Thoughts on John Williams’ New Star Wars Score

star-wars-force-awakens-soundtrack-john-williams

I haven’t yet had the chance to see the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, or to fully experience its richly symphonic score in the theater. A film score is designed to serve its movie. The music comes to life as part of a greater whole, a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), to use Wagner’s term. Still, I haven’t been able to resist listening to excerpts from the score which, recently, have been floating around in an internet galaxy close to home.

Considering the popularity of the Star Wars score (this newest soundtrack has already sold over 94,000 copies), I’ll probably be playing some of this music in the orchestra in the not-too-distant future. Believe it or not, the original Star Wars themes, written over forty years ago, are still wildly popular with elementary school-age children…a testament to the enduring quality of this music.

Star Wars, influenced by the archetypes of Jungian psychology and mythology, has been compared to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In many ways, the music of Star Wars and Wagner’s epic operas function similarly. Both unfold in a long, seemingly continuous arc of music. The drama is often driven by the orchestra rather than singing or dialogue. Key scenes in the early Star Wars movies have surprisingly little dialogue, as George Lucas pointed out in an interview during the production of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones:

About 90 percent of the Star Wars films are music. It’s done in a very old-fashioned style, as silent films, so that the music kind of tells the story. A lot of the emotional content is carried through the music as much as through the scenes themselves…The score is a very, very important element of the success of the [Star Wars] movies. Without somebody as brilliant as Johnny doing the scores, I don’t think they would have been as successful as they were. The score is a major element. It’s equal to the script or the cast, easily.

The music of Wagner and Star Wars are both fundamentally motivic. Connections and associations with characters and ideas are made frequently through leitmotifs. These are often fleeting references which suddenly emerge out of the deeply contrapuntal fabric of the music and quickly dissolve. But they occur at crucial moments, and powerfully influence the way we perceive the drama. For example, two recognizable Star Wars leitmotifs weave together in this excerpt (Enter Lord Vader) from early in the first movie. (Listen to the trumpets around the 16 second mark and consider the way Princess Leia’s theme is transformed). Keep listening, and you’ll hear an interesting reference to Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. Fast forward to this lushly romantic music from The Force Awakens (Han and Leia) and you’ll hear similar leitmotifs in succession. A battle takes place between leitmotifs in this excerpt, heard later in The Force Awakens (music vaguely reminiscent of the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony).

John Williams’ influences extend beyond Mahler and Bartok to include most of the significant composers of the twentieth century, from Shostakovich to Stravinsky. For example, compare this recurring motive and this moment towards the end of Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony. Or listen to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and compare it with Duel Of The Fates from The Phantom Menace. In Han Solo Returns  from Return of the Jedi, Williams slips into the eerie atonality of Schoenberg, with a hint of late-Mahler angst. At times, he captures the hazy, shimmering exoticism of Alan Hovhaness. Beyond the regal Throne Room music at the end of the first movie, Williams’ trademark closely-voiced brass bell tones and swirling string and woodwind lines owe a lot to William Walton’s Crown Imperial MarchThen, there are the obvious similarities between the Star Wars main title music and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1941 score for the film, Kings RowThe Force Awakens score occasionally evokes the sense of timeless mystery we hear in Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age and Neptune, the Mystic from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets.

One of the most popular excerpts from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the expansive Rey’s Theme. It opens with a jaunty, dance-like motive which seems to have stepped out of the first movement of Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. This music goes far beyond the simple melody and accompaniment we hear in other film scores. Listen to the rich, shifting harmonic tapestry at work. For example, notice the sudden and brief move to minor at 0:50. A simple, straightforward, static harmony could easily have worked at this moment, but the harmonic jumpiness of Williams’ downward sequence conveys a different feeling. Listen to all of the contrapuntal details, like the irregular pizzicato bass line, beginning around 0:33. At 0:46, in the horns, you’ll hear the close, brassy “William Walton” sound I mentioned earlier.

  • While previous Star Wars soundtracks have been recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, this score is expertly performed by Los Angeles studio musicians. Find the complete soundtrack at iTunes, Amazon.
  • This segment from 1980 provides a behind-the-scenes look at the scoring of The Empire Strikes Back. The technology has undoubtedly changed dramatically, but it’s still interesting to see the creative process at work.

