Sixteen years after completing the original Star Wars trilogy, composer John Williams found himself in an unusual position. He had to score The Phantom Menace, a film that takes place 32 years before Star Wars. The villainous Darth Vader is still a young and innocent boy and galaxy still feels like a very different place, way preceding the Civil War we knew from other chapters. This situation had to addressed through music, of course. Williams had to create completely new themes for all the new characters, places and concepts. And also to reference already known material and foreshadow their future development. An interesting challenge, to be sure.
The prequel trilogy feels very different from older films, and those changes are also reflected in music. In those years, the cinema landscape has changed drastically. The technological progress allowed for more creative freedom, giving George Lucas freedom to realise pretty much any of his outlandish ideas on big screen, for better or worse. John Williams himself wasn't the same composer from 1980's. His style has evolved drastically over those years, and The Phantom Menace was never going to be sound like a direct musical continuation of Return of the Jedi. Having said that, composer makes more conscious musical bridges between two trilogies in both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Most importantly, the concept of leitmotif was retained for the prequel films. For the most part, the use of themes probably isn't as operatic, save for few examples, but it still follows the same path.
THE PHANTOM MENACE
Duel of the Fates
Star Wars prequels gave as to finally see fully trained Jedi Knights in their prime. In the original trilogy, Obi-Wan was already an old man, Luke Skywalker never really completed his training... and Darth Vader… well... he was essentially a cyborg. So it's no surprise the duels felt more like character moments, rather than elaborate physical confrontations. In the 1999-2005 films, things looked very differently. Filmmakers and fight choreographers gave lightsaber battles a truly balletic feel. And so idea was born to crate an almost religious music element for those acrobatic feats we witness in The Phantom Menace. John Williams’ first instinct was to create something sounding like a “pagan ritual” and thought choral element might be a good idea. The composer is a great enthusiast of mythology, especially the Celtic one. So he used a passage from Robert Graves poem Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) as a starting point. He then asked his linguist friends to find an appropriate ancient sounding language that would be well suited for singing. Eventually, after several experiments, it was decided Sanskrit would be the best option. Lucas loved the piece… to the point he started use it more extensively in the late phases of films’ post production process.
Duel of the Fates is an interesting theme in the entire Star Wars saga because it really consists of three separate ingredients - the motoric ostinatio, the theme itself, and choral chanting. All those elements are merged in the climactic duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul. But can also be used separately. Williams composed this piece with that particular sequence in mind and yet diffferent elements appear all around the final act of The Phantom Menace: the theme can be heard several times at various points during of the Naboo battle, Sanskrit lyrics are being whispred in association with the demonic Sith warrior Darth Mail, and the motoric ostinato forms an interesting counterpoint to Force theme as the Trade Federation control ship is being destroyed. So the theme is extremely versatile, to the point its full meaning remains somewhat elusive.
Apparently, when Lucas first heard the theme, he insisted that it should be used for the climax of Episode 3. And, surely enough, it does make an appearance during the duel between Darth Sidious and master Yoda in senate chamber. Sadly, it was the same orchestral performance that we heard in The Phantom Menace but with different choral recording. It was also curiously inserted into one scene from Attack of the Clones where Anakin is searching for his mother. A resule of temp track love, perhaps?
In The Phantom Menace, we meet Anakin Skywalker as a young nine year old boy who helps two Jedi Knights and Queen Amidala escape from the desert planet of Tatooine when their ship requires essential hyperdrive repairs. Qui-Gon Jinn recognises boy’s potential and is determined to start training him as his new padawan learner. This enthusiasm is not shared by his fellow Jedi masters, Mace Windu and Yoda. They fear that boy’s attachement to his mother might one day bring dark consequences.
Williams composition for the character of Anakin is a stroke of genius. He basically deconstructs The Imperial March, as heard in the original trilogy, and presents hints of it within the otherwise sweet and innocent new theme. It both encompasses boy’s kindness… and his doomed destiny. Curiously enough, the theme is never really fully explored after The Phantom Menace. It makes brief cameos in the next two films, in order to recall’s Anakin’s childhood innocence, but there's no clear subsequent musical development. Having said that, Williams crates yet another chilling moment of foreshadowing at the end of Attack of the Clones’ unused coda of end credits piece where he merges Across the Stars love theme with Anakin’s theme and… more ominous tones of The Imperial March. Once again, brilliant.
