Of all the albums of various genres and by different artists that I’ve ever owned, perhaps the one that has most shaped my taste in music is, without a doubt, the original two-disc soundtrack album from George Lucas’ Star Wars. Not only was the 1977 recording a musical keepsake of what became my favorite movie, but it was my first real taste of symphonic thematic material composed in the idioms of the 19th Century Romantic era.
Before I owned the two LP-record set of John Williams’ score for Lucas’ groundbreaking space-fantasy film, I’d had no passion or even much interest for classical music in general; after listening to the album so many times that I wore out two sets of vinyl records and countless cassettes and eight-track tapes, I acquired a taste for music by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and other “serious” composers.
Many of us who go to movies, whether we consciously are aware of it or not, know that one of the key elements of a film’s success is its musical score. While visuals – whether it be the vast vistas of the West in a Clint Eastwood movie or the soft curves of a beautiful woman undressing for a love scene – are what call attention to the audience’s eyes, it’s the soundtrack – dialogue, sound effects, and the musical score – that captures the mind and enhances the emotional impact of whatever it is we are watching. This is just as true in the early 21st Century as it was in the days of the silent movies 100 years ago, when Charlie Chaplin’s comedic antics and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s adventures were accompanied by live pianists at the ritzier movie palaces of the day.
Although there have been many acclaimed composers of film music (Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner, just to name a few), perhaps few others compare to John Williams, who has composed scores for some of the biggest blockbuster films of all time, including Jaws, the first two Jurassic Park movies, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Superman: The Movie, the Indiana Jones series, Saving Private Ryan, and the entire six-film Star Wars saga.
Although Williams had been writing film scores and music for TV shows since the early 1960s, it was Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of novelist Peter Benchley’s Jaws that established the composer as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. And it was Spielberg, in one of the finest contributions the director has ever made to American culture outside of his own pictures, which suggested to George Lucas that John Williams was perfectly suited for the task of composing the score for a new space-fantasy film called Star Wars.
Originally, writer-director Lucas had intended to follow the example of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and use different classical music compositions as underscore, but Williams suggested a more unified and original score would work better. To have used a bit of Gustav Holst’s The Planets here and The Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner there might have been good for a “temp” (temporary) track, but a coherent set of related themes would be better. After all, the characters, situations, and locales in Star Wars were going to be fantastical and otherworldly; music that was brand-new yet sounded somehow familiar would allow audiences to better “get” Lucas’ intergalactic fairy tale.
Of course, now that the soundtrack album from Star Wars has been issued, reissued, and even completely restored over the past two-and-a-half decades. it’s hard to believe that Lucas (who produced the 1977 album) and Williams were taking a tremendous risk in using a symphonic score that borrowed its techniques from Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” specifically the use of “leitmotivs.” (Risky, too, because not only were orchestral scores almost passe, but disco was the hot musical style.) This concept assigns certain musical themes or motifs to characters, places, even abstractions (in Star Wars, for instance, the mystical energy field known as “the Force” has its own motif; more on this later).
Thus, Luke Skywalker has his “hero” theme (known to us simply either as the Star Wars theme or Luke’s Theme), Princess Leia has her reflective, nostalgic, yet resilient theme, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi has the “Force theme” with him, and the evil Darth Vader has a menacing motif known as the “Imperial Theme” that is nothing like the more familiar Imperial March Williams would later compose for Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. There are also themes for the jawas (the small hooded desert scavengers of Tatooine), the Death Star, and a stirring Rebel Fanfare.
All of these motifs will recur throughout the film’s score, becoming as integral to the story as the characters and situations themselves, so much so that a listener can just listen to the score and imagine the heroics of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, the villainy of Grand Moff Tarkin and Lord Vader, the comical-yet-heartwarming friendship between R2-D2 and C-3PO, and the last redeeming quest of a legendary Jedi Knight. Unlike many soundtracks that use 1967’s The Graduate’s “collection of pop songs” approach, the “musical leg” of the Star Wars movies stands alone, capable of conveying Lucas’ timeless tale of the Galactic Civil War almost on its own.
Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack:
CD 1,Track 1: Main Title/: Williams’ signature theme for the Star Wars saga appears, with very slight variations in orchestration, at the beginning of each Episode in the series, even though in the Classic Trilogy this music is often associated with Luke Skywalker. It’s played gloriously as the It is a period of civil war crawl sets up the story of A New Hope. A brief passage of calm music follows the crawl, followed by a frantic rendition of the Rebel Fanfare as Princess Leia’s small starship, the Tantive IV blockade runner, flees from the Star Destroyer Devastator over the desert planet of Tatooine. Although in the film this cue fades off at the 2:41 mark and segues directly to Imperial Attack, John Williams’ arrangement for the 1977 soundtrack combined the Main Title with the End Titles music to give the album a formal overture-like beginning.
CD 1, Track 2: Imperial Attack: This slightly abridged cue underscores the dramatic takeover of the Tantive IV by Darth Vader’s boarding party of Imperial stormtroopers. It begins with a tense timpani-and-strings rhytmic buildup that leads to a darker, gloomier variation of the Rebel Fanfare. After a momentary musical lull and the subtle introduction of the Imperial theme, battle music erupts as the stormtroopers (underscored by the dark Imperial theme) blast their way into the Rebel ship. Williams alternates between the sinister theme he creates for Vader in A New Hope and frantic quotes of the Rebel Fanfare as the stormtroopers quickly overrun the Tantive IV’s contingent of Rebel Fleet Troopers and starts searching for the stolen plans of the Death Star.
Williams also introduces Princess Leia’s Theme and the motif he composed for both Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi and the Force during the scenes where Leia is storing the Death Star plans into R2-D2’s memory banks; the use of Ben’s Theme hints at R2’s secret mission to find and contact the legendary Jedi Knight on the desert planet below. The composer also uses tense thematic material for the capture of Princess Leia, Vader’s torture of Captain Antilles, and a brief burst of strings-and-brass based triumphal music as R2-D2 and his reluctant companion C-3PO blast away in an escape pod. The cue ends with dark menace with the Death Star motif as Vader orders that a detachment of stormtroopers be sent to retrieve the plans while his Star Destroyer heads toward the Empire’s planet-killing battle station.
CD 1: Track 3: Princess Leia’s Theme: One of the three major themes introduced in A New Hope that will recur in at least three other Episodes (including 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith), Williams’ music for Princess Leia reflects not only her beauty but her inner strength and dedication to a noble cause. This track is the concert arrangement recorded for the 1977 2-LP original soundtrack album; its melody is presented in a classic theme-and-minor-variations structure, played (in turn) by horn, flute, and violins, with connecting passages by woodwinds. It ends with a wonderful full-orchestra crescendo that leads to a poignant violin solo.
CD 1: Track 4: 4. The Desert and the Robot Auction: This 2:55 cue is a combination of tracks from two different scenes from the first act of Star Wars. The Desert is a quiet atmospheric piece that conveys the vast expanse of Tatooine’s sandy and sun-baked desert wastes and is heard as C-3PO wanders alone in the Dune Sea after arguing with R2-D2 about which direction they should take following their escape pod’s crash landing. The second half, The Robot Auction, showcases the theme for the Jawas as they hustle and bustle in and around their giant tracked sandcrawler as they park near Owen Lars’ moisture farm and set up a quick and dirty droid sale. The purposeful-yet-playful Jawa theme segues into the Main Theme as Luke Skywalker makes his first appearance in the film, played warmly by the London Symphony’s horn and string sections.
CD 1: Track 5: Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack: Although in the first drafts of the screenplay Obi-Wan Kenobi was supposed to survive in order to train Luke as a Jedi, George Lucas realized that once the Rebels escaped from the Death Star with the Princess and the stolen plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the powerful Jedi Master would be relegated to the background with nothing to do while Luke and the other Rebel pilots went off on the last battle To solve the thorny issue of how to keep Kenobi relevant yet avoid this dramatic misstep, Lucas decided to have Obi-Wan let himself be cut down by Vader’s lightsaber so he can join with “the living Force” and become Luke’s spirit guide.
The cue begins, obviously, with a melancholic rendition of Ben’s Theme as he looks one last time at Luke and salutes Vader with his lightsaber, then disappears (except for his Jedi cloak) when his former Padawan strikes him down. Williams then uses Princess Leia’s theme to underscore Luke and the Princess’ stunned reaction and sudden grief, then adds a frantic quote from the Rebel Fanfare as the heroes scramble aboard the Millennium Falcon and make a quick exit from the Death Star’s hangar bay.
After a mournful reprise of Ben’s Theme, Williams builds up the tension level as he introduces TIE Fighter Attack, a highly energetic cue that uses the Rebel Fanfare as its basis and fits perfectly into the sequence where Han and Luke trade laser barrages with four Imperial TIE fighters sent out by the Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, to ensure that the Rebels’ escape doesn’t look too easy. Reminiscent of music from 1930s Errol Flynn pirate movies, TIE Fighter Attack is fast paced and has a certain tongue-in-cheek essence that makes this one of the most fun and exciting cues in the album.
