The New Yorker: A Field Guide to the Musical Leitmotifs of “Star Wars”
The film-music scholar Frank Lehman, an assistant professor at Tufts University, works fast: within a day of the opening of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” he had updated his “Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII,” which can be found online. The catalogue now includes fifty-five distinct leitmotifs—thematic ideas that point toward characters, objects, ideas, and relationships—and forty-three so-called incidental motifs, which, Lehman says, “do not meet criteria for proper leitmotifs” but nonetheless possess dramatic significance. Such beloved tunes as “The Force,” “Han and Leia,” and the dastardly “Imperial March” are here, along with more esoteric items like “Planetary Descent Figure,” “Ominous Neighbor Figure,” and “Apocalyptic Repeated Minor Triads.”
All this refers, of course, to the eight scores that John Williams has composed for the “Star Wars” cycle, with a ninth in the works. In decades past, it was fashionable for self-styled serious music types to look down on Williams, but the “Star Wars” corpus has increasingly attracted scholarly scrutiny: Lehman’s catalogue will be published in “John Williams: Music for Films, Television, and the Concert Stage,” a volume forthcoming from the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini. This attention has come about not only because of the mythic weight that George Lucas’s space operas have acquired in the contemporary imagination; the music is also superbly crafted and rewards close analysis. Williams’s latest score is one the most compelling in his forty-year “Star Wars” career: Rian Johnson’s film complicates and enriches the familiar template, and Williams responds with intricate, ambiguous variations on his canon of themes.
The thematic material found in the Star Wars movies is truly encyclopedic, and it always impresses me how consistent Williams is in his use of leitmotif. There are vanishingly few instances where a major theme plays and it doesn’t directly fit with the characters and events on the screen. Case in point: as recognizable and powerful as “The Imperial March” is, Williams uses it sparingly in the prequel trilogy and the new trilogy for the simple reason that the Empire as we know it exists only in the original movies.