Thoughts on John Williams’ New Star Wars Score

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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.

An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber.

Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the time). Berlioz referred to Weber in his influential Treatise on Instrumentation and Debussy remarked that the sound of Weber’s orchestra was “obtained through the scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.” Weber’s opera Euryanthe anticipated Wagner’s Leitmotif technique, in which a short, recurring musical phrase is used to represent a character or idea. Even twentieth century composers returned to Weber’s music. (Listen to Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is based on themes by Weber).

The Oberon Overture begins with a distant horn call and slowly awakening strings. Listen to the harmony at 1:15 and you’ll be reminded of yet-to-be-written Wagner. A few moments later at 1:33, we hear the playful laughter of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And then, after this sleepy and introspective opening, the music suddenly explodes into a fireball of virtuosity. A cast of characters comes alive through the instruments of the orchestra. The overture, which began so quietly, ends in a high-flying flourish of euphoria.

Oberon was first performed at London’s Covent Garden on April 12, 1826. The three act Romantic opera’s plot dates back to a medieval French story, Huon of Bordeaux. You can hear Maria Callas sing an excerpt from the opera here.

  • Find Carl Maria von Weber’s overtures at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the complete opera here.

Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler’s Farewell

915-CFHUAeL._SX522_As late summer fades into fall, this seems like a good time to listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). The text, based on ancient Chinese poetry, evokes seasonal cycles…a sense of death, separation, and resignation, followed by rebirth, loss of the ego, and ultimate immorality. In this music, completed in 1909 near the end of Mahler’s life, the endless forward drive of Western music, everything from the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth to the epic climax of a Wagner opera, dissolves into something more circular and timeless. As Leonard Bernstein mentions, “death becomes a synonym for eternity,” and, in the end, both are greeted with peaceful acceptance.

Bernstein called Das Lied von der Erde “Mahler’s greatest symphony.” In this blend of symphony and song, there is never a sense of the orchestra merely accompanying the vocal line. Instead, all voices are seamlessly integrated. The work is scored for a large orchestra, including two harps, mandolin, glockenspiel and celesta. But small groups of instruments often converse with each other, creating the intimacy of chamber music. In Mahler’s music, each instrument’s distinct persona becomes especially vivid. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear that each voice has something to say, and although we can sense pain, melancholy, joy, transcendence, and more, the message is impossible to capture in words.

Mahler added “symphony” to the title, partly to overcome the perceived “curse of the ninth.” (As we discussed in a past Listeners’ Club post, composers from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner died after completing nine symphonies). But Das Lied von der Erde was not included as a numbered symphony and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony became his last completed work.

The final lines were written by Mahler:

The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever … Forever …

Here is the sixth and final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”). It’s a finale that is as long as all of the other preceding songs combined. This is Otto Klemperer’s 1966 recording with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (Mahler frequently wrote for mezzo-soprano, favoring the slightly darker tone color in contrast to the brightness of a soprano). As a young man, Klemperer knew Mahler and served as his assistant during the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the “Symphony of a Thousand”).

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Listen to the complete Das Lied von der Erde here.
  • Find Mahler in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Tannhäuser at the Vatican

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To finish out the week, here is a particularly exciting performance of Wagner’s Overture to the 1845 opera, Tannhäuser. The clip comes from a special 2005 concert at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Benedict. Christian Thielemann is conducting the Munich Philharmonic.

Tannhäuser is based on two German legends, one involving a singing contest at medieval Wartburg Castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop 1,350 feet above the town of Eisenach. The Overture opens with a quietly noble and unassuming chorale. Just before the curtain rises, the chorale reaches a climax with a heroic statement in the trombones.

Orchestral string players associate Wagner with endless, repetitive, and often physically taxing running passages, which provide dramatic counterpoint to the other musical lines. In this clip, you’ll hear plenty of those exciting moments (listen to the flutter of energy coming from the second violins and violas around 6:10 and the violas and cellos at 9:06). Listen to the way string sequences snake around the chorale melody, beginning at 10:45. These inner voices are an essential part of the overture’s drama and intensity.

