Over the past few decades, film music has happily become an essential part of our concert hall repertory. In a concert setting, film music is perhaps at its best, when complete scores are performed, often accompanied by the film itself.
In a more traditional setting, brief excerpts of film scores are performed, be it simply main title themes or more elaborate concert arrangements. While this is an enjoyable concept in itself, performing complete film scores in concert provides, however, far deeper grasp of the very essence of the art of composing for the silver screen.
A very special occasion for film music fans arose last weekend, when the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ludwig Wicki gave five performances of the complete John Williams score for Star Wars: A New Hope (1977/1997) with the film at Royal Albert Hall.
All performances were more or less sold out, with fans from London and afar mustering at Royal Albert Hall for these most authentic of performances.
Now, authentic is not a word to be used lightly, but here it might be appropriate, given the fact that it was the LSO performing the music on the original Star Wars soundtrack, with Williams conducting. Over twenty-eight years following those initial recording sessions, Williams and the orchestra have since collaborated on eleven films and recorded three studio albums as well.
The composer and the orchestra first came together via Williams’ friendship with André Previn, the principal conductor of the LSO from 1968 to 1979. During those days, Hollywood film scores were frequently recorded in London, where top-notch musicians were more cost-efficiently available compared to their Californian colleagues.
With an unparalleled history in recording film music, the LSO was a natural choice for Star Wars, given that under its sci-fi surface, the film paid homage to the swashbucklers of the Hollywood golden age, both cinematographically and musically.
Williams’ music for Star Wars heralded a renaissance of the musical style of the 30s and 40s Hollywood, originally rooted in the music of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and most of all, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
It was Korngold, who saw film scores as operas without singing, in other words, musical devices based on leitmotives, developed throughout the film, more or less in the manner of a Wagner or Strauss opera.
This style of the golden age became outmoded during the sixties, as the Hollywood studios became increasingly interested in soundtrack albums as a merchandise. In the search for more marketable product, more pop-oriented scores were favored by the studio executives.
By the mid-seventies, enthusiasm for the quasi-operatic film scores was rekindled, thanks to the now-classic RCA re-recordings of the 30s and 40s film music by producer George Korngold and conductor Charles Gerhardt. The stage was set for Star Wars to appear.
Prior to Star Wars, Williams had already gained quite a reputation in Hollywood with his two collaborations with Steven Spielberg, including Jaws (1975) and scoring Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976).
It was Spielberg, who introduced Williams to George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. Lucas’ initial idea was to have Star Wars scored with adaptations of well-known classics of the orchestral repertoire, but Williams soon convinced him that an original score would provide more unified musical approach.
And so began a creative process unparalleled in the history of film scoring. Over the past four decades, the original single-film project has grown into eight films, divided into three trilogies with Williams at now work with the ninth, and last, film.
The musical universe of Star Wars has become an essential part of our contemporary musical grammar, with instantly recognizable themes which anybody can be found humming, whether or not familiar with the name of John Williams or the Star Wars saga.
In the words of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Williams has gained the greatest honour possible, anonymity. For his music is even better known than the man himself, fused into the vernacular.
All things considered, the LSO Star Wars weekend at Royal Albert Hall was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. For the audiences, it provided a unique chance to hear the score in concert with the orchestra whose sound had become an essential part of the Star Wars universe.
For the LSO, these concerts allowed the orchestra to revisit its single most famous film score collaboration with a generation of musicians for many of whom the original Star Wars recording had played an essential part in their career choices.
The five Royal Albert Hall concerts were conducted by Ludvig Wicki, the founder of the 21st Century Orchestra, an ensemble specializing in film music, and the professor of conducting at universities in Lucerne and Bern.
As a concert opener, Alfred Newman’s iconic 20th Century Fox Fanfare (1933/1953) was heard. The fanfare too had its renaissance with Star Wars, as Lucas insisted the studio to revive its then-obsolete classic in the film. After Star Wars, the Newman fanfare became an essential part of the studio brand again.
Williams’ score opens with the famously upbeat Main Title music, serving as an extended film overture, accompanied by the trademark title crawl, setting the scene with a background story for the film events. A diminuendo transition passage follows, leading to a sforzato climax for timpani, large tam-tam, low winds and brass, as the desert planet Tatooine makes its first screen appearance.
A spacecraft appears pursued by another, a huge star destroyer of the Galactic Empire. Accompanied by an insistent marcato motive, marked ’with great force’, the star destroyer captures the rebel spacecraft, Tantive IV.
As the imperial stormtroopers board the rebel spacecraft, a battle resumes. In this scene, Williams introduces several of his key themes, including Rebel Spaceship Fanfare, Princess Leia’s Theme and the Imperial Fanfare.
On board the rebel spacecraft there is stolen top secret data, which the Empire pursues to recapture. Thanks to princess Leia, the data is stored into an escape pod, launched to Tatooine, carrying two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO.
On the desert planet, the droids end up in the hands of scavengers known as Jawas, only to be sold to the moisture farmer family of Skywalker. These nocturnal adventures with the Jawas are set to music by Williams with ostinato passages reminiscent of the opening of the second tableau of The Rite of Spring (1911-13) by Igor Stravinsky.
As the Skywalkers’ foster son, Luke, appears on the scene, Williams plays out a subtle version of the main title theme, now reveling itself as Luke’s leitmotif.
Stuck at his home farm, young Luke yearns for a more meaningful life. This yearning is echoed in the music with the introduction of the Force Theme, first heard as Luke contemplates his life while watching the binary sunset of Tatooine.
