Score Analysis – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

 

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.

The piece is in two distinct sections, featuring A and B sections of the melody, each representing a different side of the narrative. The first section of the piece makes heavy use of the octave and fifth above below the tonic. It has been noted that this melody bears striking similarity with Korngold’s opening theme for the film King’s Row. The A-section (fig. 1) uses a heavy brass instrumentation, with trumpets and French horns playing the melody, and represents the adventurous, swashbuckling feel to the film, which was also prevalent in the other films in the series.

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fig. 1: Main Title ‘A section’ melody

According to Williams, the A-section’s melodic contour is directly representative of a hero’s struggle and final attainment of his goal; from the first Bb the leap up a fifth is a first reach upward. The descending triplet is symbolic of gathering strength for a second attempt. Reaching the octave (Bb) is an attainment of the goal. This is done twice, the second time is a reassurance of this achievement. The last bar of the melody shows that the task is completed. The B-section, while not used as a motif, is more representative of the love story in the film, and is set to a less rhythmically-focused accompaniment, with the string section playing the melody (fig. 2):

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fig. 2: Main Title ‘B section’ melody

The purpose of the Main Title is twofold. Firstly, it works towards informing the viewer about what kind of film they are watching (adventure, romance, a heroic tale), and it also recalls the previous film in the series. By using the same piece of music at the start of each film (as well as in the end credits), the viewer is very easily reminded of the story of the previous film because of associations with the themes and motifs heard in the Main TitleThe piece is used to underscore expository text on screen (the iconic Star Wars Opening Crawl), which outlines everything the viewer perhaps needs to know in order to understand the story that isn’t explicitly shown in the film.

Flowing seamlessly from the Main Title is a cue named The Imperial Probe. This cue was written to attach directly to the Main Title, and was recorded simultaneously. After the adventurous, exciting Main Title, The Imperial Probe brings the film’s mood into a darker place, creating mystery and suspense with shifting key centres and sparser orchestration. Also notable is the first statement of The Imperial March on the piccolo, one of the most recognisable themes of the Star Wars saga (fig. 9 further below). At the moment that Luke Skywalker is revealed from under his snow gear, a motif is played – a variation on the ‘A section’ of the Main Title – that is used as a signifier for the character of Skywalker (fig. 3). Both the original theme and a number of variations are used to represent Skywalker in not only this film but the entire original trilogy. 

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fig. 3: Luke Skywalker motif variation

 

The Imperial Probe plays at a fairly constant level in the film, but is much quieter than the dialogue and key sound effects. Williams phrases the music so that sections with louder sound effects are not competing with the music. For instance, as the Wampa attacks Luke (which is accompanied by loud roars and other sound effects), the high woodwinds play a fast descending line, dropping in volume and intensity to make room for the loud, sudden sound effects. After both Luke and his Tauntaun fall to the ground, an ascending line with a sharp, accented climax is played, as a reaction to what had just happened on screen. Finally, a short (3 bars) low brass and woodwinds melody is played, anticipating what might happen to Luke. The melody’s final note is a weakly-synchronised ‘accent-off’, and serves to be a bridge between scenes as it plays over a wiping scene change, showing Han’s return to the rebel base. The purpose of the earlier parts of the cue is to, in combination with the Main Title, set the tone of the film, with The Imperial Probe adding a darker element to the Main Titles’ established heroic love story. The cue also introduces two of the main characters, showing their relationship as something that has changed from the previous film.

 

R1Pt2.5: Saying Goodbye (5’30” – 6’51”)

The next cue was originally written as a continuation of The Imperial Probe into a much longer sequence, however the music was edited at some point to end where it now does, and to begin again at the moment Han sees Leia in the control room with the cue Saying Goodbye. The style of the cue in the beginning is very relaxed and flowing; this helps to  establish that this is the love theme of the film, and that these two characters are going to fall in love (even if they don’t know it yet themselves). In this way, the music in these scenes is preemting part of the story of the film, as well as re-introducing the character of Princess Leia to the audience. The music changes pace as the conversation continues, and plays a melody that recurs throughout the film (and its sequel), that is associated with the love story between these two characters (fig. 4):

