“The Force is strong with this one.”
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…well about 70 years ago in Floral Park New York, John Towner Williams entered this world and the future of music in film would change forever. After moving to Los Angeles as a teenager, Williams attended UCLA and under the influence of his father – who was a jazz musician – his love for music composition began. Nobody, including himself could envision that he would become one of the greatest film composers of all time.
A few days ago I was fortunate enough to attend Music from the Star Wars Saga performed by the Ulster Orchestra and accompanied by the Belfast Philharmonic Choir. A spectacular evening celebrating John Williams’ incredible compositions chronicling various Star Wars suites. It wasn’t the first time I had the joy of hearing the unforgettable, Strauss-inspired, symphonic themes live and in person but this time around it felt more special as we were treated to informative musings during each suite from compere Tim Burden – a local presenter, radio personality and film score enthusiast – and also in attendance were the 501st Legion representing various Jedi, Stormtroopers and Ewoks.
After giving in to many Stormtrooper selfie opportunities I found my seat and minutes later the orchestra took to the stage. The lights dimmed and those spine-tingling opening notes of the ‘Star Wars Overture’ reverberated around the Ulster Hall. My eyes were firmly fixed on the outlandish hand movements of our conductor for the evening Ernst Van Tiel, but I knew in my heart that everybody present in the audience, like me, had the biggest smile on their face.
This particular concert mainly focussed on Williams’ scores for Episodes I-III but still paid tribute to some of his earlier themes from the original trilogy. While many believe that the prequels aren’t on par with the originals, there is no denying that John Williams’ music for Episodes I-III is some of the best the franchise has to offer. With the inclusion of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir we were blessed with such gems as ‘Duel of the Fates’ from The Phantom Menace and ‘Battle of the Heroes’ from Revenge of the Sith. As an added bonus there was also two pieces from John McNeely’s Shadows of the Empire score.
It’s safe to say that Williams’ main Star Wars title theme is probably one of the most recognisable pieces of film music ever composed but of course unlike may other film scores at the time Williams’ work on Star Wars had a deep richness, honesty and a dynamic textural discipline that echoed the true meaning of the story on the screen. At it’s core it does what any truly great score should do, it brings the viewer closer to the character and/or event that they are watching unfold in front of their eyes. I could go on for an age with the flowery compliments but at the end of the day it’s just the epitome of cool!
Before taking the Star Wars gig John Williams was already a pro when it came to writing music for film and television. He won his first Academy Award for Fiddler on the Roof in 1971 but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Steven Spielberg on Jaws four years later – the second time he composed a Spielberg film – that he became a household name. The Jaws theme is mainly composed of two ominous notes that begin slow and work towards a suspenseful crescendo, mirroring that of the monster-shark attacking its victims in the movie. After a recommendation from Spielberg, George Lucas sought out Williams to work on the score for Star Wars. An epic space adventure that was as risky as it was ambitious and at the time could easily have bombed but with the help of John Williams’ enduring themes Star Wars stuck in the mind of everybody aged between 5 and 35 and a franchise was born.
Williams is known for his imposing, heroic themes (as evident in Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.) for which I don’t think he can be bettered, but he’s also adept in crafting beautifully melodic, romantic pieces oozing with a persistent pathos that can follow you around for days on end and Star Wars is no different. One of the most dazzling pieces performed during the concert was ‘Across the Stars’, the love theme that accompanies Anakin and Padmé’s growing relationship in Attack of the Clones. This was quickly followed by another love theme of a different nature, ‘Luke and Leia’s Theme’ from Return of the Jedi. Two powerfully delicate yet totally engrossing pieces of music that seem to embody and encapsulate two defining moments in the Star Wars story. Both very capable of bringing a tear to the eye.
As a gifted pianist it is often in his more quieter and simpler compositions that he bends the heartstrings. But whether it’s in playful, inquisitive pieces from Home Alone or Harry Potter, thought provoking, emotive salutes from the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List or boisterous, heart pounding creations from Jurassic Park or Star Wars, we will forever be indebted to and moved by the sheer genius of John Williams. He will not be defined by his work on Star Wars. His outstanding career can’t be matched and his original compositions and influence is second to none.
A Star Wars music evening would not be complete without the malignant presence of the Dark Side. (Admit it you said those last two words in a really deep voice didn’t you?) ‘The Imperial March’ may be an inspired hybrid of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ and ‘Mars’ from Holst’s Planets but Williams works his own spin on it and creates one of the most fun and intimidating pieces of music in the history of cinema. The level of giddy excitement steadily grew while the orchestra played flawlessly as if half expecting Lord Vader himself to silently appear from smoke and shadow with belligerent demands beyond all appeasement. I could barely control myself from lunging from my seat and standing to attention like some hypnotised servant, but instead my eyes fluttered from the stage and watched as the audience, all diverse in shape, colour and age bobbed their heads.
Sandwiched between ‘Princess Leia’ and ‘Yoda’s Theme’ was ‘Battle of the Heroes’, the climatic choral showdown between Obi-Wan Kenobi and the now dark Anakin Skywalker. It was breathtaking. John McNeely’s suite inspired by the novel Shadows of the Empire consisting of ‘The Seduction of Princess Leia’ – a strange but beguiling waltz – and ‘The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace’ which does gravitate more closely towards Williams’ familiar sound closed the show to a delightful standing ovation. But we were in for one last treat. The encore was a stunning extended rendition of ‘The Throne Room’ which I wanted to last forever but unfortunately seemed to end too soon. All good things come to an end I suppose but one thing’s for sure everybody left the Ulster Hall grinning from ear to ear. I just wonder how many of them went home and watched A New Hope…
John Williams is a genuine, once-in-a-lifetime master of his art. His music is a message for hope. His deliverance is a personification of perfection. His diligent work scoring all six Star Wars films to date in my opinion has had as much of an effect on the success of the franchise as any other protruding factor. Certainly an argument can be made that without his involvement the movies might have dissipated into a black hole deep into endless space like so many other sci-fi impersonations. He may not have been the first film composer to make the average man or kid care about musical score but for the life of me I genuinely cannot think of another that has had so much influence on movie audiences.
As I exited the hall that night (and after many, many more Stormtrooper selfies) I couldn’t help but notice a young boy no older than 8 or 9 garbed in Clone Trooper armour accompanied by his parents who were also dressed up, and a thought ran through my mind…Star Wars is for absolutely everyone. Like John Williams’ incomparable versatility and his music’s unique capability of transcending generations, Star Wars also has the capacity to appeal and touch the hearts of all of us.
I’d like to thank both the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir for their performance and of course the 501st for not only telling us all to “move along” but for also being good sports and taking loads of pictures with everyone.
*The Ulster Orchestra has recently had some funding issues and while the short term solution has been settled there is still a growing fear that long term funding may be affected. Please visit their website, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter to help support them. But most of all if you get the opportunity to see them live then please take it. Thank you.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter