John Williams and The Force Awakens

by Glenn on January 23, 2016

Our local Regal Cinemas has a $5 Tuesday night special, which was enough incentive to get us out of the house on a dark, cold, wet, and windy Portland evening (I guess we could just call it a Tuesday in January) to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I thoroughly enjoyed especially because of the music.

I had been feeling rather blasé about the first installment of the third Star Wars trilogy, but recently got inspired by an episode of Great Performances featuring the music of John Williams, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and, in an encore (spoiler), John Williams.

You forget what a master artist Williams is. Whether it’s a score for screen or a “legit” performance piece, his music his thoroughly listenable. And the music originally composed for the screen doesn’t require visual images to remain compelling. When I heard good reviews of the new Star Wars film, I wanted to see (and hear) it. (The morning before we went, I woke up with the Star Wars “Fanfare” in my head. Just strange how the subconscious works.)

I am of that generation that was a kid when the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes 4–6) came out and remember being captured by it all, especially John Williams’ score, which I purchased and listened to umpteen times.

As a 14-year-old in 1977, I didn’t understand how Williams tied into the Western orchestral tradition with his late-(or neo-)Romantic style. I just knew that the music affected me emotionally and the tunes stayed with me. I couldn’t have explained the concept of a leitmotif, then, but I think I appreciated that the music was part of the storytelling.

That appreciation has only grown, although I believe the consensus opinion is that, music aside, the next trilogy of Stars Wars films (Episodes 1–3) wasn’t very good, mostly because special effects overwhelmed the storyline. When episodes 1–3 came out, there was a part of me that wanted to rekindle that wonder of childhood that came with those original films. But when I saw them and wasn’t inspired, still the music grabbed me. (The explanation offered, that the films were meant for kids and I was now an adult whose imagination couldn’t be fired by them, didn’t feel right. It’s been years since I’ve seen the original Episodes (4–6) and I’ll be interested to see how I respond to them when I see them again at this stage of life.)

It was such a relief to watch The Force Awakens and feel caught up again. There’s something that feels possibly a little too familiar at the beginning of the film—a droid is given important information that will help the good people if the bad people don’t get it first (déjà vu all over again), but I want to see the film again, which wasn’t true of Episodes 1–3. I’ll think more about the story at another time. Right now I’m relishing the music.

There was the briefest moment right at the top of the film where the music didn’t feel quite right. I thought, “This doesn’t sound like the London Symphony Orchestra.” Turns out it wasn’t the London Symphony Orchestra, which wasn’t bad, just not what I was expecting. As I’ve had occasion to listen to the soundtrack now through headphones, I’m wondering if the quality of the sound reproduction in the room—all the sound was right up front without much space—was what threw me off. The LA-based freelance orchestra that recorded the soundtrack is phenomenal. There are horn solos in “Finn’s Confession” and “Maz’s Counsel” that are gorgeous, although is there a little pianissimo woodwind supporting the horn in the latter? The horn playing seems impossibly smooth. It’s either extraordinary playing or genius orchestrating—could be both, I suppose.

It’s easy to accuse Williams of being derivative. You play “tune detective” and notice how a theme sounds like something from the classical canon or other film composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann.

Someone has taken time to compare John Williams’ soundtrack for Star Wars with Erich Korngold’s for King’s Row.

But Alex Ross in an article for The New Yorker, points out that in spite of an opening that sounds like Korngold, the melody for Star Wars goes to a different place. He thinks it sounds like Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and notes, “the theme can’t have been stolen from two places simultaneously.”

For my part, in this latest film I thought I heard some Dvořák and Bizet in “Rey’s Theme” (From the New World and Farandole) and some Shostakovich (Symphony No. 5) in “The March of the Resistance.” But at best these are just allusions. And that’s the thing with Williams, he has absorbed so much of the canon that when he wants his music to sound like something—menancing, hopeful, tense, lovely, evil, noble, haunting, etc.—he knows how to create a sound that we associate with it.

While this or that theme in Star Wars may remind us of another composer (which simply says that John Williams is an inheritor of a tradition), when you hear the soundtrack of Star Wars, it’s still unmistakably the sound world of John Williams. I read someone this week who spoke of “Williams’ special talent for creating music that’s simultaneously new and old.” That’s about right.

I consider Williams a conservative influence—not in the political sense, but in the idea of respecting tradition. Much of modern classical music (what in college we called 20th century music—not sure how it’s referred to these days) seems intent on pushing the envelope for what music should sound like. For me, a lot of it is unlistenable. I like a good tune. I don’t mind complicated harmonies, but not at the expense of good tunes and not in some deconstructive sort of presentation. Life can leave you feeling a little disaffected at times—do we really need music that exascerbates the problem? It’s not that Williams eliminates all tension. There is a  chord at the end of “The Abduction” that is particularly anxious because it never resolves. But I believe in ultimate things and ultimate resolutions. Williams’ sound world reinforces that belief for me (which is not to make any sort of speculation on what he believes).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate better Williams’ genius as an orchestrator. (Some years ago, I got to meet a Hollywood Orchestrator who gushed on and on about the orchestration for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.) This is an essential element of Williams’ compositional style. He writes great tunes with interesting harmonies and complicated rhythms with an incredibly varied sound palette. There are classical composers who created colors—Tchaikovsky comes to mind—but Williams is Technicolor to Tchaikovsky’s black and white.

I’m loving this new score.

Earlier this week I listened to Episode 115 of the Classical Classroom. Brett Mitchell, the associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, is an accomplished classical musician who has a lot of respect for John Williams and the music of Star Wars. Mitchell makes a connection between Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and John Williams’ music for Star Wars and shows how Williams uses the concept of leitmotif so effectively in the films. It is one of the dorkiest and most enjoyable discussions I’ve heard recently.