Remembering Kurt Masur: Five Great Recordings

Kurt Masur

Conductor Kurt Masur passed away on December 19, following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 88.

Masur will be remembered for his 26-year association (beginning in 1970) with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a storied ensemble once led by Felix Mendelssohn. Kurt Masur brought powerful political, as well as musical, leadership to Leipzig. In 1981, following the destruction of the previous Gewandhaus in the fire-bombings of the Second World War forty years earlier, he was instrumental in rebuilding the orchestra’s concert hall. In 1989, as the Iron Curtain began to fall, Masur assumed a surprising diplomatic role, easing tensions between protesters and the Stasi police of East German dictator Erich Honecker, by publicly calling for restraint and opening the Gewandhaus for political dialogue.

I remember watching Kurt Masur’s nationally televised first concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1991. The program opened with John Adams’ Tromba Lontana and Short Ride in a Fast Machine and concluded with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, part of the German Romantic core of Masur’s repertoire. Kurt Masur was widely credited with restoring the tonal depth and cohesiveness of the Philharmonic, which had gained a reputation for undisciplined performances and displays of disrespect towards visiting conductors. Masur may have had the New York Philharmonic in mind when he said, “An orchestra full of stars can be a disaster.”

In 2002, Kurt Masur stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic and went on to hold principal conductor positions with the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France.

If you’ve ever wondered what sets a great conductor like Kurt Masur apart, watch a few brief clips from Masur’s masterclasses with young conductors at the Verbier Festival Academy (here, here, and here). Masur seems to demonstrate the power of a focused, inner energy which goes beyond mere time beating to unlock the soul of the music.

Here are five of Kurt Masur’s extraordinary recordings. His style seems be characterized by honest, straightforward, noble music making without a hint of ego or flashiness. His tempos, free from arbitrary expressive “push and pull,” allow the music to speak naturally.

Brahms’ Second Symphony

Here is a live concert performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester at Leipzig’s Church of St. Nicolai. The concert marked the twenty year anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution” which began on October 9, 1989. Twenty years earlier, to the day, Masur led the orchestra in Brahms’ Second Symphony at this location:

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony

Here is the first movement of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony from a 1978 recording with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester:

Listen to the second, third and fourth movements.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Following a long hiatus, the New York Philharmonic began to record again during Kurt Masur’s tenure (on the Teldec label). Here is an extraordinary live concert recording of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with the New York Philharmonic:

Schubert’s Eighth Symphony

This recording of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was released in 2007. From the opening lower string lines to the shivering string tremolos, this performance captures the ghostly essence of late Schubert:

Listen to the second movement here.

Brahms’ German Requiem

Nine days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Kurt Masur led the New York Philharmonic in Brahms’ Requiem. The benefit concert was broadcast to more than 30 television networks and 8,000 radio stations. This recording, featuring the New York Philharmonic with soprano Sylvia McNair, baritone Håkan Hagegård, and the Westminster Symphonic Choir was released in 1995:

Merry Christmas

The facade of Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England.
Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England.

 

Wishing all Listeners’ Club readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

As you enjoy the day, take a moment and listen to the Wells Cathedral Choir’s performance of Peter Griton’s arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This comes from their 2007 recording called Christmas from Wells.

The View from the Belfry: European Bell Ringing Up-Close

London's Church of St. Magnus the Martyr
London’s Church of St. Magnus the Martyr in a painting by Frederick Edward Joseph Goff

Today’s post is in honor of the late musicologist Karl Haas, host of Adventures in Good Music, the nationally syndicated radio program which aired between 1970 and 2007. The Story of the Bells, broadcast on Christmas Eve, was one of Haas’ most popular episodes. It provided listeners with a sample of the varied and distinctive sounds of bell ringing in cities throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Here at The Listeners’ Club, we’ve returned to bell ringing at Christmas. (Here are posts from last year and the year before). Continuing that tradition, let’s climb into the belfries of a few of Europe’s most famous churches for an up-close view:

Change Ringing at St. Magnus the Martyr

We’ll start with a spectacular example of change ringing from the Church of St. Magnus the Martyr in the center of London. This style of bell ringing, which  emerged in England in the seventeenth century, requires great precision. Tuned bells are rung in a series of mathematical permutations which produce a set of patterns. As this documentary points out, ten bells could produce over three million unique combinations!

The Church of St. Magnus the Martyr was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral) and built between 1671 and 1687. A previous church on the location was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. As the historic view above shows, the church, along with neighboring spires and Nelson’s Column, once dominated the skyline. Now, the church is surrounded, and almost obscured, by anonymous office blocks constructed after the Blitz.

The Guild of St. Magnus rings the bells every Sunday around 12:15:

A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharves, and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings on the banks. The old smoke-stained storehouses on either side, rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon the water too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes. The tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom; but the forest of shipping below the bridge, and the thickly scattered spires of churches above, were nearly all hidden from the sight.

-Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 

Frankfurt Cathedral

For a comparison, here is what it’s like to stand in the belfry of Frankfurt Cathedral, home to Germany’s third largest bell ( weighing 11,950 kg. and sounding on the pitch, E). Each bell enters individually, adding up to a mighty chorus. As Karl Haas said, “a sound which leaves no room for human voices.”

Salzburg

Here are the nine bells of the Franciscan Church in Salzburg:

…and bells remembered…

John Luther Adams’ 2005 composition, …and bells remembered…

Your 2015 Christmas Playlist

Christmas tree

It’s that time of year again…time for the annual Listeners’ Club Christmas playlist. As with last year’s post, this is a collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Pour some eggnog, light the tree and listen:

Thomas Tallis: Christmas Mass

We’ll start with music written for an important political occasion. The Christmas Mass by English composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) may have been written for Christmas Day, 1554 when Phillip II of Spain was in England to wed Queen Mary. Here is the opening Gloria:

J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio

J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written for Christmas Day, 1734. This quiet, pastoral Sinfonia opens the second of the six parts. (Listen to the entire piece here). There’s an incredible intimacy to this music. Listen to the way the strings establish the atmosphere and then fade away, leaving us with the sound of shepherds in a calm pasture:

Rimsky-Korsakov: Christmas Eve

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov created this orchestral suite with music from his 1895 opera, Christmas Eve. The opera’s plot is based on Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. The suite is in five movements: Christmas NightBallet of the Stars, Witches’ Sabbath and Ride on the Devil’s Back, Polonaise, and Vakula and the Slippers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most imaginative and colorful orchestrators. Just listen to the way the tone colors shift and change subtly in the opening chords, evoking a sense of mystery. This music glistens with bright Christmas lights in a way which might remind you of a Hollywood film score. If you’re familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or Russian Easter Overture, you’ll be reminded of those pieces. But there’s also one moment which, for me, suggests a surprising link between Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Prokofiev. (Prokofiev studied orchestration briefly with Rimsky-Korsakov). This melody, with its unpredictable harmonic turns and off-balance rhythm, feels as if it stepped out of one of Prokofiev’s ballet scores.

Prokofiev: Troika from “Lieutenant Kije”

The Troika movement from Sergei Prokofiev’s score to the 1934 film, Lieutenant Kije has long been associated with Christmas. A troika is a Russian horse-drawn sleigh. You could call this a “short ride in an equestrian machine.”

Sir David Willcocks: Sussex Carol

Let’s finish where we started back in England. Here is Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Sussex Carol. Willcocks, who passed away in September, was the longtime director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

  • Find Thomas Tallis’ Christmas Mass at iTunes, Amazon. The recording above is performed by the Tallis Scholars.
  • Find J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve at iTunes, Amazon. The recording above features Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra.
  • Find Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Sussex Carol at iTunes, Amazon.

Winter Chill in Purcell’s “The Fairy-Queen”

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

 

This week we’ve explored musical depictions of winter, from Samuel Barber’s Christmas-themed Twelfth Night to Tchaikovsky’s youthfully inventive First Symphony.

Perhaps no music captures the desolate gloom of winter more vividly than Now Winter Comes Slowly from the fourth act of English composer Henry Purcell’s 1692 opera, The Fairy-Queen. In this case, the term “opera” should be applied loosely. The Fairy-Queen, an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still has one foot firmly planted in the world of masque and “Restoration spectacle,” the freer-formed courtly entertainment out of which formal opera grew. Composed three years before Purcell’s death at the age of 35, The Fairy-Queen was first performed in May, 1692 at London’s Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden. Then it fell into obscurity until the twentieth century.

Now Winter Comes Slowly is built on a bleak descending bass line. An icy chill pervades the music from its solitary opening strand:

Sting included Now Winter Comes Slowly on his 2009 album, If on a Winter’s Night. (Listen to the entire album here). Listen to the way Purcell’s late seventeenth century music transfers to this glistening, ethereal, and mildly electronic twenty-first century sound world:

Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.

-William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part II

  • Find John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of The Fairy-Queen at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Sting’s album, If on a Winter’s Night at iTunes, Amazon.

Tchaikovsky’s Winter Daydreams

Winterdreams-1

What’s in a name? In the case of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, completed in 1866, it’s hard to say for sure. Tchaikovsky gave the work the descriptive title, Winter Daydreams (the first and second movements are subtitled, Dreams of a Winter Journey and Land of Desolation, Land of Mists). Beyond these descriptive phrases, the First Symphony remains pure music, without a program. At moments, the music may suggest the play of sunlight and shadow on a chilly, snow-covered winter landscape. But to experience the true essence of this music we have to leave behind these literal references and just listen.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony isn’t played as often as his later symphonies. He struggled to complete the work, revising it several times amid the devastating criticism of his former teachers, Anton Rubenstein and Nikolai Zaremba. But listen to the second movement and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more beautiful in Tchaikovsky’s output. This is one of those circular, Russian-folk-song-inspired movements which reminds you that Russian music looks East as well as West. A long, lamenting melody reaches for an unattainable goal and then folds back on itself. It’s repeated by one group of instrumental voices and then another, eventually rising into a defiant, soaring statement in the horns. It’s a melody which demands that we listen, but defies resolution.

In 1883 Tchaikovsky described the First Symphony in a letter saying,

Although it is immature in many respects, it is essentially better and richer in content than many other more mature works.

Throughout the First Symphony, there are occasional hints of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Beyond all of this is the the unique, fully-formed sound of Tchaikovsky. In the first movement’s brass fanfares, it’s easy to hear the seeds of the opening of the Fourth Symphony. The final movement opens with the gloomy darkness of the solo bassoon. The woodwinds provide a brief, motivic glance back at the second movement.

Here is the complete Symphony No. 1 in G minor performed by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

  • Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 “Winter Dreams” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Valery Gergiev’s live performance with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
  • Yuri Temirkanov’s 1993 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Leonard Slatkin discusses the First Symphony here.

Samuel Barber’s Twelfth Night

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

 

The promise of spring amid the darkest, gloomiest depths of winter…that’s the Christmas metaphor of cyclic rejuvenation found in Laurence “Laurie” Lee’s poem, Twelfth Night.

American composer Samuel Barber had fallen into his own personal depths of depression when he created this chilling setting in December 1968. His second opera, Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera house at New York’s brand new Lincoln Center, had been poorly received by critics. (Listen to a haunting excerpt here).

Twelfth Night‘s principal motive shares some interesting similarities with the opening motive of Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, completed in 1942. Both motives include close, singing lines and a wide leap. Throughout the setting, we hear close, tense harmony, with voices frequently imitating each other. Listen to the way the final chord suddenly takes us into new, open, ambiguous territory.

Here is the text:

 

No night could be darker than this night, no cold so cold,
as the blood snaps like a wire
and the heart’s sap stills,

and the year seems defeated.

O never again, it seems, can green things run, or sky birds fly,
or the grass exhale its humming breath powdered with pimpernels,

from this dark lung of winter.

Yet here are lessons from the final mile of pilgrim kings;
the mile still left when all have reached their tether’s end: that mile

where the Child lies hid.

For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows;
for men with shepherd’s eyes there are signs in the dark, the turning stars,

the lamb’s returning time.

Out of this utter death he’s born again,
his birth our Saviour;
from terror’s equinox, he climbs and grows, drawing his finger’s light across our blood— the sun of heaven and the son of God.

-Laurie Lee, My Many-coated Man (1955)

Here is a performance by the Birmingham, UK-based vocal ensemble, Ex Cathedra. This comes from their 2012 recording, Christmas Music by Candlelight: