The Force Awakens: Why Star Wars music keeps getting better

The musical scores of composer John Williams have been the single most consistent mark of quality in the ongoing “Star Wars” project.

Screen capture of scene from promotional trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." (Disney Studios)

CHICAGO, Jan. 8, 2016 – Die-hard “Star Wars” fans, film buffs, musicians and film historians can all agree on one thing: The musical scores emerging from composer John Williams have been the single most consistent mark of quality in this long, ongoing film project.

It is William’s stirring, iconic music, so recognizable around the world, that has often surpassed the quality of the films (the first prequel is a glaring example), bestowing on them a gravitas they did not often deserve.

Some might even go so far as to claim that the original films – where the acting and various cinematographic elements were clearly sub-par in many places – would never have achieved their legendary status without the powerful, emotional genius of Williams’ epic scores.

Composer-conductor John Williams after a 2006 performance with the Boston Pops. (Image via Wikipedia biographical entry on John Williams)
Composer-conductor John Williams after a 2006 performance with the Boston Pops (Image via Wikipedia biographical entry on John Williams)

Can you imagine the opening credits of a Star Wars film rolling with anything else but the soaring “heroic” theme penned by Williams to accompany them? Could the love of Han and Leia or even the struggle and fall of Anakin as portrayed in those sub-par prequels have made such a strong impression without the work of Williams helping the story along?

Now, the Disney studios have launched the beginning of a new trilogy, revitalized by the fresh imagination of director J.J. Abrams. Part of Abrams’ success in “The Force Awakens” has been the respectful and measured stance he has taken with regard to the Star Wars universe. Abrams simply concluded that the franchise wasn’t his to tinker with overmuch.

In that regard, one of Abrams’ most obvious good decisions was to bring a now-elderly John Williams back into the fold, giving the greatest film composer of all time the opportunity to compose what may be the most fitting swan song imaginable for any composer.

When one first encounters the music of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it immediately conjures up both the delight of familiarity and the anxiety of potential surprise. To the practiced ears of professional musicians and composers, it immediately becomes apparent that Williams has not only maintained the high quality of his previous work for this franchise but has also brought a new bag of tricks to his game.

What we have here, in fact, is a bit of a modern miracle: a brand new orchestral masterpiece that’s at once familiar yet novel, borrowing elements from previous films and blending them with new themes and character motifs.

In addition, Williams’ lush orchestration – an “inside music” term for the practical or creative combination of instruments and instrumental balances to create color, mood, and effect – is simply brilliant. It could easily serve as fodder for a graduate level orchestration course at any music conservatory. Ever the master of thematic elements, Williams somehow maintains his uncanny “tunefulness” in this new film score, a capacity that has run deep throughout his multifaceted career.

How does an 83-year-old man continue to advance in his craft when most young popular musicians frequently fail to duplicate the excitement of an initial success? These talented young popular musicians don’t necessarily lack talent, musical ability or drive. The problem they confront is the simple fact that music is a learned craft.

A deep knowledge of music theory, history and the inner workings of how sounds can be put together are the keys to musical self-reflection. That self-reflection and analysis, in turn, can light the way to perpetual artistic growth. This is why conductors or composers in their 70s can continue to mature in musical depth, still brimming over with freshness and insight decades after an audience-favorite one-hit wonder vanishes into musical obscurity.

When John Williams crafted his original “Star Wars” scores, he was a young musician in possession of a serious musical education who also understood his place in history. The concept of creating musical themes for individual characters, events, groups, and ideas (like “the Force”) came directly from his deep, working knowledge of Richard Wagner’s opera scores. Listening to his music, one is also struck by the strong allusions to the orchestral works of Stravinsky, Holst, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and others.

In musical parlance, Williams is not “ripping off” these other great composers. Like any great artist, he knows that imitation is the highest form of flattery and that “complete originality” is an impossibility. Due to his familiarity with the inner workings of his romantic and modernist forbears, he was able to draw upon this rich musical heritage and material and bring it into another universe: modern film.

Furthermore Williams writes for a live symphonic orchestra, a musical organ whose balance and potential has been developed over centuries and requiring no “EQ” settings or studio tricks to achieve clarity. In the capable hands of a good composer and conductor, centuries of development are brought into an almost perfectly balanced immediate experience.

When one listens to the most recent music for “The Force Awakens,” it may seem that embedded orchestral score was created to exist at this very time, for this very music. But at the very least, one should be conscious of being immediately present at the end point of a long and brilliant history encompassing both music and art.

Read also: CDN Movie Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Does it?

As you enjoy the new, ongoing “Star Wars” trilogy and the music that will likely outlive it, consider exploring the orchestral works of some of the composers mentioned above. You might begin with some of the great influences on Williams’ “Star Wars” scores, such as the ballet suites of Tchaikovsky, the “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, “The Planets” by Gustav Holst or the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich.

You might also try recently available recordings of Academy Award-winning film scores by earlier Hollywood composers carrying on the symphonic tradition, including Erich Korngold’s music for the 1938 “Robin Hood,” starring Errol Flynn, and Miklós Rózsa’s epic 1959 score for “Ben-Hur.” Williams has acknowledged both as early influences.

Not only would John Williams undoubtedly be overjoyed to hear that his music has led you to listen more widely and maturely to the work of other masters. He would also know that you would be deeply appreciating his own film score masterworks with greater depth and understanding.

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