CD 1, Track 6: The Little People Work: This is the bulk of the music heard whenever the jawas are in the film, and is actually thematic material that appears in Star Wars before the second half of Track 4. Here, Williams underscores the abduction of R2-D2 by the small desert scavengers and his eventual reunion with C-3PO. As in The Robot Auction, Williams’ theme for the jawas is playful yet indicates their restless traders’ nature. The 4:04 track ends on an ominous note as Williams brings back the Imperial theme; stormtroopers have found the escape pod and found evidence that droids were aboard.
CD 1, Track 7: Rescue of the Princess: This track contains nearly five minutes of the exciting music composed for the rescue of Princess Leia aboard the Death Star. Starting with the thematic material heard in the shootout after Luke springs the Princess from Cell 2187, it then shifts to the cue that underscores Han and Chewbacca’s diversionary chase of a squad of stormtroopers and the “swing to freedom” by Luke and Leia across a chasm deep inside the Imperial space station. The chase music briefly returns, but the track ends on a quiet yet ominous note as Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi encounters Darth Vader near Docking Bay 327.
CD 1, Track 8: Inner City: This is another combination of cues from very different scenes in Star Wars; the first half, titled on John Williams’ score as “Is It a Bird?” is heard when Han Solo’s starship and our band of heroes are dragged aboard the Death Star by a powerful tractor beam. Here Williams uses a cold, remorseless, almost mechanical theme to highlight the Empire’s technological terror as it draws the Millennium Falcon into Docking Bay 327, then highlights the Rebel Fanfare to reflect the good guys’ resourcefulness and bravery as they hide in the ship’s hidden compartments.
The second half is mostly mood music heard in a previous sequence set on Tatooine as Ben, Luke, and the droids make their way to Mos Eisley’s spaceport area, attempting to avoid Imperial patrols and to reach Docking Bay 94, where the Falcon is waiting to take them to Alderaan. Ben’s theme is featured prominently, and tension is built up by Williams’ use of string-and-woodwind passages that lead first to a stately rendition of the Main Theme, then to a brassy flourish when Kenobi, Luke, and the droids catch their first sight of Han Solo’s battered starship.
CD 1, Track 9: Cantina Band: For the Mos Eisley cantina scene’s “source” music (material that is actually part of the movie’s action, such as a live band playing close to the characters), composer Williams went back to his jazz performer’s roots to when he was young Johnny Williams and composed this lively and famous Benny Goodman-like piece. Williams assembled an inpromptu band of nine musicians, most of them coming from the world of jazz. Cantina Band boasts an impressive array of musical instruments, including a trumpet, two saxophones, a sax that doubled on clarinet, a Caribbean steel drum, and an Arp synthesizer. According to Williams’ comments on the original liner notes, “I scored it so they would sound a little bit strange, almost familiar but not quite. We filtered them so that it clips the bottom end of the sound. We attenuated the low end a little bit and reverbed them so that it slightly thins them out.”
CD 2, Track 1: Land of the Sandpeople: This almost three minute-long track is an abridged presentation of the music heard when Luke Skywalker and C-3PO find a runaway R2-D2 but are attacked by the vicious Tusken Raiders (Sand People) before they can get the little robot on Luke’s landspeeder. It starts with a travel-motif with bouncing brasses, with a fast rendition of the Main Theme. This suddenly gives way to a brutal percussion-heavy bit of underscore as the Sand People attack, which in turn segues to a quiet interval which highlights a warm rendition of Ben’s Theme as Ben Kenobi makes his first onscreen appearance.
CD 2, Track 2: Mouse Robot and Blasting Off: Here two cues from different scenes of the film are blended out of chronological order. Mouse Robot is heard in the scenes that lead up to the rescue of Princess Leia from her cell aboard the Death Star; it’s moody, tense, and contains quotes of the Main Theme as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca make their way to the detention area. At the two-minute mark, just where the music would lead to the first half of The Last Battle (Track 6), it segues backwards to the two-minute-plus cue Blasting Off, the exciting underscore to the Millennium Falcon’s liftoff from Mos Eisley Spaceport and the ensuing chase by three Star Destroyers.
CD 2, Track 3: The Return Home: Starting with mournful woodwinds as Ben and Luke discover that stormtroopers have destroyed a Jawa sandcrawler while searching for R2-D2, the cue becomes more tense as Luke realizes his aunt and uncle are in peril; a desperate-sounding “travel motif” underscores Luke’s return home, only to segue into a particularly poignant rendition of Ben’s/The Force theme as young Skywalker confronts the burning homestead. The Force theme is then replaced by a sinister Imperial theme as Darth Vader enters Princess Leia’s cell in the Death Star detention block with a spherical interrogation droid.
CD 2: Track 4: The Walls Converge: This is perhaps the most atonal, non-thematic piece in the score; relentless, driving, and contrasting starkly with the rest of the score, this 4:35 cue is heard when Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are trapped inside a trash compactor in the Death Star’s detention area. Where the rest of the music is more in the 19th Century Romantic idiom, The Walls Converge is evocative of music by Bela Bartok, very 20th Century, very post-modern.
CD 2, Track 5: The Princess Appears: Appropriately, this track features tense string-and-woodwind passages of Princess Leia’s theme as Luke Skywalker stumbles across her recorded plea of “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” while he cleans R2-D2; the track then segues to a gentle quote of Luke’s Theme and a stately rendition of Ben’s Theme as the young moisture farmer watches Tatooine’s twin suns setting as he quietly ponders his future. The Rebel Fanfare is briefly quoted by woodwinds, foreshadowing, perhaps, Luke’s future with the Rebel Alliance, then ends again with Ben’s Theme as Luke and C-3PO discuss the issue of searching for a now-runaway R2-D2, who has gone off to look for Obi-Wan Kenobi.
CD 2, Track 6: The Last Battle: This is another combination “cut, copy, paste” track that blends music from three different scenes in Star Wars. The first two minutes contain the cue later called Detention Block Shootout, with brassy quotes of the Main Theme and the Rebel Fanfare underscoring the chaotic shootout in the Death Star’s Detention Block AA-23 between the trio of Han, Luke, and Chewie and a small contingent of Imperial stormtroopers as the rescue of Princess Leia gets underway. Then there is a long atmospheric riff as Ben makes his way to the tractor beam controls deep inside the Death Star, then it’s back to the rescue of Leia (up to the part where Han and Chewie go chasing after the stormtroopers. At the 4:22 mark, the music finally gets to the dramatic underscore of the space dogfight between the Rebels’ X- and Y-wings and the Empire’s TIE fighters.
Here, John Williams uses music reminscent not only of war films peppered with quotes of the Main Theme, the Imperial theme, the motif for the Force, and the Rebel Fanfare, but also hints of old cavalry-to-the rescue motifs – odd, but very exciting musical material, to be sure. Williams raises the tension level in the two minutes, using the Force theme in a sweeping manner as Luke flies his X-wing fighter down the Death Star trench to fire his torpedoes at the exhaust port that is the battle station’s weak spot. Listen closely for a nervous rendition of the Main Theme played against threatening timpani as Luke gets ready to shoot just as the Death Star’s main weapon is being primed to fire at the Rebel base.
CD 2, Track 7: Throne Room/End Titles: The final two cues mark the start of a technique used in all the subsequent Episodes in the Star Wars saga – the mostly musical coda that incorporates, in some fashion, the theme for Ben/the Force and a musical recap of major themes over the end titles. In this case, a wonderful brass fanfare segues to Ben’s theme in a triumphal march mode; the fanfare is then repeated, giving way to a “pomp and circumstance” motif as Leia awards medals to Han and Luke, whose theme briefly recurs before the new melody reprises one last time. Then, as the image on screen irises out to the credits, Luke’s theme returns, then the Rebel Fanfare kicks in gloriously as a lead-in to complete performances of both Luke and Leia’s theme. The track ends with a final reprise of the Rebel Fanfare played by the string section, concluding with a brief quotation of the Throne Room motif.
Reflections: As good as this 2-record set was when I first owned it at the age of 15, and as great as the music still sounds, the Original Soundtrack from 1977 always sounded as though it was a sampler from the Star Wars score rather than being the complete collection of music composed and conducted by John Williams for the first of what ended up being six Episodes. Even when I was 15 and not very well-versed in the arcane art of film scores, I knew (having read the liner notes) that the tracks were not arranged in chronological order and that some of the music had been left out of the album altogether.
Nevertheless, for almost 20 years this version of the Academy Award-winning Star Wars score was the best-selling orchestral soundtrack album, and it was released in every recording format – LP, eight-track, cassette, and compact disc – until 1990 or so. And until 1994, when I bought the Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology box set, this was the only version of the John Williams/London Symphony Orchestra recording I owned. And even though I have purchased the more complete 1997 and 2004 re-issues, this 2-CD set is still one of my sentimental favorites, not only because it was my first step into the larger world of film scores and classical music, but because it is a musical time capsule that reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager who was entranced by the heroes and villains who inhabit that “galaxy far, far away….”
Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack (1977): Track List
Compact Disc One:
1. Main Title
2. Imperial Attack
3. Princess Leia’s Theme
4. The Desert and the Robot Auction
5. Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack
6. The Little People Work
7. Rescue of the Princess
8. Inner City
9. Cantina Band
Compact Disc Two:
1. The Land of the Sandpeople
2. Mouse Robot and Blasting Off
3. The Return Home
4. The Walls Converge
5. The Princess Appears
6. The Last Battle
7. The Throne Room and End Title