|John Williams conducting the Star Wars score|
John Williams, Richard Wagner and the Death Star motif
John Williams’ score for Star Wars contains a higher count of memorable themes than you might find in a dozen other films of its era.
As we’ve discussed before, Williams was triumphantly bringing back a tradition of film scoring that people might have thought had gone for good. Just like the composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, he was drawing on influences from the 19th century. In particular, he was using the tradition of leitmotif found in the operas of Richard Wagner, by assigning themes or musical fragments to a host of characters or ideas.
The main Star Wars theme is essentially Luke Skywalker’s theme. Princess Leia gets her own theme. Obi-Wan Kenobi has a theme, also known as the Force Theme – which is, in fact, the motif that’s heard most often in the movie. And there is a fanfare for the Rebels, which is used early on and is never far away.
All of those themes were woven into the score and would be repeated and varied in the sequels and prequels. The first film also contained some melodies that were specific to individual scenes or episodes – the music for the Jawas, for example. But there are two themes, or at least leitmotifs, in the movie that would never be heard again.
One is the theme associated with Darth Vader and the Empire. We’ll consider that one in the near future. But the other is a simple, four-note phrase that helps lend the film its old-fashioned atmosphere. It’s the theme associated with the Death Star.
Star Wars’ Death Star theme
|Big enough to get its own theme: the Death Star|
Calling the Death Star music a theme might be overdoing it, seeing as it consists only of four chords. In his own comments in the sleeve notes to the 1977 Star Wars soundtrack LP, John Williams lists it last among his themes. “In addition, I composed a short motif for the Imperial forces’ ultimate weapon, Death Star,” he said.
The motif is mainly used when the film changes scene and the action moves to the Death Star, which is partly why it’s so memorable. When we’ve been absorbed in another plot strand, the orchestra suddenly reminds us of the peril that our characters are really in from a planet-destroying space station.
While it may not be the most subtle piece of music Williams has ever written, that’s part of its appeal. When we hear that theme, Star Wars is in Flash Gordon mode more than ever. Those notes announce to us that the villains are still in their lair, scheming against the heroes, and that what we’re really watching is high adventure in the tradition of classical Hollywood.
The six appearances of the Death Star motif
|The Millennium Falcon's jump into hyperspace|
We only hear the Death Star motif half a dozen times, but it makes a big impact each time.
1. The Star Destroyer leaves Tatooine.In fact, the first appearance of the music is the only time it does not accompany a shot of the Death Star itself. It comes at the end of the opening action on the Imperial star destroyer, after Darth Vader orders his officers to send a detachment to Tatooine to find the Death Star plans. “There’ll be no one to stop us this time,” says Vader, as the film cuts to a shot of the Star Destroyer heading away from Tatooine.
At this point, I’ll quote from possibly the most useful guide to the music of Star Wars. I’m talking about the liner notes written by Mike Matessino for the 1997 release of the expanded soundtrack albums. That release, to coincide with the release of the films’ Special Editions, was by RCA Victor, and although Sony Classical later released the same CDs, sadly they no longer came with Mike’s notes.
In his commentary on the opening action cue, Imperial Attack, he writes: “The piece concludes with the introduction of the four-chord Death Star motif as the Imperial Star Destroyer pulls out of orbit over Tatooine. This indicates the warship’s destination and musically identifies the major threat of the film. However, since the death Star has not yet become a visual reality, the first statement of the motif fades away on an unresolved chord, setting the tone for the ensuing desert-based action.”
2. Our first sight of the Death Star.The theme next appears after the scene in Ben Kenobi’s home, when Obi-Wan urges Luke to come with him to Alderaan and Luke hesitates. “You must do what you feel is right, of course,” says Kenobi slightly slyly – at which point, the film demonstrates what’s at stake by cutting to our first shot of the Death Star. Williams emphasises this moment with a big statement of the Death Star motif as a Star Destroyer is dwarfed by the battle station.
Luke is given the push he needs to join Obi-Wan when his family are wiped out by Imperial troops. At this grimmest of times for Skywalker, the film cuts from his burning homestead to the Death Star, where Princess Leia is about to be interrogated. It’s the ideal time for a big rendition of the Death Star motif to reiterate how bleak things are looking for the good guys.
3. Luke’s family is destroyed and we cut back to the Death Star.
4. The escape from Mos Eisley and the jump to hyperspace.The Millennium Falcon’s blast-off from Mos Eisley and jump to hyperspace was one of the most exhilarating scenes audiences of 1977 had ever seen – the perfect fusion of effects, editing and music. This is one moment when Williams uses the Death Star motif to remind us that our heroes are very far from being out of the woods. In fact, the moment when the Falcon goes to light speed and the stars turn into streaks of white is the very instant when Williams states the Death Star motif again. The theme covers the transition to the battle station, where Leia is about to face a trial even worse than interrogation.
5. The escape from the Death Star.The Falcon’s tangle with the sentry ships as it escapes the Death Star is an action sequence good enough to be the climax of any traditional movie. It’s another superb combination of high-speed cutting and superb scoring. It’s so exhilarating that the audience might think (as I did, at ten years old) that the movie was over now – but of course, the Rebels are still in danger.
Mike Matessino’s notes on the sequence put it like this: “A crescendo is reached with the Death Star motif, which brilliantly carries the drama into its final act by musically reminding the audience that the real battle is still to come.”
6. “Look at the size of that thing”: the last use of the Death Star theme.The last time we hear the Death Star motif is at the moment most of the Rebel pilots take their first look at the battle station. “Look at the size of that thing,” says Wedge, memorably.
At that point, Williams is embarking on an incredible feat of scoring. The closing scenes of the film see him weaving together Luke’s theme (played in a minor key to emphasise his peril), the Force theme and the Rebel fanfare, along with a host of new material to follow every beat of the movie’s climax. The Death Star theme, meanwhile, has served its purpose, and will never be used again.
Hear all the appearances of the Star Wars Death Star theme
On the Special Edition soundtrack album, you’ll find them on these tracks: 'Imperial Attack' (CD 1, track 3), 'Tales of a Jedi/Learn About the Force' (CD1, track 8), 'Burning Homestead' (CD1, track 9), 'Millennium Falcon/Imperial Pursuit' (CD2, track 2), 'Ben Kenobi’s Death/Tie Fighter Attack' (CD2, track 9) and 'The Battle of Yavin' (CD 2, track 10).
Next time: The music that Williams originally called Darth Vader’s Theme.