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fig. 4 Han Solo and the Princess

 

The theme itself is a variation of the theme associated with Princess Leia as heard in Star Wars (fig. 5):

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fig. 5 Princess Leia’s Theme

The theme continues as the two characters have a heated conversation while walking through corridors. In somewhat of a counterpoint to the visuals and dialogue, the music does not reflect either character’s tone of voice or manner – in fact, the style is quite at odds with their actions – and as such it becomes clear that the music is more so playing the thoughts of the characters, supplying the sequence with romantic subtext, as well as being somewhat comedic, giving the viewer a chance to see the situation in a different light. The volume of the music is fairly quiet due to the arrangement (high woodwinds, high strings, harp, low strings played pizzicato), however no effort has been made to score “around” the dialogue. This magnifies the music’s disregard for the depicted situation (in light of the overarching love story, it seems), and adds to the intended effect. The love theme is followed by a short, playful melody during which the viewer is re-introduced to the last two of the recurring “hero” characters from Star Wars – the two droids, R2D2 and C3PO. Because of the light-hearted feeling implied by the music here, and particularly in contrast to the previous love theme and darker opening to the film, it becomes clear that the droids will become the comic relief of the film, something which is reinforced by the dialogue.

 

R1Pt3/R2Pt1 Luke’s Escape (7’56” – 9’33”)

This cue begins with a short horns and strings section which serves as a bridge from the previous scene (Han leaving the base). This adds separation between the scenes as well as linking them – it is clear that Han is trying to find Luke, but it is also clear that it will not be easy. The minor and diminished tonality of the section implies this hardship. The music’s arrangement drops to only tremolo violins, piccolo, low strings, as well as a solo oboe and later solo bassoon, which, as the shot pans to show Luke hanging upside down from the ice, gives the viewer the strong idea that he is not only physically weak but alone. His physical weakness is implied by the comparative weakness and brittleness of the arrangement. The music does not change in volume or intensity, even when the Wampa’s foreboding roars and growls can be heard. There is a musical accent as Luke collapses after attempting to free his feet. This serves to greatly emphasise his exhaustion and lack of strength. As Luke realises his physical strength is not going to help him, the audience is re-introduced to the idea of ‘the Force’, which has not been mentioned or referenced until this point in the film. As he is reaching for his lightsaber and using his mind to focus his powers, a motif is played that was used in Star Wars as representative of the Force (fig. 6). This is followed by a short statement of the Main Title/Skywalker motif before Luke attacks the Wampa and escapes.

 

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fig. 6 The Force Theme/Ben Kenobi’s Theme

 

This cue has to compete with the Wampa’s roar as it is injured, and the sound effects of the lightsaber and the creature’s roar are noticeably louder than the score. The cue ends as Luke stumbles through the snow, with the silence here being representative of the desolate environment. This is represented visually by a long shot of the snowy landscape – in which no details or geography can be seen – and audibly by the constant, unchanging wind.

 

R1Pt2 Ben’s Instruction/R2Pt3 Luke’s Rescue (12’13” – 14’28”)

This cue begins just before the change of scene from the Rebel hangar to outside, where Luke has fallen in the snow. Beginning a cue before a change of scene like this links the two and also implies that one is taking place directly after the other in the narrative. Luke has a vision of his deceased mentor, Obi-Wan ‘Ben’ Kenobi, and this is coupled with first a statement of a very short flute motif which becomes strongly associated with mysteries surrounding the Force (fig. 7), and following this, the Force Theme itself (fig. 6) is used.

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fig. 7 Force Mystery

As Luke collapses, a chord is played as an accent, and the cue continues at a more purposeful pace, now playing Han’s emotions as he tries to save Luke from the storm. This soon slows when he seems sure that Luke is alive and (relatively) safe, continuing with a slightly ambiguous tone. The music fades as the camera shot moves away, leaving the audience guessing as to what might happen.

