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.

Remembering Seymour Lipkin

pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)
pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)

American pianist and teacher Seymour Lipkin passed away on Monday. He was 88.

Born in Detroit, Lipkin studied with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and David Saperton. During the Second World War, while still a student at Curtis, he accompanied Jascha Heifetz in concerts for American troops stationed around the world. In 1948 Lipkin won the Rachmaninov Competition, launching a significant solo career. He was a longtime faculty member of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. In his youth, he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and George Szell as an apprentice at the Cleveland Orchestra.

Interviews suggest that Seymour Lipkin was the model of a well-rounded artist. As a teenager he was inspired by the music from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (He would later serve as Curtis’ opera pianist). For students, he stressed the importance of listening to a variety of music and developing your own interpretation.

Seymour Lipkin was regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Beethoven. In 2004 he released the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the Newport Classics label. Unlike many artists, he was intimately involved in the editing of his recordings, with the goal of capturing the spontaneity and cohesiveness of a live performance. Here, he plays the stormy first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata:

In contrast to the opening movement, the second movement of the “Pathétique” moves to a serene new world:

Here is the Rondo:

Night Traffic

rainy night traffic

There is a significant update to Monday’s post regarding the Hartford Wagner Festival’s plans to use a “virtual orchestra” in performances of the Ring Cycle. On Monday afternoon the Festival announced that performances would be postponed due to the controversy, which resulted in resignations of key members of the company. Although it was not mentioned in the released statement, an apparent lack of financial support may also have played a role. A Kickstarter campaign, initiated on May 30 with the fundraising goal of $25,000, has only resulted in a single $50.00 pledge. To get a sense of the “virtual orchestra,” listen to this sampled version of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings and then compare it with the real thing.

While the “virtual orchestra” has met with resistance in the opera pit, computer processed sounds have led to a rich array of new colors and exciting compositional possibilities for contemporary composers. From amplified rock music to the faint hum of our lights and appliances, the sounds of electricity are all around us. These sounds shape our sensibilities in the way bird songs and bubbling brooks influenced Haydn or Schubert. In pop songs and avant-garde computer compositions, the recording has become elevated to a work of art in its own right. There are obvious drawbacks to the fixed and unchanging nature of a recording, as opposed to the spontaneity of acoustic performance. But acoustic and electric sounds will continue to blend in interesting new ways. In the twenty-first century, complex musical technology ranges from the violin to the computer.

Paul Lansky’s Night Traffic (1990) uses the processed, recorded sounds of cars passing in the night on a four lane highway in New Jersey. For me, the piece hints at an atmosphere of lonely isolation and the dehumanizing nature of modern technology. You may come away with a completely different feeling. As you listen, consider the sense of motion and edgy, metallic tonal colors. Read about the background of the piece here. Lansky offers this description of Night Traffic:

There is a kind of randomness, violence, and rhythmic intensity (and great Doppler shifts!) which draw upon and excite all sorts of musical perceptions.

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Retiring last month, Paul Lansky was a longtime member of Princeton University’s composition faculty. Recently, his music has shifted from computers, which he has described as “a kind of aural camera in the world”, to acoustic instruments. His 1973 tape piece, mild und leiseinspired by Wagner’s Tristan chordwas quoted in the Radiohead song, Idioteque.

Virtual Wagner: Worth the Price of Admission?

violin playing robotA firestorm of controversy has erupted surrounding plans by the Hartford Wagner Festival to perform Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a digital “virtual orchestra.” The festival’s founder, Charles M. Goldstein, has entered sampled sounds of orchestral instruments into a musical software program, which will be played using 24 speakers in the pit. The sounds were provided by a company called the Vienna Symphonic Library. The first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold, is scheduled for August. In 2004 the Opera Company of Brooklyn attempted a similar performance with Mozart’s Magic Flute, but was forced to cancel amid protest. In response to criticism, Hartford Wagner Festival, which should not be confused with Hartford Opera Theater, put out this statement.

If the production goes on as planned, Hartford audiences will pay around $100.00 a ticket for a less-than-live experience. With so many excellent, well mixed recordings available, featuring experienced singers as opposed to this production’s young cast, it’s hard to understand why patrons wouldn’t instead opt for their home entertainment system. Why get in your car and pay for parking when you can listen to recorded music through speakers in the comfort of your own home?

Of course, a recording is no replacement for a real live performance. We continue to value live performances because of the power, presence and immediacy of the sound and the unpredictable excitement of (in the case of Wagner) a hundred or more musicians spontaneously reacting to each other and to the moment. Each performance is a unique event, which will never occur exactly the same way again. Live performance isn’t possible without the human element. The way the horn player shapes and colors a musical line feeds the drama onstage and influences and inspires the singers who, in turn, inspire the orchestra.

A Wagner Festival without an orchestra is all the more ironic because Wagner wrote “symphonic” operas, rooted in orchestral color. In his essays, Wagner described his philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, -a blending of many art forms into one. This seems far removed from the kind of bizarre operatic karaoke dreamed up in Hartford. Goldstein points out that smaller companies often put on these operas using two pianos in the pit. That approach might work if you’re presenting The Fantasticks, but in the case of Wagner, if you aren’t prepared to invest in a real, live orchestra, why bother?

It’s hard to imagine the Hartford performances being anything but cold, dead and soulless. Even if audience members delude themselves into thinking they can’t tell the difference between a virtual string section and a real one, they will still feel the difference on a subconscious level. In the end, music is about feeling rather than analyzing. Let’s hope there are no young people in the audience looking for their first taste of opera. At a time when we should be celebrating and promoting the excitement of live performance, the Hartford Wagner Festival is shamefully and fraudulently devaluing a great art form.

Join the Facebook group, Musicians Against Hartford Wagner Festival here.

Contact the Hartford Wagner Festival directly here.

UPDATE: June 16, 2:00 pm ET. The Hartford Wagner Festival has just released a statement announcing that it is postponing the Das Rheingold performance.

Becoming one with E-flat major

The expansive opening of Das Rheingold starts with a deep rumble and slowly develops on a single E-flat major chord, hinting at the epic proportions of what is to come. One of opera’s most dramatic preludes, this is music which forces us to confront the power of color and pure sound, with all of the rich overtones which can only be created by an orchestra. Here is a Bayreuth performance conducted by Pierre Boulez: