John Williams was born in 1932 in Queens, New York. He is still alive today. He is most well known as one of the greatest film score composers of all time. A film score is music that is played during a movie to help illustrate the feel of the movie.
John Williams has written some of the most memorable film scores, including Star Wars (all six movies), Superman, Schindler's List, Raiders of the Lost Ark (all four Indiana Jones movies), and, most recently, Harry Potter. He has received 45 Academy Award nominations, which makes him the second-most nominated individual of all time (first is Walt Disney).
John Williams is famous for using a musical technique called leitmotif (pronounced "LITE-moh-TEEF"). This is a German word that means "leading motif" or "leading theme". The idea is that the music helps tell the story. Each major character is given a theme. This is a little melody that attempts to capture the essence of the character. Often, you will hear that melody again later in the story and it will reflect what's happening to the character or how the character is feeling. For example, if the theme is normally happy and bright, but the character, at this point in the story, is sad, you may hear a slower, sadder version of the same theme. This method was popularized in the mid-1800s by a German composer name Richard Wagner (pronounced "REE-hkard VAHG-nair"). He used leitmotif in his operas to help tell the story. More on him next month.
I vividly remember being seven years old and riding to the East Towne Cinema in Madison, WI with my parents, my sister Barb, and my brother Jay to see this new movie: Star Wars. I don't think that any movie has impacted me as much as this film has. I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the bright blue glare of a light saber. I can remember the excitement I felt watching space battles. But most of all, I can clearly remember how captivated I was by the music I was hearing. There are times even today where listening to certain Star Wars themes makes me a little emotional.
I have a few assignments for you this month, but they're all fairly short. You have three pieces to listen to, a fun theme guessing game, and a final piece.
Main Title from Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
You can't study the music of Star Wars without starting at the very beginning. In May of 1977, the world was introduced to Star Wars by first hearing this music. It is just over 2 minutes long. Enjoy!
Cantina Band from Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
In Episode IV, George Lucas introduced us to a weird cantina (also known as a "bar" or "tavern") in Mos Eisley. It was filled with weird creatures from all over the galaxy, but it was also home to a swinging band. I remember dancing to this with my brothers and sisters when I was 8 years old. As weird and as "spacey" as this music may sound, it's mostly saxophones and steel drums.
The Imperial March ("Darth Vader's Theme") from Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
This is hands down the most memorable piece of music in all of the music of Star Wars. Something that a lot of people forget, though, is that this piece did not appear until the second Star Wars film (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back). Millions of people know that when they hear this theme, Darth Vader is approaching.
Here is a great example of leitmotif. In Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader lay dying, the last thing you hear quietly piercing through the silence is a harp playing the theme of Darth Vader. It is played much quieter and in a much higher key. It's almost as if it represents his spirit leaving his body. Listen.
Excerpt from Darth Vader's Death from Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Star Wars: Guess the Theme
Each of these themes lasts about 30 seconds. Click on the link and listen to the theme. Make a guess as to who or what that theme represents. Then, click on the answer, and see if you were right!
For those of you who have seen the Star Wars movies, try closing your eyes and listening to the theme. Who do you picture? You'd be surprised what your brain subtly remembers.
That last theme is triumphantly portrayed at the very end of Episode IV. This music plays during an award ceremony, celebrating the victory of Luke, Han, and Chewbacca. This piece is about five and a half minutes long, as at the end of the ceremony, it breaks into the ending credits music. Take a listen. How many different themes are reintroduced?
For those interested, all of these recordings were performed by the London Philharmonic conducted by John Williams and were taken from the Original Soundtrack Recordings.
John Williams is an absolute musical genius. It would not be at all out of line to count him with some of Western music's greatest composers: J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Williams. It is my prayer that when my children or grandchildren may be studying music in High School or College, that they will study the many marvelous works of John Williams. And if not, I'll have to teach them myself!
The music from Star Wars particularly inspires me. "The Imperial March" (better known as "Darth Vader's Theme") is probably my favorite of all the themes. It's so powerful and dark. Still, nothing starts moving my head faster than the "Cantina Band". I actually went out of my way to learn to play that piece (well, a really easy arrangement of it) on the piano when I was 8 or 9. And the powerful and triumphant march at the end of Star Wars Episode IV still moves me to this day.
Possibly the best extra credit assignment I could give you is to watch the Star Wars movies. This time, though, pay careful attention to the themes that you hear. Listen to the variations of the main themes. Hear how they help tell the story.
There are so many wonderful pieces of music throughout the Star Wars saga. We've really only scratched the surface. I thought I'd include a few more favorites for your enjoyment:
Cantina Band #2 from Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
While "Cantina Band" is my favorite, Cantina Band #2 is still a fun little jazzy tune. Much more clarinet in this one.
Lapti Nek from Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
In Return of the Jedi, Jabba the Hutt's palace features a long-mouthed female vocalist named Sy Snootles. In the movie, she sings a song called "Lapti Nek". This recording was done by the artist as a preliminary draft. This was not used in the film, but this was the working draft that was sung in the correct language. Notice that there's a lot more screaming. Also, even though this movie was released in 1983, there's still an obvious disco influence.
Ewok Celebration/Finale from Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
When Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, the film ended with a celebration on the moon of Endor. Ewoks were joyfully singing an anthem we knew as "Yub Yub" (which seemed to be the all-purpose catch-phrase of their native tongue). When George Lucas released the Special Edition in 1997, John Williams was asked to write a different ending theme. While that has it's charm as well, I still remember being 12 years old and enjoying the "Yub Yub" song in the Watertown theater. For nostalgia's sake, here it is.
Star Wars Cantina by Mark Jonathan Davis
And finally, I give you a song that was never used in any of the Star Wars movies, nor was it written by John Williams. It's a parody of the Barry Manilow song "Copacabana". For those who know the Star Wars movies well, I think you'll find this particularly hilarious. Enjoy!