I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, the trumpets blare and the strings soar and I look back on some of my musical Star Wars memories.
While most of my friends were scouring movie magazines in April of 1980 for any tidbit of info about The Empire Strikes Back, I was breathlessly waiting for an episode of Evening at Pops to air on PBS. Because that episode was going to see the world premiere of two themes from John Williams’ score. And all due reverence needed to be paid.
In the three years prior to this, I’d damn near wore my double LP of the Star Wars soundtrack flat. I lacked the musical sophistication to explain what I was hearing, but I knew well enough what it was doing to me. While my friends were collecting rock and pop and disco, I had the London Symphony Orchestra. I’m pretty sure I owned almost a dozen soundtracks before I owned my first pop album, and through all of that, John Williams was my Beatles. Star Wars and Jaws and Superman and 1941 were the core of my listening, with some assistance from Jerry Goldsmith on the Star Trek movie.
But it was the Star Wars score I kept coming back to. It was this sprawling musical landscape that sounded both ancient and modern. There were moments that could have just as easily accompanied cowboys on horseback rather than pilots in spaceships, or Arthurian knights instead of Jedi knights. It was that expansive classical sound that, like so much that was Star Wars, bucked the current trend in science fiction of the cold and electronic. You heard the opening notes of that glorious fanfare and there was no doubt what you were in for. And since we were a good ten years away from the idea of watching movies at home, listening to the soundtrack was the best way to relive the film over and over again. Headphones on, eyes closed, and spaceships soaring through my mind.
Evening at Pops began and forced me to endure a lot of music that had the gall not to be from The Empire Strikes Back. But finally the announcer informed us the moment had arrived, and the first new Star Wars music in three years was played. “Yoda’s Theme” came first, and it was nice enough, except I really didn’t know who Yoda was. His music conjured up tranquility mixed with mischievousness, and it fit nicely with the Star Wars music we all knew and loved. But I wasn’t particularly wowed by it. There was polite but enthusiastic applause, and then Williams readied the orchestra for the next piece, and you could sense them gearing up for what was to come. This wasn’t going to be tranquil or mischievous. At all.
And then the strings and percussion began this insistent musical death march, and “Darth Vader’s Theme” invaded our musical consciousness, never to leave again.
The next three minutes were film and soundtrack geek heaven, the signature tune to end all signature tunes. What chance in hell did the Rebels have against the Empire when this was its theme song? Pack up the X-Wings, we’re done here. On and on the theme drove, never stopping, gaining power, until you felt fleets of Star Destroyers behind you, and the Dark Side coursing through you…
And then it was over the audience burst into cheers. But the music was gone into the ether. I wouldn’t have the soundtrack for another couple of months, but I needed to hear that theme again, to feel that theme again. Our local PBS station aired that episode multiple times over the next week, and I’m pretty sure I staked out and watched every one of them, just to get drunk on that one piece of music.
We finally did get the soundtrack album and it exceeded the promise of that concert performance in ways I never thought possible. Williams’ work on Empire remains, in my mind, the finest piece of film scoring ever done. It’s a top to bottom masterpiece of lief-motif and action film music, and to think it lost the Oscar to the soundtrack from Fame makes me want to smash this keyboard to bits.
There was a similar rush nearly twenty years later, when “Duel of the Fates” debuted on MTV. Star Wars had come a long way when it had gone from premiering music on PBS to taking over Total Request Live, but the feeling was the same. That chorus at the beginning — a first for Star Wars outside the sparing use of it during the climactic duel in Return of the Jedi — hit like a thunderbolt, and then that quiet, driving string figure propelled us into the piece proper and we were all on the edge of our seats. Damn, if the music was this good, imagine the film it accompanies!
For the most part, we were better off with our imaginations. Williams did himself proud, no question there; “Fates,” “Across the Stars” and “Battle of the Heroes” stand equal with the other great Star Wars themes. But George Lucas’s constant editing and tweaking wreaked havoc on Williams’ prequel scores, often consigning brand new music to the cutting room floor because it no longer fit the scene as constructed, replacing it with looped-in previously used music. What had once been an essential piece of the magic had become just another cog in the machine, a part to be spliced and diced whenever Lucas felt it suited. Williams, his music, and the films deserved better.
And that’s probably why I could probably listen to the Empire score on a continuous loop and never get tired of it, but only listen to the main themes from the prequels every now and then. Aside from my feelings for the prequels being nowhere near as strong as for the OT, there’s just not that musical identity. And not that musical association with happy movie-going memories.
The brief patches of new music from The Force Awakens have me hopeful that, just as we’re seeing old faces returning onscreen, we’ll have the old Williams returning behind the conductor stand. He doesn’t have many films — or years — left ahead of him, and it would be great to see these new Star Wars films serve as both a reminder of his still-prodigious talents and as a tribute to his past glories. And it would be just as great to have that same feeling I did sitting on a couch back in 1980 hearing what the maestro had come up with next.
The Twelve Days of Star Wars