The author of this week’s post is Mark Schwartz, a writer-editor in the Communications and Outreach Section of the National Library Service and a Jedi Knight in training.
In a few days, many inhabitants of the third planet from the sun will celebrate “May-the-Fourth-Be-with-You” day, also known as Star Wars day (“May the force be with you”—get it?), recognizing the film series. Like pi day (March 14, a.k.a. “3.14”), May the Fourth is a holiday-come-lately, manufactured mostly for fun and fandom, an excuse to indulge the inner nerd. Star Wars day allows us to reflect on themes that spans an entire universe. Indeed, this past September the Library of Congress hosted a panel of scholars to discuss how American politics and culture relate to themes within the Star Wars universe.
The latest Star Wars film coming out this year—ending the third trilogy of the core franchise—has science fiction fans very excited, so excited that some may feel giddy upon hearing the music of the films (not to mention the buzz of a whirling light saber or the Doppler effect of a charging star fighter). The composer of the score is none other than John Williams, with more than 50 Academy Award nominations under his belt and five wins on his mantel. In April 2005, the Library of Congress selected his soundtrack from the first Star Wars film for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.
So why is the music from the Star Wars films so powerful? Certainly, there is the action of the story itself, but the music alone—without visuals or narration—lives on its own. The first clue is the use of musical themes, known as leitmotifs. These themes represent characters as they appear (or are about to come on screen) in the story. Several of the Star Wars “character voice” themes by Williams are so recognizable that they are ringtones on phones or punch lines to commercials. You can’t watch a Star Wars movie without linking Darth Vader’s theme to menace on the march, the very sound of foreboding. It has been the audio gag for the entrance of a bad boss or a scolding spouse in many media outlets for the last 40 years. This aural narrative device of leitmotifs is most famously associated with Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Moreover, Williams nods to Wagner in his heavy use of brass for the leitmotif of the Star Wars universe’s central tragic character. Darth Vader and the machinations of the Evil Empire are reminiscent of the music Wagner composed for the Ring cycle. In Star Wars, there is also the romantic: Williams, for his love theme for Han Solo and Princess Leia, tips his hat to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Then there is the space between the stars. Gustav Holst mastered the sound of space, where no one can hear you scream or HAL won’t open the space hatch, but can be scored for the passing space cruiser or starship. Holst’s The Planets has been sampled for many science fiction films, with the first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” being the destination for star-faring composers like Williams. It has been noted that the storm troopers in Star Wars march to more than a measure of Holst, threatening freedom a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Right now in our galaxy, the NLS Music Section allows its patrons to travel down wormholes to enjoy the influences of Williams. On May 4 and lightyears after, you can check out the following titles. And may the music of the force be with you… always.
To learn more about borrowing scores and books from the Music Section, call 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected]
Titles related to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and leitmotifs in the Ring operas
20 Top Young People’s Classics: Tunes for Two. Contains Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” arranged for piano four hands in bar over bar format. (BRM35829)
Bennett, Roy. Enjoying Music, Book 1. 2 volumes. Contains a chapter on Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (BRM28339)
Walkürenritt aus der Oper “Die Walküre.” An arrangement of “Ride of the Valkyries” for piano in section by section format. (BRM26925)
Allen, Peter. Die Walküre. Talking about Wagner’s Ring. (DBM01312)
Barclay, Michael. Michael Barclay Lectures on Die Walküre. (DBM01335)
Cooke, Deryck. An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen. (DBM03640)
Jenkins, Speight. Enjoying Wagner’s Ring. (DBM01579)
Johnson, Stephen. An Introduction to Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung. (DBM03633)
Introduction to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (DBM01368)
Thompson, Ann. Tannhäuser. This is Wagner’s fifth opera and the first to use the leitmotif. Ann Thompson discusses chivalry in the Middle Ages and Wagner’s life. (DBM01294)
Titles related to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake
101 Classical Themes: Violin. Melodies from popular classical pieces arranged for solo violin. (BRM36690)
Bastien, James W. Classical Themes by the Masters. Includes Swan Lake theme, arranged for piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM35539)
The Classical Music Fakebook. Piano/organ edition with guitar chords. Freely adapted and simplified selections, including “Dance of the Swans” from Swan Lake. In bar over bar format. (BRM29621)
Famous Ballet Tunes, Book 1. Arranged for soprano recorder. Includes selections from Swan Lake. (BRM06428)
A Garland of Melodies, for Treble Recorder. Books 1-4. Includes “Tune” from Swan Lake. (BRM22564)
Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich. “Waltz” from the Swan Lake Ballet. Arranged for solo piano by Granville Bantock in bar by bar format. (BRM06407)
Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich. “Forest Glen,” Entr’acte from Swan Lake. Arranged for solo accordion by Anthony Aretta. Bar over bar format. (BRM16964)
Dangerfield, Marcia. The Narrated Life History of Peter Tchaikovsky. (DBM03406)
Greenberg, Robert. Great Masters: Tchaikovsky, His Life and Music. Available on cartridge only. (DBM02425)
Siepmann, Jeremy. Life and Works: Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. (DBM03623)
The World’s 50 Greatest Composers: Peter Tchaikovsky. (DBM01646)
Keyboard Cavalcade of Famous Music. Arranged for piano. Contains “Theme” from Swan Lake. (LPM00355)
Titles Related to Holst’s The Planets
Bennett, Roy. Enjoying Music, Book 2. In 2 volumes. This book’s first chapter is on “Mars,” “Venus,” and “Jupiter” from The Planets. (BRM28520)
Holst, Gustav. “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” arranged for medium voice and piano. The melody of this British patriotic hymn was adapted from Holst’s “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” (BRM01332)
Holst, Gustav. The Planets, arranged for two pianos by the composer. 3 volumes in bar over bar format. (BRM29994)
Holst, Gustav. Suite from The Planets, arranged for band by Calvin Custer. Flute part only. (BRM35821)
More Talking Books about Star Wars
Windham, Ryder. Star Wars. Episode IV, V, VI – A New Hope. The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi. Based on the story and screenplay by George Lucas and the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. (DB79862)
Wrede, Patricia C. Star Wars. Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith. (DB61807)
Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful than You Can Possibly Imagine. (DB92292)