to fit the locations and characters on-screen in a way few mainstream scores before or since have dared to do. While it is remember mostly for its grand sweeping romantic themes, those are interspersed with a range of almost experimental little snippets of music that, through the skills of Williams as a composer and conductor sound completely integral to the score as a whole, but which when taken on their own are quite remarkable.

To begin with, the opening Main Titles are reminiscent of the kinds of rip-roaring openings Eric Wolfgang Korngold wrote for a number of adventure films, including The Sea Hawk (1940) and Kings Row (1942), which in turn was probably imitated by Miklós Rózsa for the opening of 1952's Ivanhoe. It’s exactly the kind of ‘big declamatory thing’ Williams described Lucas wanting for Star Wars, and follows the exact same pattern of repeating the opening melody twice, segueing into a sub melody, before going back into the main melody and finally petering out out into a finality segment and a loose melody exactly the way Main Titles do. Excuse my technical terms.

Kings Row in particular seems an apt predecessor for the Main Titles, with the first few notes being nearly identical. As it happens, Howard Hawks's Air Force, another film Star Wars draws heavily from, also opens with a score in much the same manner.

Before judgement is cast however, it's worth remembering that as the adventure film genre had evolved, this was simply the way these films opened, and as such it should come as no surprise that Lucas would look to them for more than just sword-fighting. Star Wars was something else, but it was hardly novel for an adventure movie to open with this exact kind of declamatory melody announcing the title of the film, before it spent five minutes going through the up-front credits with a slightly less aggressive soundscape, or even some text introducing the audience to the buccaneering tale that was about to ensure. Or as music writer Alex Ross put it in his excellent New Yorker piece, Listening to “Star Wars”, which I will quote here at length because it is so applicable (although you would do well to go read it in its entirety):

To accuse Williams of plagiarism, however, brings to mind the famous retort made by Brahms when it was pointed out that the big tune in the finale of his First Symphony resembled Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: “Any ass can hear that.” Williams takes material from Korngold and uses it to forge something new. After the initial rising statement, the melodies go in quite different directions: Korngold’s winds downward to the tonic note, while Williams’s insists on the triplet rhythm and leaps up a minor seventh. I used to think that the latter gesture was taken from a passage in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, but the theme can’t have been stolen from two places simultaneously.
Although it’s fun to play tune detective, what makes these ideas indelible is the way they’re fleshed out, in harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. (To save time, Williams uses orchestrators, but his manuscripts arrive with almost all of the instrumentation spelled out.) We can all hum the trumpet line of the “Star Wars” main title, but the piece is more complicated than it seems. There’s a rhythmic quirk in the basic pattern of a triplet followed by two held notes: the first triplet falls on the fourth beat of the bar, while later ones fall on the first beat, with the second held note foreshortened. There are harmonic quirks, too. The opening fanfare is based on chains of fourths, adorning the initial B-flat-major triad with E-flats and A-flats. Those notes recur in the orchestral swirl around the trumpet theme. In the reprise, a bass line moves in contrary motion, further tweaking the chords above. All this interior activity creates dynamism. The march lunges forward with an irregular gait, rugged and ragged, like the Rebellion we see onscreen.

This is not to deny that Williams has a history of drawing heavily on established models. The Tatooine desert in “Star Wars” is a dead ringer for the steppes of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The “Mars” movement of Holst’s “Planets” frequently lurks behind menacing situations. Jeremy Orosz, in a recent academic paper, describes these gestures as “paraphrases”: rather than quoting outright, Williams “uses pre-existing material as a creative template to compose new music at a remarkable pace.” There’s another reason that “Star Wars” contains so many near-citations. At first, George Lucas had planned to fill the soundtrack with classical recordings, as Stanley Kubrick had done in “2001.” The temp track included Holst and Korngold. Williams, whom Lucas hired at Spielberg’s suggestion, acknowledged the director’s favorites while demonstrating the power of a freshly composed score. He seems to be saying: I can mimic anything you want, but you need a living voice.

Nevertheless, it sets a precedent for the rest of the score, as we shall see.

Swing back to the 1930s, the low-cost approach to the production of serials like Universal’s Flash Gordon left little room in the budget for a dedicated composer, let alone a recording session. Instead, much as they did with footage and even sets, music was brought over from whatever the studio had in their vaults; few things were sacred. This isn’t unheard of in modern Hollywood (see the use of the Aliens climax score in Die Hard, or Alien 3’s score in Batman & Robin), but it’s nowhere near what was happening back then. And that’s how Flash Gordon ended up with one of the main themes from the highly regarded, 1935 horror classic Bride of Frankenstein, playing over the introduction scroll of every episode. It’s very recognizable with it’s ‘ba-ba-ba-baaa-ba, ba-ba-ba-baaa-ba’ melody, which has a certain resemblance to the imperial theme from Star Wars (as distinct from the Imperial March, which didn’t feature until The Empire Strikes Back), as heard when C-3PO and R2-D2 cross the shootout in the hallway on the blockade runner, and after the Falcon escapes the Death Star and pursuing TIE Fighters engage it.

Whatever the case, Lucas probably hadn't simply plucked these pieces out of thin air, they had been with him throughout the lengthy pre-production process on Star Wars, as he had been slaving away on his screenplay in solitude.

Maltin: “Didn’t you at first want [John Williams] to use existing classical music? Is that true?”

Lucas: “No, I had written it to certain pieces of music. I write to music, so when I’m writing a scene I have the music there, and I’m writing it to the music. And then in a lot of cases we’ll use that same music as a temp track. So there was temp tracks of classical music in the score. And with Johnny, you can say, ‘I want something that feel exactly like this, you understand the emotion here and the emotion there,’ and he said, ‘yeah, yeah’, and then he’ll take that and he’ll come up with his own compositions and his own themes, which are uniquely Star Wars themes in this case. But he’ll give it that same emotional thrust, that was in the classical piece. He knows exactly what I’m talking about, and he’s really conscientious about getting the directors vision on the screen.


Another very obvious example of the use of classical music in the score, to jump forward in the chronology of the film a bit, is found in the climactic battle. Just as Han Solo sweeps in to save the day, hurtling Vader into deep space and clearing the shot for Luke, a tense pounding rhythm leads up to the final explosion. It is in fact nearly identical to Gustav Holst’s famous piece Mars from his concert The Planets. In fact, Lorne Peterson recalled of the first coming attractions trailer for the film that “The copy we got was a high-contrast black-and-white print with music from ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst,” although no such trailer was ever put into circulation (the long trailer that was put out does have a snippet of the end of The Battle of Yavin, the part on the Star Wars score which emulates Holst's Mars). Holst's Mars, and his The Planets concert in general, is no stranger to films, having been copied, echoed and straight up used so often that a lengthy essay could be dedicated to that subject alone (see Aliens and Gladiator for examples).

Skip 14m 25s in to hear the Holst clip in situ.


Some of the most distinct and unique music in Star Wars would have to be that of the cantina big band, which itself probably has its roots in Casablanca, where Rick’s Café Americain was kept swingin’ by a band of its own, heard before we’re even inside the café itself. In fact, both the cantina band’s swinging tunes sound almost like an alien echo of Duke Ellington’s Diga Diga Doo.


In more esoteric bits of the score, the first part of Wookiee Prisoner + Detention Block Ambush almost has a feeling of having come from the hands of Ennio Morricone by way of a Sergio Leone film, as it jumps freely between quite eclectic bits of melody, interrupted by drum bits. It all evokes an image of The Man With No Name, gun at the ready, sneaking around a fort.


The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák must have been a Lucas favorite during the writing of Star Wars, as he echoes through the score at least three times and even gets name-checked on the workprint's temporary soundtrack.

The Main Title for instance has some striking similarities to the opening of the Allegro Con Fuoco from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’. Very possibly a Williams favorite, as it also has certain similarities with another 1970s score he had made not long before Star Wars, namely Jaws, which shares with it it's suspenseful, monotonous ‘baaaa-dam baaaa-dam’-like build-up.

Rite of Spring rears its head again when Han Solo and Chewbacca chase a group of Stormtroopers down a hallways on the Deathstar following the rescue of Princess Leia in the form of short rhythmic stabs from strings, almost identical, to Stravinsky’s The Augurs of Spring / Dances of the Adolescent Girls. And although there is no particular evidence to support it, the plain number of similarities with Rite of Spring suggest that the drums in Evocation of the Elders from could very well have been an inspiration for the drums that follow the slamming close of the cell door to Leia’s prison cell when she’s about to be interrogated. 

When R2-D2 and C-3PO part ways after their desperate escape to the surface of the planet Tatooine, C-3PO is walking along in the sand dunes accompanied by an alternating two-note melody. It'll might seem strangely familiar, and indeed there's a reason for that.

We used some Stravinsky, the flipside of The Rite of Spring," [Editor Paul] Hirsch remembers. "George said nobody ever uses that side of the record, so we used it for Threepio walking around in the desert. The Jawa music was from the same Stravinsky piece.”

From The Rite of Spring: Part II - The Sacrifice: Introduction, the so-called B-side, the Jawa music mentioned is probably The Rite of Spring: Part II - the Sacrifice: Ritual Action of the Elders, which is very similar to the music that plays as the Jawas come out of their hiding places to collect the now paralyzed R2-D2 (starts 2m 10s in).


As fate would have it, this piece actually also bears some resemblance to the bit of music that plays in Hidden Fortress just after the two peasants break up the first time, on the soundtrack album this track is called Peaceful Mountain Pass Road.


"The scene where they pop out of the hatch in the Falcon, I laid in a very famous piece of Psycho music there [on the work print],” [Film Editor Paul Hirsch] says. "It was a three-note motif that Scorsese had insisted that Benny [Bernard Herrmann] use in Taxi Driver. It was a dark, ominous three-note motif. Curiously enough, Johnny [Williams]—I don't know if he did it deliberately or what—but it's now incorporated into his cue for that moment in the film. He's got the very same notes that appear in Psycho. they appear in Taxi Driverand now they're in Star Wars.

They are indeed exactly the same, very noticeably so even; a small homage of sorts, echoing across film history.

During post-production, while the young Industrial Light & Magic slaved away in early 1977, Williams spotted, composed and recorded the score over the course of six weeks, and went on to win an oscar for, while it went on to become, to this day, the highest grossing non-popular recording in history.


Edward Summer

Michael Heilemann


Michael Heilemann