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.

Christmas at Wanamaker’s

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In celebration of the official start of the holiday season, let’s swing by the grand old former Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s) in the heart of Philadelphia. The store is home to the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world, with 28,604 pipes, 463 ranks, and six manuals. Originally built for the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, the instrument found a home in Wanamaker’s seven-story Grand Court in 1909. It took thirteen railroad cars to transport the organ to Philadelphia.

You can hear this spectacular organ in action in this clip of a transcription of the Funeral March from Gotterdammerung, the fourth opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a piece which gradually unfolds in long waves of sound, amid a series of far-reaching modulations. At times, you might be reminded of John Williams’ Star Wars film scores.

In 2010, midday shoppers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a flashmob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The over 650 singers were from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The event was part of the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture.”

To learn more about the history of Wanamaker’s department store, read Wanamaker’s: Meet me at the Eagle by Michael Lisicky. A nationally recognized expert on the history of America’s department stores, Michael is a former colleague of mine who is currently an oboist in the Baltimore Symphony.

Gearing up for the UCI in RVA

3cc13374fc7262dcc3cfb69815daa912My hometown, Richmond, Virginia, is gearing up to host the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Road World Championships bike race. The event begins this Saturday, September 19 and concludes on the 27th. On Friday at 6:30, the Richmond Symphony will be playing for a crowd of 10,000-plus spectators at the opening ceremonies on Brown’s Island, near the James River in downtown Richmond.

In celebration of the UCI World Championships, here is a historical curiosity: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two), the 1892 popular song, performed by Max Mathews, one of the pioneers of computer music. This 1962 recording, produced in the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, was one of the earliest experiments in speech synthesis and digitally reproduced sound. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke visited the lab around the time this music was produced and incorporated it into the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL 9000 computer sings it as it is being shut down.

This work, revolutionary when it was first developed and now taken for granted, opened the door for everything from John Adams’ Hoodoo Zephyr  to the “expressive” auto-tuning of Cher’s 1998 song, Believe

…and here is the soaring “flying bicycle” music from John Williams’ film score to E.T (1982). Notice the way the theme reaches increasingly higher, giving us a visceral sense of upward lift:

If you can think of more examples of bicycle-inspired music, share them in the thread below.

Pluto, the Renewer

Pluto
An image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons flyby.

 

When Gustav Holst finished his seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32 in 1917, Pluto had yet to be discovered. By the time the distant celestial body was spotted in 1930, four years before Holst’s death, the composer had grown ambivalent about The Planets, believing that the work’s popularity had unfairly overshadowed his later compositions.

Fast-forward to 2000, when conductor Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned British composer and administrator of the Holst foundation Colin Matthews to “complete” The Planets with a six minute movement entitled, Pluto, the Renewer. Matthews, who admits that he had “mixed feelings” about the project, was up against a series of significant challenges. Holst’s masterwork feels complete as its final movement, Neptune, the Mystic  fades into intergalactic eternity. Additionally, Holst’s music is more concerned with the astrological properties of the planets than with astronomy. Pluto, three billion miles away on the edge of our solar system, remains astrologically fuzzy.

In the end, Matthews’ music may be as superfluous to Holst’s suite as Pluto (reclassified as a “dwarf planet” in 2006) is to the solar system. Still, Pluto, the Renewer is interesting music that deserves to be heard, especially in light of last week’s stunning images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. At times, Matthews music echoes the colorful orchestration and otherworldly atmosphere of Holst’s original score. Similar sounds can be heard in John Williams’ haunting 2001 film score for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Listen here and here).

  • Find this recording on iTunes, Amazon
  • Listen to Gustav Holst’s The Planets here.

The Manipulative Power of TV News Music

newsreelFrom the ominous minor second “shark motive” in Jaws, to E.T.’s soaring “Flying Theme,” to the terror of Psycho’s blood-stained shower, music plays an obvious role in heightening the drama of our favorite movie scenes. Music has the unique capability to transcend the literal and transport us into the world of metaphor, a place where fundamental truths are most deeply and directly experienced. In some cases, music may be the most important dramatic ingredient. For example, video footage of a crocodile could be set to frightening music or to a Scott Joplin rag. In one case we would feel a sense of danger, while in the other we would perceive the same crocodile comically.