 

R2Pt3.5 Snowspeeder Rescue (14’33” – 15’57”)

Shots of Snowspeeder ships flying across icy mountains at dawn are accompanied by a rhythmic low strings motif (fig. 8), which provides a constant rhythm throughout the rescue sequence, imparting a sense of purpose and hopefulness that the two main characters will be found and rescued. As the scene continues, this motif is transposed in sequence to suggest movement and helping to impart more tension onto the scene and the narrative.

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fig. 8 Snowspeeder Rescue

As Han’s voice comes on the communicator, this motif ceases and a sweeping high strings melody is played, signifying their successful rescue.

 

R2Pt4 (The Probe Sequence) Imperial Fleet (18’48” – 20’21”)

After a short, non-musically-accompanied sequence in which the Rebels find out that their location has most likely been discovered (and which was originally scored by Williams, later to be removed from the film), several establishing shots of the Imperial Fleet are accompanied by The Imperial March, a strong, simple motif associated with Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire (figs. 9 & 10). Its militaristic quality and its arrangement suggest the power of the empire, which strongly reinforces the visual components of the sequence.

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fig. 9 The Imperial March (rhythmic motif)

 

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fig. 10 The Imperial March (melody)

 

R3Pt1 Drawing the Battle Lines/R3Pt2 Leia’s Instructions 20’51” – 24’37”

As Luke, Chewbacca, and Han say goodbye to each other prior to the Rebels’ evacuation, a short statement and variation of the Main Title theme is played, this removes some of the foreboding tension of the oncoming Imperial attack, and assures the viewer that these characters are safe. With further shots of the Imperial Fleet, the Imperial March theme is played. This becomes standard throughout the film, and each time further cements the theme in connection with the Empire, as well as making it more memorable. A suspenseful melody is played beneath Leia’s instructions to the Rebel pilots, which comes to an accented climax with the words “Good luck.” This helps to convey at first the pilots’ apprehension and then their willingness to fight in the coming battle. As the Rebels’ transport is flying towards the Imperial fleet, both the Imperial March and a motif based on the Rebel Fanfare (fig. 11) from Star Wars is played. Its variation is much more fast-paced, giving the motif a sense of urgency to match the situation (fig. 12).

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fig. 11 Rebel Fanfare (Original)

 

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fig. 12 Rebel Fanfare (Variation)

 

R3Pt3/R3Pt4 The Snow Battle/R4Pt1 Luke’s First Crash (25’00” – 34’49”)

The Snow Battle is quite a long music cue, and for the most part the music is used primarily to create rhythm within the action of the film. While there are other elements creating rhythm (cuts between shots, laser blasts, and most notably the footsteps of the mechanical Imperial walkers), the music serves as another, more variable, pulse which drives the scenes and story along. As Luke’s speeder is hit by a laser blast, the music swells into a suspenseful ascending line, and his crash is accompanied by a low chord, as well as a statement of the Main Title theme, this time much more foreboding, implying that the danger of the situation is very real.


 

Note on cue naming and numbering:

The cue names and numbering used here are taken from the numbering used by composer John Williams and orchestrator Herbert W. Spencer as seen in original orchestrator’s sketches for the score of the film.

 

Music Cue Sheet:
Cue № Cue Name Timing
20th Century Fox Fanfare 0’0” – 0’18”
R1Pt1

R1Pt2

Star Wars Main Title

The Imperial Probe

0’27” – 4’14”
R1Pt2.5 Saying Goodbye 5’30” – 6’51”
R1Pt3

R2Pt1

Luke’s Escape 7’56” – 9’33”
R1Pt2

R2Pt3

Ben’s Instruction

Luke’s Rescue

12’13” – 14’28”
R2Pt3.5 Snowspeeder Rescue/Bacta Tank 14’33” – 15’57”
R2Pt4 The Probe Sequence 18’48” – 20’21”
R3Pt1

R3Pt2

Drawing the Battle Lines

Leia’s Instructions

20’51” – 24’37”
R3Pt3

R3Pt4

R4Pt1

The Snow Battle

Luke’s First Crash

25’00” – 34’49”

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