Historic Tannhäuser Recordings, Munich and Beyond

Here are a few historic recordings of the Munich Philharmonic playing the Tannhäuser Overture:

  • Longtime Munich conductor Sergiu Celibidache’s recording
  • Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1962 recording
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1940 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle- It’s hard to separate this from the troubling politics of the time and place in which it was recorded, but a great performance, nonetheless.
  • Daniel Barenboim’s 2002 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle.
  • Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1975 recording.
  • Bonus: Knappertsbusch’s Die Meistersinger Overture with the Munich Philharmonic

Ivan Moravec Plays Chopin

Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)
Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (1930-2015)

 

The legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec passed away on Monday at the age of 84. He was widely regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Chopin. Mozart and Debussy were also high points of his repertoire. Born in Prague, and initially limited by the constraints of the Iron Curtain, Moravec first became known in the West through his recordings.

Listening to Moravec’s extensive discography, it’s easy to get a sense of the stunning, expressive beauty of his sound. His musicianship transcended flashy showmanship, transporting listeners to a deeper and more primal dimension. In a 1980 New York Times review, Harold C. Schonberg described Moravec’s playing this way:

Using an exceptionally warm sound, he played with a perpetually singing line. There was an architecture to the playing. This was an absorbing recital, played by a pianist who is very much his own man, with a degree of intensity, poetry and tonal subtlety very rare in these days of machine gun piano playing.

Here is Ivan Moravec’s recording of Chopin’s haunting Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52:

Now let’s hear two excerpts from Chopin’s Op. 25 Études. Robert Schumann referred to the Étude No. 1 in A-Flat Major as the “Aeolian Harp,” describing it as “a poem rather than a study.” It’s impossible to sustain a note on the piano. Once the hammer strikes the string, the sound begins to decay. But somehow the colorful splashes of sound in the arpeggiated accompaniment in this piece almost seems to defy this reality:

Étude No. 7 in C-Sharp Minor takes us into dark, melancholy territory. At the same time, it’s filled with moments of restless transcendence…tremendous drama packed into a small space where every note and chord counts. The main melodic line lies in a deep, sombre register of the piano, suggesting the cello.

The music is harmonically adventurous, with surprises around every corner. It must have sounded even more shocking to audiences in 1834 when it was written. There are hints of the late nineteenth century chromaticism of Richard Wagner.

Additional Listening

Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

 

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had an extraordinary ability to lose himself in the character and dramatically “go for broke.” His personality was reportedly volatile and quick-tempered. During a 1975 Dallas Opera performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Vickers broke character to chastise the audience for coughing. You can hear a recording of the incident here.

Here is an excerpt from Vickers’ 1960 recording of Verdi’s Otello with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The haunting Dio! mi potevi scagliar is from the third act of Otello. The jealous Otello is losing his grip on reality, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Following her exit from the room, he is left alone to ask God, “Why have you afflicted me in this manner?”

This late-Verdi score, which premiered in 1887 (over 15 years after Aida), integrates vocal lines and orchestra in a remarkable way. Following a long chromatic descent into Hell, we hear a numb, obsessively repeated string motive as Otello enters a dark inner world of contemplation:

Here are a few more links:

1965 Clip: Solti Conducts Wagner

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The young Sir Georg Solti’s interpretive power is on display in this electrifying performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The excerpt was apparently taken from a 1965 recording session with the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a raw passion and edge-of-your-seat intensity in this playing that we rarely hear today.

I grew up listening to many of Sir Georg Solti’s excellent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Solti’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Eastman Philharmonia was a memorable childhood concert experience. In his youth, the Hungarian-born conductor studied piano with Béla Bartók. Solti served as music director of the Chicago Symphony between 1969 and 1991 and remained the orchestra’s “Music Director Laureate” until his death in 1997. Over the course of his career, he won thirty-one Grammy Awards, more than any other recording artist.

As this clip demonstrates, a strict sense of rhythm and attention to the relationship of tempo to style seem to have been essential ingredients in Solti’s artistry. Solti’s interpretations were never fussy and always allowed the music to develop honestly.

To learn more about Georg Solti, watch this excerpt from Dudley Moore’s Orchestra! series and this documentary.

Additional Listening