Television news also uses music to subtly manipulate our emotions. News music’s patchwork of “opens,” “rejoins,” “bumpers,” and “closes” not only establishes a branding identity for the news station (as the no nonsense, “reporter as private detective” sound of the 1970s local news theme, Move Closer to Your World does), but also, more troublingly, occasionally heightens the drama of the news itself.

Walter Cronkite’s first CBS Evening News broadcast contained no music. Apart from this teletype bumper, CBS would not add music until 1987. Throughout the 1970s NBC used a series of emotionally neutral themes, culminating with this simple open, featuring the NBC motive. It was John Williams’ lush, soaring orchestral NBC theme, The Missionwhich became a game changer for network news music in 1985. For the first time, the broadcast began with a dramatic “headline bed”, which suddenly gave added urgency and tension to the anchor’s words. CBS quickly responded with its own “headline bed”, set a half step higher than NBC’s, probably with the goal of sounding subliminally more urgent to indecisive viewers who might be flipping between networks as the newscasts opened. ABC World News Tonight also went a half step higher than NBC with its “headline bed.” In 1991, CBS raised its “headline bed” another half step, trumping the urgency of both NBC and ABC.

John Trivers, Elizabeth Myers, and Alan James Pasqua’s orchestral CBS Evening News close skillfully hinted at the open intervals and orchestration of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, while featuring delightfully bubbling pizzicato lines. Meanwhile, John Williams’ Meet the Press theme, The Pulse of Eventscrackled with the contrapuntal intensity of a late Mahler scherzo.

All of the networks crafted glitzy music to accompany coverage of both Iraq Wars (listen to ABC’s, CBS’s, and NBC’s). These soundtracks for war blur the line between reality and illusion in troubling ways. When war becomes entertainment, the citizen becomes a passive spectator. Political ads from Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America to Barack Obama’s stadium infomercial similarly use music to manipulate emotions.

William Schuman’s Newsreel in Five Shots

Before television, movie newsreels used music to blend news, propaganda, and entertainment. Watch this newsreel from the 1937 Hindenburg disaster and this clip from the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War.

American composer William Schuman (1910-1992) originally wrote Newsreel in Five Shots for concert band in 1942. The music accompanies imagined newsreel scenes: a horse race, a fashion show, a tribal dance, monkeys in the zoo and a parade. Schuman described the piece, saying:

[I] thought how amusing it would be to imagine these events and write music to go with them, so I did. . . . It was great fun to do—kind of a joke. Lukas Foss loves that piece. . . . He never played anything of any importance that I wrote, but he loved that.

Here is the conductor Lukas Foss’ recording of Newsreel in Five Shots with the Milwaukee Symphony:

Music Beyond the Holocaust

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial
Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

 

Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the allied liberation of Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War. Orchestras around the world, including the Richmond Symphony, commemorated the event by playing often neglected music by Jewish composers who were affected by Nazi atrocities.

Music was performed frequently in the concentration camps. At Terezin, near Prague, prisoners defiantly performed Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times as a veiled condemnation of the Nazis. The conductor Raphael Schächter taught his fellow prisoners the music by rote, using a single score. As prisoners were moved to other camps, Schächter painstakingly began the process again.

In 1936, Jewish Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic). Huberman helped nearly 1,000 Jewish musicians flee the Third Reich. He is often credited with helping to preserve the Jewish musical tradition.

Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes examines the importance of the violin in Jewish culture.

Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (b. 1894-1942) was mentored by Antonín Dvořák and later studied with Claude Debussy. You can hear both Czech folk music and the wispy sounds of Impressionism in his brief but powerful String Quartet No. 1. Schulhoff died of tuberculosis at the Wülzburg concentration camp on August 18, 1942.

This piece contains ghostly and ethereal voices. Listen to the way the final movement fades into eternity.

