State Theatre New Jersey

Classical & Pops

The Story Behind Composing Star Wars

May the force be with you! The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) will be performing the score of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi live as the movie plays on The State’s 46-foot movie screen on February 9 at 3pm. Composer John Williams made history when he wrote the scores of all nine Star Warssaga films. Here’s how it all began.  

Williams composed over 100 movie scores and counting in his incredible career, but the Star Wars saga takes the cake when it comes to his most well-known work. Williams had to start from scratch to compose Star Wars, which was released over 40 years ago in 1977. He found inspiration in Richard Wagner, who was a 19th century German composer. Richard Wagner’s 14-hour epic titled “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (which translates to “The Ring of the Nibelung”) invented a new style of music known as leitmotifs. A leitmotif, which is a nickname for leading motifs, is defined as a phrase of music that is short and often repeats itself throughout a piece. An example of a leitmotif that can be heard whenever Luke Skywalker makes his first appearance in scenes, with a long, held-out line.  

Other composers that inspired Williams as he was writing the original Star Wars score were Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Steiner composed for the legendary films, Gone with the Wind, King Kong, and Casablanca, to name a few. Steiner also incorporated leitmotifs in his film scores, along with being one of the first movie composers to add background music during dialogue. Korngold, who grew up in Austria-Hungary (present-day Czech Republic), wrote the scores of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and more. Along with adding motifs to characters, Korngold improvised his music as he watched scenes from the movies he was composing. Both composers inspired Williams’ ideas when composing Star Wars, where The New Yorker music critic, Alex Ross, calls it a “a deliberate throwback to the manner of Steiner and Korngold.”  

Williams’ original ideas stuck with him when he composed the following eight Star Wars films, including Return of the Jedi. In an interview with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), Willams explains how his process has pretty much remained the same throughout the decades. He describes sitting down to begin a new Star Wars score as “getting back on your teenage bicycle that you haven’t forgotten how to ride at all.” He also says that his creative process has evolved more as a conductor than a composer. He says, “I still use the piano, I still use a pencil and paper; I have not evolved to the point where I use computers and synthesizers.”  

In terms of instruments and orchestra, John Williams wrote the scores for the Star Wars franchise to be performed with a full orchestra. The scores were written for 79-113 musicians and 12-120 choral vocalists. However, the same sound can be replicated with as little as 60 instruments and 50 vocalists. This short essay lists all the instruments used to record the score for Return of the Jedi, which include both traditional and nontraditional instruments, including a deep guillotine drum, an anvil, and bamboo sticks

Make sure to hang out with Yoda and Princess Leia as you watch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi on the State Theatre big screen while the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performs the score live. Join us after the show in the Heldrich Room for a "Secrets of Star Wars" event featuring Cinema Retro publisher and movie expert Lee Pfeiffer sharing behind-the-scenes stories and insight into the Star Wars movies and their scores. Can’t make it on February 9? Don’t fret! The NJSO will be back at State Theatre New Jersey on March 21, 2021 at 3pm to perform the live score of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No matter which performance you attend, you are guaranteed musical greatness, all thanks to the legend that is John Williams. 

By Kerriann Ring

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