The use of Leitmotiv in the music of the Star Wars films
John Williams was commissioned by George Lucas to provide music for his 1977 epic space opera Star Wars with the explicit intent that Williams should provide the audience with accessible music to counter the effect of the otherwise strange setting of the film.
With this in mind, Williams went out of his way to provide a number of overarching melodic themes throughout the first film (A New Hope) which became a recognisable part of the Star Wars brand and culture. This development was primarily the result of Williams’ strong use of leitmotiv (or leitmotif), enabling the audience to immediately place a character or scene in a situation that no audience had ever seen before, those spanning multiple planets and social settings such as approaching the Death Star or meeting alien races.
Although he didn’t conceive either the concept, having been used previously by such names as Verdi, Mozart and Berlioz (with his idée fixe), or the name (the name being first attributed to the Austrian composer August Wilhelm Ambros), the idea of leitmotiv is most commonly associated with the work of Richard Wagner and, in particular, his Ring Cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung) of 1876.
In its most fundamental form, a leitmotiv (leading motif or representational theme) is a musical phrase or theme which is heard when a character or setting is encountered in the performance or when a character is to be recalled or referenced in the flow of the scene for the benefit of the audience. The leitmotiv is played when the character is introduced and on every other recurrence. Wagner took this idea and used it in his Ring Cycle not only to reference the players on stage but to pass information to the audience that the characters may not know (such as the identity of a disguised actor), to suggest the presence of players that remain unseen or to allow the story to connect to earlier events. Wagner also combined leitmotivs to connect concepts and arranged the themes so that dramatically connected ideas or characters have connected leitmotivs.
The treatment of the concept under Wagner was expansive with leitmotivs representing most of the content on stage, people, places, concepts and emotions and this allowed him to create a score which the audience could directly associate with the story in what Wagner called the Music Drama.
The term Space Opera was first recognised in 1941 as a derogatory term belittling what was seen as low-brow drama for radio but it fitted the idea of Lucas’ Star Wars epic perfectly and John Williams took advantage.
From the very first bars of the film we’re given a theme which not only encompasses the man who we learn to be the protagonist of the whole saga (in the third film of the original series) but the idea of what that character stands for, believes in and comes to represent. Williams uses this theme to represent both the film itself and Luke Skywalker who is the only remaining Jedi and the last bastion of all that is good and true with The Force (an energy field which connects all living things). The music as a theme for the film is uplifting, positive, heroic and faintly martial, clearly promising adventure. As we progress, the theme for the film becomes the leitmotiv for Luke and we don’t hear it again in such a strident manner unless Luke is carrying out some feat of derring-do or until the final titles. At all other times it’s pushed toward the back of the score, hinting and reminding, suggesting that this boy might be more important than is immediately apparent, and this is in line with the work of Wagner. When Luke’s theme is played we’re assured that the story is unfolding to the benefit of the Rebel Alliance (the “good” side) and when the primary theme is bought back to represent the force it’s used in much the same way that Wagner uses and reuses the Sword theme in the Ring Cycle, changing and being reused in accordance with the plot. After just a few exposures and iterations we come to realise that Luke and The Force are one and the same through the shared leitmotiv.
Although there are a number of leitmotivs running throughout the whole film series, some are used more obviously than others. Williams doesn’t combine and contrast in the same way that Wagner did and in this respect one might suggest that the modern piece is a more basic construct, being used purely to represent the more elemental aspects of the drama. An example of this would be the Imperial March, also known as Darth Vader’s theme. As Luke’s leitmotiv represents all that is hopeful and true in the in the form of Luke and The Force, the Imperial March represents both Darth Vader as an individual and the oppressive Galactic Empire as an entity in direct opposition.
When Wagner was composing the Ring Cycle it was for an audience that were appreciative of the achievement in academic as well as purely artistic terms. It was a time of both dramatic musical development and of an audience (however small that audience might have been) that understood what he was trying to achieve. Wagner’s work was the whole of the thing, not created as a supportive structure. If we were to take away the libretto we would still have a good idea as to the feelings and structure of the performance.
Williams’ work was created to add substance and atmosphere to a story which works just as well in book format as it does on screen. In contrast to the Ring Cycle it was composed explicitly to support and underline the action of the film so in that respect it isn’t really comparable. Williams’ work clearly draws on that of Wagner in the use of leitmotiv but Wagner gave himself much greater scope to develop the themes as a primary method of communication and as a more complex, involved and comprehensive composition tool it’s clearly superior, if a little less accessible to those outside the ivory towers of Grand or Romantic opera.