After many twists and turns, Luke and the droids end up in the middle of the desert, where they encounter Sand People, vicious bandits, whose aggressive nature is depicted in the music with a cascade of wild percussion. Eventually saved by Obi-Wan Kenobi, an old Jedi knight, to whom R2-D2 is supposed to deliver the stolen data accompanied by a hologram message from the princess.
Following the death of his foster parents in the assault by the imperial stormtroopers, Luke decides to follow Obi-Wan and the droids on their quest to return the top secret data to the rebels. Heading first to Mos Eisley spaceport, they start searching for a ship and pilot to provide them an escape from Tatooine.
Scored with a passage of diegenetic music for the Cantina house band, Williams sets the scene with two brilliant jazz pastiches, heard as original film soundtrack recordings at Royal Albert Hall. A practical solution, given the fact that the Cantina Band sound had been created through elaborate filtering of the original studio recording, something not easily duplicated in a concert setting.
After finding themselves a ship and pilots, Han Solo and Chewbacca, the company escapes Mos Eisley with imperial stormtroopers on their heels, accompanied by ingenious battle music with the Force Theme as leitmotif.
Prior to the escape there is a scene cut from the original 1977 film edit with Han Solo meeting the leading gangster of the galaxy, Jabba the Hutt. The scene was restored, digitally enhanced, for the 1997 update of the original Star Wars trilogy. The scene is scored with a passage originally written by Williams for The Return of the Jedi (1983), featuring the marvellous Jabba the Hutt theme for solo tuba.
Following their escape from Mos Eisley aboard the Millennium Falcon, the company ends up being captured with tractor beams emanating from the Death Star. A massive battle station, the Death Star’s main weapon has just seen its first combat use with the Empire destroying princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, as an attempt to force her to reveal the location of the hidden rebel base.
The first act of the concert performance concludes with the Millennium falcon hovering into a landing hangar of the the Death Star, accompanied by a climatic burst of the Rebel Spaceship Fanfare from the full orchestra.
Following the intermission, the same musical cue is heard as an introduction of the second act. The stage is now set at aboard the Death Star, now holding all the main characters. Princess Leia awaits her death sentence at the cell bay, while the crew aboard the Millennium Falcon manages to escape the imperial stormtroopers by hiding under hatches used for smuggling.
An action-packed sequence follows as the company sets out to rescue the princess and escape from the Death Star. Musical tensions are skillfully built by Williams mixing the Rebel Spaceship Fanfare with austere Death Star music, dominated by ominous timpani parts, as well as signal-like stormtrooper music scored for muted brass.
Their escape culminates with a duel between Obi-Wan and his nemesis, Darth Vader, once a Jedi knight, seduced by the dark side of the Force. In the rather leisurely paced duel, one of the very few scenes betraying the age of the film, Obi-Wan gives his life, to provide the others time and distraction needed for their escape.
As Darth Vader gives his fatal blow, Williams plays out Leia’s Theme forcefully, cleverly reminding the audience of the purpose of Obi-Wan’s sacrifice.
Escaping aboard the Millennium Falcon the company is being pursued by four Imperial TIE fighters. A space battle resumes, set as a fantastic scherzo by Williams, based on the Rebel Spaceship Fanfare. A brief relief is provided with Han and Luke destroying the imperial fighters.
The company arrives at the hidden rebel base on the fourth moon of the planet Yavin. With a homing beacon set aboard the Millennium Falcon, the location of the base is revealed to the Empire.
The big closing battle resumes, as the rebels set out to destroy the Death Star after finding a small weakness in blueprints of the station, stored among the stolen data. The target being a small thermal shaft leading to the main reactor, fighters are launched to intercept the Death Star armed with photon torpedoes, in order to destroy their target.
In contrast to the tiring over-the-top battle scenes en vogue today, the concluding space battle is charmingly subtle, with a key role assigned to Williams’ music. Based on the Rebel Spaceship Fanfare, a riveting series of ugato passages ensues, with the Imperial Fanfare and stormtrooper music as countersubjects.
At the most desperate hour, aided by Han and Chewbacca, Luke finally hits the target after being pursued by Darth Vader with his TIE fighter, accompanied by a staggering variation of Luke’s Theme coloured by a sombre timpani ostinato.
The Death Star is blown to pieces with a solo celesta ringing out as the flickering debris floats into space. As the sole survivor from the Death Star, Darth Vader manages to escape aboard his fighter.
The jubilant end ceremony at the rebel base, famously scored with The Throne Room cue, builds into a climatic march subject, with fanfares, based on the Force Theme and Luke’s Theme. The music then flows into the end titles with closing music bringing together the key themes of the film into a rousing finale.
The performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and Ludwig Wicki was simply outstanding. With each player fully committed to the job, the LSO made Williams proud with their spot-on performance. The unique warmth of the strings, the glimmering of harps, the lively animated winds, the glorious brass and the ever-agile percussion provided their essential contribution to this performance of a lifetime.
With Maestro Wicki at the helm, the music was ever-perfectly balanced and paced, maintaining ideal synchronization with the images while breathing freely, as if emanating from a heartbeat.
The atmosphere at Royal Albert Hall was joyously intensive as the dedicated audience lived with the music and the players from the very first bars all the way to the final chord. A rousing standing ovation followed, with a wholehearted affection for the LSO musicians and Maestro Wicki. This was truly a one-in-a-million evening!
London Symphony Orchestra
Ludwig Wicki, conductor
John WIlliams: Star Wars: A New Hope (1977/1997)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 17 November 2018, 7.30 pm
c Jari Kallio