George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) is considered a groundbreaking work in modern cinema, particularly within the science fiction genre, and particularly also with respect to film scores and sound design – John Williams’ score to the film is often credited with reviving the practice of symphonic scores – and particularly the use of Wagnerian leitmotif. The film’s sequel – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – continued this tradition, using many musical motifs from the first film, while also introducing others. The series’ sound design, led by Ben Burtt, has also been praised as a shining example of what could be done with pre-digital technologies, and both the score and the sound design are major reasons why these films have stood the test of time as well as they have.
While the original Star Wars and its second sequel – Return of the Jedi (1983) – both feature sequences with specifically composed diegetic music, all music in The Empire Strikes Back is non-diegetic.
Musical Score Analysis
20th Century Fox Fanfare (0’00” – 0’19”)
The first cue in the film, and one that became something of a tradition in Star Wars films, is the 20th Century Fox Fanfare, originally composed for the studio by Alfred Newman in 1933. For Star Wars in 1977, director George Lucas wanted to use the fanfare, which was, at the time, being rarely used in films from the studio. Composer John Williams wrote the iconic Star Wars Main Title in the same key as the fanfare (Bb) to act as an extension and to blend the fanfare into the score for the film more seamlessly. For Star Wars, the 1953 CinemaScope recording of the fanfare was used, but for The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a new recording for the film. The fanfare plays over logos for both 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm.
R1Pt1: Star Wars Main Title/R1Pt2: The Imperial Probe (0’27” – 4’14”)
As with each of the six films in the Star Wars saga (as well as related TV shows and video games), the film opens with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” on screen in silence. The Star Wars logo appears on screen in synchrony with the opening full-orchestra chord of the Star Wars Main Title, a march-like, heroic theme that is one of the most recognisable music cues from the series, and perhaps from cinema as a whole, and represents the main protagonist of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker (figs. 1 & 2). The musical style is similar to that of ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ composers such as Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman. This was primarily by design, as director George Lucas wanted John Williams to compose music that already felt very familiar, and that was reminiscent of serial adventure films from the 1930s and 1940s such as Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. This familiarity and style creates something of a contrast between the music and the exotic and futuristic locales, characters and settings seen in the film.