Listening to: Star Wars Main Theme – John Williams
Ah, music. When combined with the various forms of storytelling, it can make or break everything. The dialogue may be cheesy, and the cinematography merely average, but take a high-quality score and none of that seems to matter. Since we’re on the Star Wars track already, may I draw your attention to the original scene versus the same scene without music? The difference is staggering.
Now that I’ve fully established just how important good music can be to entertainment, it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of the post: the leitmotif. I once gave a speech on leitmotifs to a college Comm class, some of whom may have understood what exactly I was talking about. (More importantly, I’m a music major, so I’ve actually studied them, too. That helps.)
According to those vaunted studies of mine, the leitmotif is music given character. It is distinct from a motive (or motif) in that it does more than simply recur: it also serves as a representation of something in the work, whether that is a character, place, or concept. Leitmotifs capture that something and carry its meaning throughout the rest of the work. A discerning listener can tell what’s going on with a scene by the music within it–and, if they’re especially astute, may even be able to figure out what’s going to happen in the future.
The first mainstream use of leitmotifs was by Richard Wagner in his magnum opus, the Ring Cycle. There were different leitmotifs for all kinds of things and… well, I don’t know any of them, because most of the music I listen to isn’t Wagner. I guess that just means that I’ll have to use examples of leitmotifs that are more familiar to my target audience. Ach, alas.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, John Williams uses the leitmotif for the Force as the main theme. The version linked to at the top of the page is the most famous, since it occurs at the beginning of every Star Wars film or TV series. It, along with Darth Vader’s “Imperial March,” is iconic of the franchise as a whole. Thus, it’s one of the themes that is easiest to spot out when viewing the movies. In the title sequence, the Force theme is a triumphant brass fanfare, backed by strings and winds, that gives a grand feeling of sweeping adventure. It’s the perfect musical cue to set the stage for what’s to come.
Contrast that version with the version of the Force theme that appears in “Binary Sunset,” a bit further into the film. This time, rather than the fanfare of before, the theme is repeated in the winds section, with far more rubato. It’s slow and reflective, charged with introspective melancholy and a hint of the desert planet’s desolation. (If you’re thinking “Is he just throwing out as many analytical buzzwords as he can?” YOU’RE DARN RIGHT I AM) Yet, it is still the same theme. That’s the beauty of a leitmotif: it can serve many different purposes, tying them all together like a single golden thread of melody. (That last simile was positively Dickensian.)
The Force theme, along with several other of the series’ leitmotifs, figures prominently in “The Battle of Yavin,” the climactic soundtrack of A New Hope. It’s used to highlight the desperate struggle of the Rebel pilots diving into the face of danger, and a minor-key variation (around the 6:28 mark) draws out the menace of Darth Vader’s methodical advance. From there, sliding permutations of the theme build and build until the theme reaches peak excitement and a (literally) explosive conclusion.
Hopefully you found this to be informative and enjoyable. I’m planning on doing more musical analyses in the future, concentrating on the motifs used in other series–the pair I’m currently vacillating between are Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings and Hiroki Morishita’s Fire Emblem: Awakening. Until then, this is Occasionally Diverting, signing off until next week!