A New Hope in Film Music…

John Williams ‘Star Wars – Main Title’

Saturday 5 March 1977, Anvil Studios, Denham, England.  Sometime after the union-designated lunch break the London Symphony Orchestra performed the Star Wars ‘Main Title’ for the very first time.  Can you imagine it?  The first time that fanfare in B flat major was ever heard in all its triumphant and sparkling glory? It was followed by a march that somehow encapsulated the romance and thrill of adventure, one that almost forty years on is now truly beloved and held in sacred regard by studio musicians and sci-fi fanboys (and girls) alike. 

Of course at that moment, on a Saturday afternoon in 1977, the true impact of what composer John Williams had written was yet to be fully appreciated, but his theme – and wider original score for George Lucas’ film – was quickly heard as a breath of fresh air for Hollywood film music, albeit by means of a revival.

In the two decades prior to Star Wars, the sound of movies had changed.  The golden age of the film score had faded to black and with the advent of the music chart and Rock and Roll, film producers saw a new way for movie music.  Suddenly film songs, and soundtracks, were a source of additional income and the composers were increasingly being asked to create scores that reflected the times.  The likes of Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, John Barry and Quincey Jones led the way with fusion scores, featuring jazz rhythm sections, sensibilities that were distinctly ‘pop’, and a hit song added for good measure.  John Williams himself penned his fair share of these scores in the 1960s (when he was credited as ‘Johnny’ Williams), but having played in studio orchestras in the early 1950s for some of the great composers, he had a good grounding in the more traditional approaches to film scoring.

Of course orchestras played their part in film music right through the 60s and 70s – with composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein creating vital film scores like Papillon, The Omen, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (to name a small number).  Williams, having dropped the name ‘Johnny’ seemingly in line with taking on more serious film scoring projects, delivered barnstorming scores for films such as The Towering Inferno and Jaws (for which he won an Oscar).  With Star Wars, though, it wasn’t merely a case of creating a fully symphonic score, but more the application and function of the music.  It was, in short, a return to the form and structure of classic Hollywood film scores which themselves borrowed from opera scores.  Both employ the ‘Leitmotif’ form, whereby characters and scenarios are given distinctive themes or motifs, which return and mark out their presence in the unfolding story for ease of understanding who is who and what is what.

Williams ‘Main Title’ (i.e. the music that accompanies the film’s beginning title sequence) is in fact Luke Skywalker’s theme, the hero’s ‘leitmotif’ and while it used as the film’s signature if you will, it actually follows Luke’s journey in that first film from farm boy to rebel hero, changing and evolving along with the character.  The version we hear at the start of the film is full-blooded, bold and heroic – a taste of things to come, but when we first meet Luke it’s plaintive and a little sultry. It’s that full-blooded anthem that we have come to know and love, however, inspiring audiences at concerts to whoop and cheer from the first few bars of that blasting fanfare.  It also precedes each and every Star Wars film, just as it did for the 1977 original.

Thirty-nine years after it first knocked cinema audiences for six, the Star Wars ‘Main Title’ has become an old friend, a perennial favourite; the opening notes as familiar and beloved as those of Beethoven’s mighty Fifth Symphony.

Michael Beek
Film Music Journalist

Never heard it live? Experience it at Colston Hall on Saturday 11 June with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and on Saturday 23 July with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.