Here is a performance by the Kocian Quartet:

  1. Presto con fuoco (0:00)
  2. Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca (2:15)
  3. Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca (5:53)
  4. Andante molto sostenuto (8:50)

Korngold and the “Hollywood Sound”

We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.

-Erich Wolfgang Korngold

In one of the great ironies of music history, Hitler was partly responsible for the lush, colorful sound we associate with the golden age of Hollywood film scores. Jewish composers, including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Miklós Rózsa emigrated to the United States as the film industry was blossoming. Had these composers been free to remain in Europe, many of the greatest film scores would likely have become symphonies.

Korngold created film scores for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Kings Row (1941). The later score seems to have subconsciously (or consciously) influenced the Main Theme of John Williams’ Star Wars as well as Superman. Listen to a suite from the score and then a back-to-back comparison of the two themes here. This music can be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic tradition of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Brendan G. Carroll writes,

Treating each film as an ‘opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) [Korngold] created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, written in 1945, draws on music from the movies Anthony Adverse (1936), Another Dawn (1937), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), and Juarez (1939). The concerto was dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, who served as a childhood mentor to Korngold. There are moments where the spirit of late Mahler briefly surfaces (in the first movement at 6:44 in the recording below). Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere with the Saint Louis Symphony in 1947.

Some concertos open with a long orchestra introduction before the solo instrument is heard. By contrast, in this concerto the violin greets us from the start; the expansive, open intervals of the theme suggesting endless possibilities. Waves of colorful sound leap from every corner of the orchestra throughout the outer movements. At moments, the violin becomes a solitary voice, venturing towards the wilderness of atonality before the orchestra pulls us back.

The Romanza enters intimate new territory. Listen carefully to the subtle conflict in the second movement’s opening chord. This is an instance where one note changes everything. The music seems to be searching. We hear high, shimmering voices followed by a dark and icy low chord. Notice the splashes of color which sparkle around the violin’s lamenting melody.

Here is a performance by Hilary Hahn and the Kölner Philharmonie, conducted by Heinrich Schiff. Hahn talks about the music here.

  1. Moderato nobile (0:00)
  2. Romanze (8:36)
  3. Allegro assai vivace (16:44)

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

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Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.

Mars, the Bringer of War

MarsThis evening you may want to grab your telescope, head outside, and look into the southeastern night sky. Mars is making its closest approach in six years today, coming within 57.4 million miles of earth. Last month, NASA’s Curiosity Rover captured pictures of the earth as a bright speck in the Martian sky.

From Ray Bradbury’s 1950 collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles, to current discoveries of possible water on Mars, the red planet has long been a source of fascination. In ancient Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war. Astrological associations with Mars were the inspiration for the first movement of The Planets, Op. 32, a suite by English composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1935). Here is Mars, the Bringer of War performed by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. Pay attention to the flow and rhythmic feel. Can you tell how many beats are in each measure? The answer may surprise you.

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Holst wrote this ominous music in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. It drives forward in an unrelenting 5/4 time (1-2-3-4-Five). It’s that last beat which makes the music feel slightly automated and unnatural, reflecting the blind insanity of a society marching towards self destruction. The opening of the piece calls for col legno, a sound effect in which the wood of the bow is hit into the strings. At 2:13 notice Holst’s use of the euphonium horn (tenor tuba). The trumpet fanfares which follow suggest the age-old sounds of battle.

Mars may have reminded you of the Imperial March from John Williams’ film score for Star Wars. Interestingly, both begin in the key of G minor, which has been associated with unease, conflict and tragedy going back to MozartThe Planets closes with the ethereal Neptune the Mystic . Compare Neptune to this excerpt from Williams’ 2001 film score for A.I. and consider all the other atmospheric Hollywood scores which draw upon these sounds.

[quote]Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.[/quote]

[quote]Do you ever wonder if–well, if there are people living on the third planet?’ ‘The third planet is incapable of supporting life,’ stated the husband patiently. ‘Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.[/quote]

-The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury