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The Music that Inspired Star Wars

John Williams - Star Wars composer
John Williams - Star Wars composer

We celebrate Star Wars Day (‘May the Fourth be With You’) by looking into the pieces that inspired John Williams’ magnificent soundtracks for these space operas.

A work that has provided a near endless source of inspiration for film music composers over the years has been Gustav Holst’s The Planets. John Williams is no exception to this. Take the Imperial March, for example:

That driving rhythm is reminiscent of those that accompany Mars from the opening movement, despite the different time signatures:

If this seems a little tenuous, listen to the final bars of Mars:

And compare it to the final bars of John Williams’ Imperial March

Both pieces are even in the same key!

The music from the Planets has also, by the way, inspired another of William’s classic scores. Listen to this section from Neptune, the Mystic:

The chords and orchestration (especially the use of the celesta), have more than a hint of this famous opening:

Back to Star Wars, there is the Throne Room Music From A New Hope:

This marching swagger has more than a little of the feeling of Elgar to it, for example his Pomp and Circumstance March No.4:

Similar such borrowings include from Part II of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, (music depicting the planet Tatooine in Episode 4), from the opening of Karl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Duel of the Fates, Episode 1) and other moments that seem to evoke Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and also other film music composers such as Erich Korngold, Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann.

Williams also reached back far into music history, making use of the medieval Dies Irae plainchant, which is briefly heard as Luke sees that his family has been killed by the Empire.

He also is adept as pastiching other styles, including the baroque style music heard at the court of Jabba the Hut and his big band music for the bar scene in A New Hope.


Other borrowing may be less direct, but are equally important. Williams makes extensive use in his films of Leitmotifs—musical ideas that become associated with certain characters or groups of characters or objects or ideas. Think, for example, of the aforementioned Imperial March, played to evoke the Empire and especially Darth Vader, or Leia’s Theme, or the theme used to evoke The Force.

Williams also cleverly uses these Leitmotifs to suggest future events, for example, in the Phantom Menace prequel, Anakin’s theme contain elements of the Imperial March, hinting as his destiny as Darth Vader. These use of themes in this way is inspired by the music of Richard Wagner, who did the same things is his operas, including his four-part ‘Ring’ Cycle.

Some have criticised Williams for his many borrowings. We agree, however, with Pablo Picasso, who said “Good artists copy, Great artists steal.” Williams takes what he finds, and in doing so make it completely his own.

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