The principal had come to my mother because he knew that she was something of a singer and might be able to come up with a musical solution. She came home and asked me if I could play Pomp and Circumstance on the piano. (Pomp and Circumstanceused to be played at every graduation as the students marched in. I have no idea if this is still done.) I was not thrilled at the possibility of returning to that school to play for graduation. (I was finishing my first year of college.) I suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that she could use the “Star Wars Throne Room March” instead. To my surprise, she took me seriously. That year’s graduating class marched into the gym to the Throne Room March. I did end up returning to the school, since it was my album, and she needed me to drop the needle at the appropriate time.
When I was teaching my children about the concept of the leitmotif (Leitmotif is German and should be pronounced light-moteef), I used Star Wars music. What is a leitmotif, you ask? Miriam-Webster defines a leitmotifas: “an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama.”
Richard Wagner (Ree-card Vahg-ner—he was German) was a composer who lived through most of the 1800s. He divides people perhaps more than any other composer. Wagnerian operas are huge; the use of more than 100 instrumentalists is not uncommon. Some people love his operas, while others liken them to people screaming at the top of their lungs. And his political leanings were beyond questionable—Wagner was horribly anti-Semitic. And his music became a favorite with Hitler.
However, Wagner changed music and theatre in some surprising ways. Before him, you went to the theater to be seen, not necessarily to see, or hear, what was being performed. The lights in the “house”—the part of the theater where the audience sits—were kept on. Wagner wanted his operas to seem like a dream that you were having, so the lights had to be turned off.
He also took the concept of the leitmotif and ran with it. And this is where John Williams and Stars Wars music come back into the picture. John Williams used the leitmotif in composing music for Star Wars. We hear bits and pieces of these motives weaving in and out of the soundtrack.
Williams has composed roughly 50 themes so far for the Star Wars series of movies. “Luke’s Theme” has become one of the most widely-known themes in music. While it was originally written for the character of Luke Skywalker, it now is used as the main theme for the series and for acts of heroism. Toward the middle of the “Throne Room” music, timed to coincide in the credits with George Lucas’s name, we get “Luke’s Theme” reprised.
The use of leitmotivscan give us hints of where a character is going. There are hints of “The Imperial March” hidden in “Anakin’s Theme” in the movie The Phantom Menace, showing us the darkness coming for Anakin, with just a touch of “Luke’s Theme” thrown in for good measure.
There are about 11 themes used in each Star Wars movies, making them among the most complexly composed movies out there. Williams has not composed all the music for every Star Wars property. Music for the series such as The Clone Wars,the various video games, and the spin-off movies, like Rogue One, have been composed by other people. But, because of the treasure trove of themes composed by John Williams, the others are able to give us music that still sounds like a part of the whole.
There are a handful of composers alive today that I feel are geniuses who deserve to stand with the greats of the past. I feel that John Williams is one of these. Comments? Let me know what you think. I’ll be playing some of my favorite Star Wars/John Williams music on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so please be sure to check them out.
May the Force be with you!