Star Wars Origins - Music and Leitmotivs
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Lucas originally intended to use classical music for the soundtrack, as Kubrick had done with 2001; A Space Odyssey. He assembled a "temp score" from his favorite orchestral pieces. John Williams convinced Lucas to allow him to compose original music, preserving the feel of the temp tracks while also creating an overall musical cohesion and unique musical identity for the film. A few of William's pieces are close enough to their inspirations that one can make a good guess which pieces he worked from. For instance:

Star Wars
Inspiration
Main Title Theme
Main Title Theme from the 1942 film King's Row, scored by Eric Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Imperial Attack
(aka Darth Vader's Theme)
Mars, the Bringer of War, from the orchestral suite The Planets by Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
The Dune Sea of Tatooine The soundtrack to Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, 1947), scored by Alessandro Cicognini (1906-?)
Tales of a Jedi Knight/Learn About the Force (aka The Force Theme, Ben's Theme) The score from the Swan Lake ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Duel of the Fates Part I of Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World) from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1895-1982)

The 'Net is thick with theories on Williams' additional possible inspirations. I don't have the time, ability or inclination to pursue this further, but if you're interested in researching this yourself, rumored inspirations include: Stravinsky (possibly his Sacred Choral Works and I think I hear some Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) when the Sandpeople are about), Bartok (rumored to influence the Sandpeople/Jawa sequence, possibly from one of his concertos for piano and orchestra), Prokofiev, Varese, Schoenberg, Ives, Franz Waxman (score to 1954 version of Prince Valiant), Walton and Mendelssohn. The Throne Room Theme is rumored to be influenced by Coronation March, by Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934), by I don't hear it. Also maybe Miklos Rosza's score for the 1959 film Ben-Hur and the Star Wars End Title is rumored to draw from Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No.9 in e, Op.95 'From The New World': I. Adagio-Allegro Molto. Korngold is a huge influence on Williams overall, and there are probably at least a few more Korngold-y moments in Star Wars. If you come up with anything juicy, I'm sure other Star Wars fans would love to hear about it.

GeekNote: Someone pointed out to me that the celebration music at the end of Phantom Menace, Augie's Municipal Band, is basically a sped-up version of the Emperor's Throne Room from Return of the Jedi, and the point is to remind us that Palpatine was the real winner of the movie. I can't hear it myself, but it would make sense!

GeekNote II: The first movement of Carmina Burana is "Oh, Fortuna" ("Oh, fate!" As in, "Oh, fate! Why must you be so capricious and unfair?"). Jabba's major domo (the guy who arranges his appointments) is named "Bib Fortuna."

Leitmotivs

A leitmotiv is a musical theme which represents a character or idea, a technique found most often in Operas. For example: if we hear a certain melody each time the villain appears onstage, then we hear the same melody the first time the hero finds a magic ring, we are alerted that the magic ring is somehow associated with the villain - that melody is the villain's leitmotiv. Once an audience has learned the set of leitmotivs used in an opera, a composer can suggest complex and subtle relationships between characters and ideas by playing those leitmotivs at different tempos, with different instruments and in different combinations. Leitmotivs are particularly effective because people tend to have a much stronger emotional reaction to information conveyed through music than the same information conveyed through spoken word.

The leitmotiv is most often associated with the German composer Richard Wagner. He didn't invent the leitmotiv, but he developed the idea far beyond what had been done before. His famous tetralogy of operas Der Ring des Nibelungen (also called The Ring Cycle) is one of the most influential works of art in history, inspiring all Opera since it was first produced in 1876, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and countless other works.

Leitmotivs made the jump from opera to film soundtracks shortly after the invention of motion pictures, notably in the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (check out 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn). This tradition died out sometime in the '50s, as film studios discovered that soundtrack albums featuring contemporary pop music require less work and make more money. George Lucas and John Williams consciously reintroduced the leitmotiv-based orchestral soundtrack to American cinema with Star Wars. In fact, most of the leitmotivs in Star Wars bear more than a passing resemblance to comparable leitmotivs from Wagner's operas. For a detailed analysis including audio samples, check out Kristian Evensen's extremely well-researched comparison of Star Wars to Wagner's Ring Cycle.

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