How John Williams’ “Star Wars” Score Was Influenced by Classical Music

John Williams in 2006

John Williams in 2006

January 8, 2017 – In his six decades of work, composer John Williams has produced some of the most recognizable and popular scores in cinematic history. His music is associated with some of the highest grossing films, including Jaws, most all of the Star Wars movies, Superman, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and the first three Harry Potter films.

Could one man alone, no matter how great his musical genius, have scored and composed so many strains of music, melodies and themes for numerous movies? While Williams has remained mum on the issue, the answer is that he was likely influenced by several sources, both classical and modern.

To begin with, the opening theme of Star Wars sounds very similar to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for King’s Row, a 1942 film about kids from opposite sides of the tracks looking for love and friendship.

Listen to the opening strains of King’s Row and see if they don’t remind you of the opening theme of Star Wars:

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austrian-born composer and conductor. He composed classical music and music for 16 Hollywood films. He won Academy Awards for his score for Anthony Adverse (1936) and for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Korngold, aged 60, died at home in California in 1957, just a few blocks from Warner Brothers Studio where he worked.

John Williams was also likely influenced by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), an English composer, arranger and teacher. Holst is best known for his composition The Planets, a seven-movement orchestral suite written between 1914 and 1916. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet, with the exception of Pluto (not yet discovered at the time) and Earth.

John Williams’ Imperial March, to cite one example, may have been influenced by Holst’s Mars, Bringer of War.

Similarly, Luke’s Theme may have echoed, in part, Holst’s Venus, the Bringer of Peace

For Han Solo and Princess Leia’s theme, Williams may have turned to Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Compare:

…with this:

For Darth Vader’s melody, listen to Frederic Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, nicknamed the Funeral March.

How about the plucky Ewoks? Surely their theme in Return of the Jedi is unique? The Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), never met an Ewok, but his Suite from the Love for Three Oranges certainly evokes images from the forest moon of Endor.

And then there’s the veritable treasure trove of Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) from which many Star Wars echoes can be heard, including:

… any number of battle or chase scenes, such as on the forest moon of Endor (06:40):

… or C-3PO wandering alone in the arid Dune Sea of Tatooine in A New Hope (15:56):

… or the stormtroopers marching on the first Death Star in A New Hope (03:27):

… or the Detention Room interrogation of Princess Leia in A New Hope (10:10-11:00):

… or General Grievous’ theme from Revenge of the Sith (23:02-24:40):

To be fair to John Williams, it should be noted that no musician or composer operates in a vacuum. He or she has studied years of music, been exposed to many styles and arrangements, and stands on the shoulders of those who came before.

Igor Stravinsky, one of John Williams’ favorite composers, once said, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” But that assessment is too harsh and simplistic.

None of the above is to say that John Williams “stole” or “plagiarized” from other musicians. Rather, it seems fairer to say that he was influenced, whether consciously or subconsciously, by great composers that preceded him.

To Williams’ great credit, he improvised on certain strains, gave them new meaning and emotion while weaving them into numerous melodies, and he exposed millions to music they would never have heard before. These, in essence, are the gifts of John Williams.

One thought on “How John Williams’ “Star Wars” Score Was Influenced by Classical Music

  1. Film music was often just a lazy complete “steal “of an entire piece. eg Brief Encounters using Rachmaninov piano concerto no 2 or Kubrick using Ligeti’s music without permission. The Right Stuff music sounded very much like Tchaikovsky violin concerto….
    At least JW is using creative license and writing it in his own “notes” so I don’t think he should be accused of anything at all with respect of the charge of “stealing” it just goes to show what great music it is that it can influence others many years to bring the emotions to millions more…

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