Anakin’s mother, Shmi, is a crucial character that will influence the course of history in ways that nobody could possibly predict. The pivotal moment of mother and child separation will forever shape boy’s destiny and his desire to control fate and death. That bond will drive Anakin back to Tatooine and find her… just moments before her passing. The resulting anger and revenge on Tuskens will push Anakin closer to the Dark Side of the Force. Williams’ theme for Shmi is an epitome of kindness and warmth. but not without an inherent sense of sadness. Her simple theme, often associated with oboe, makes us feel both cozy and strangely melancholic. It can be heard in both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.
Jar Jar’s Theme
There is no more controversial character in the Star Wars canon than Jar Jar Binks. Originally, developed to be a first major CGI character in a live action setting, this sidekick character caused unspeakable mayhem within fanboy community. John Williams composed the clarinet theme for the character and it might be the most comedic pieces in his entire Star Wars repertoire. It also made its way into the official concert suite from The Phantom Menace, combined with other material from this film score.
Originally, it was Obi-Wan who was the central Jedi character in The Phantom Menace. However, somewhere in the writing process, Lucas created the character of wise, if somewhat defiant, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson). It was him who saw the potential of young Anakin and his conviction led to his apprentice Obi-Wan taking on the responsobility of training this boy, against the best judgement of Jedi Council.
Qui-Gon’s theme is a noble piece, somewhat related to Force theme, but with a more old-fashioned and swashbuckling edge. Williams uses it sparingly in the second half of The Phantom Menace, most notably during the first encounter between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul on the Tatooine desert and just before this character's death.
Trade Federation March
The Phantom Menace doesn't have Empire as primary antagonist so there was a need to create a new imposing identity. And Trade Federation came to fill in those shoes. Williams wanted to create a similar sense of power and composed a new march for the droid army, which seems quite similar to the Nazi march from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade from 1989. The theme is heavily used in The Phantom Menace, particualarly in the first and final acts. Curiously enough, it is never reprised in the same context in either of the following films. It makes only one brief appearance in Attack of the Clones, in a scene when Obi-Wan sees a clone army for the first time. Again, probably as a direct result of temp tracking.
Is an ominous motif composed for lower registers of the orchestra. It is associated with Darth Maul that appears a couple of times throughout the film. It is introduced in a scene when we first see the character as a hologram and when he arrives on Tatooine.
But Darth Maul himself can also be associated with yet percussive motif that's stated twice towards the end of final duel with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. A variation on this material is foreshadowed earlier, during the Tatooine duel. There, Williams states a similar type of idea played on menacing brass when we see the same Sith warrior switching off his lightsaber.
At the end of The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn dies at the hands of Sith Lord Darth Maul in a lightsaber duel to death. His body is cremated during the Naboo funeral ceremony with all major characters in attendance. The piece once again uses Sanskrit text and it speaks of about “sweet sleep”. John Williams probably never intended for it to be used as a recurring theme but he ends up expanding slightly upon the material in Revenge of the Sith in dual scene of Padme’s death and Darth Vader's "birth". It is later reprised during yet another funeral scene, in an interesting and intelligent counterpoint to Darth Vader’s theme. The combination of those two elements creates an even more lugubrious tone and forms an appropriate coda to the doomed love of Anakin and Padme.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Across the Stars
While prepping the second film, Lucas declared Episode 2 is going to be a smaller and more personal film, focused on the romantic relationship between (now-adult) Anakin Skywalker and Senator Padme Amidala. And while the film started to grow into something much grander than initially planned, its dramatic spine was, for better or worse, based around this very love story.
George Lucas insisted that John Williams should compose a big love theme in the vein of traditional Hollywood romance. And that is precisely what he did. Across the Stars is a grand theme and it forms the very heart of Williams’ score. The melody is certainly romantic and lush, just as the trio of romantic themes from original Star Wars trilogy, but there is also a sense of foreboding. It won’t end well for this couple, and you can tell just by listening to this, deceptively sweet, music. The composer carefully develops it throughout the story. The early performances are fairly innocent and almost bucolic. Towards the end, when we reach the arena sequence, the melody finally hits home and becomes worthy of a grand space opera.
Across the Stars is later reprised in Revenge of the Sith, although it never reaches the same sweeping climaxes that we can hear in Attack of the Clones. Instead, we witness its slow death, perfectly mirroring deteriorating relations between Anakin and Padme and his ultimate fall.
The Separatist Theme
In the second act of the prequel trilogy, we learn about several systems's desire to separate themselves from Republic under the leadership of former Jedi Master Dooku. They appear to be disillusioned with the senate’s corruption on organise themselves into this Separatist group. The galaxy is at the brink of a civil war and issues of creating a grand army are being raised on a daily basis. Our heroes don’t know that all of this is yet another plan of the mysterious Sith Lord who controls both side’s actions simultaneously and tries to get his hands on even more power. All of this leads directly to... Clone Wars..
While villains in the previous Star Wars films always were represented by distinguishable hummable themes, things start to get more shady in Attack of the Clones. Yes, it is not that difficult to spot this 8-note figure, usually performed by a solo trumpet, but Williams starts to treat his evil characters with a bit more restraint than before. The theme appears quite a few times throughout the film,and introduces a seemingly distant threats of Separatists as well as their leader Count Dooku, especially in the first act. It also comes to represent the mystery assassin plot that Obi-Wan is trying to unravel.
The Mystery/Kamino Theme
Each Star Wars film has its own specific vibe. Attack of the Clones starts off as a mystery noir murder mystery of sorts. There is an attempt to assassinate Senator Padme Amidala and Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are assigned to protecting her. Eventually, the two are separated and Obi-Wan pursues the mystery on his own. And he makes some surprising discoveries along the way.
To help sell this slightly different tone for a Star Wars films, John Williams pursues inspiration from his old master Bernard Herrmann and creates a six note theme that seems to evoke similar sort of arpeggios in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. While it might be tied more strictly to Obi-Wan’s investigation, it also receives one prolonged statement in a scene just before Anakin sets off to look for his mother on Tatooine. Mystery theme thus creates an anxious mood that seems to tell us something is not quite right with the galaxy and there might be some danger lurking just around the corner.
The Kamino variant on the mystery motif is preceded my a brief horn fanfare and occurs only twice to set up the location and there is a sort of waltz-style progressions to it, which seems to emphasize pure aural mood of crashing waves and heaving ocean through the orchestra.
This secondary theme is tied to Anakin and Padme romantic scenes taking place on Naboo. It’s a more playful, gentle and pastoral simple idea that brings in a bit of innocence to the material and evokes the planet’s beautiful landscapes. It appears twice: throughout a dinner scene and during the meadow picnic (where it receives a grander statement).
One of the crucial plot points in the prequel trilogy is the fact Anakin was separated from his mother and never quite managed to move on. This aspect along proved to be key in turning this character towards the Dark Side of the Force. In Attack of the Clones, Williams addressed this idea with a brief French horn motif associated to Anakin’s longing. The final statement of this idea can be heard during Shmi’s funeral scene.
Zam the Assassins/Coruscant Chase Theme
It’s an action theme heard all the way throughout Chase through Coruscant sequence. Williams wrote this propulsive and percussive motif for brass. George Lucas asked for a more percussive underscore for bounty hunters in and Williams delivered the slightly Asian-flavoured material, very reminiscent of Tan Dun’s work from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which came out just a year before) to create an unique flavour for Coruscant underworld.
REVENGE OF THE SITH
Battle of the Heroes
Revenge of the Sith reaches its climactic moments with the epic duel to death between former friends, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. The much rumoured sequence was teased for many years before. Lucas decided to go all out and create an extended fight sequence, much longer than all the other lightsaber battles.
While prepping the sequence, it was decided that this pivotal sequence would be a perfect spot to introduce a brand new major theme. While Lucas teased the use of Duel of the Fates, he asked for something more personal. “A tragedy Duel of the Fates”, in his own words. Williams responded with a theme that almost feels like a direct clash between The Imperial March and Force themes. It has a very similar motoric idea propelling this piece that recalls its famous counterpart material form The Phantom Menace. And, once again, choir was brought it to give it all an epic scope. This time no text was used, however, which brings those vocal elements closer to the lamentation material heard elsewhere in Revenge of the Sith.
Eventually, after all the teasing and slow burn, Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side and starts to commit some unspeakable crimes. After receiving the order from his new master Darth Sidious/Palpatine, he leads a surprising assault on the Jedi Temple, supposedly to deal with treacherous rebellion against the Chancellor. At least this is what he chooses to believe. He spares no one, not even children.
This moment gave John Williams an opportunity to create one of his most powerful pieces for the prequel trilogy. It’s an elegy for full string section and chorus and it accompanies the emotional montage sequence chronicles portraying the methodical elimination of all Jedi Knights by their clone troops. Across the Stars theme seems to be hinted at as well, as we can feel Padme’s realises of what is actually happening. The material is reprised later on in the scene when Anakin reunites with his wife and confronts his friend Obi-Wan Kenobi. After the subsequent epic lightsaber duel, Anakin is defeated and starts to burn alive while trying to crawl away from the hot lava riverbank. This is when Williams once again recalls this material in one last painful statement.
It was a curious choice to introduce yet another of Darth Sidious’ henchman this late in the game in Revenge of the Sith. But in retrospect it makes some sense. One of the more interesting aspect of prequel trilogy is how all secondary villains seemed to anticipate the imminent arrival of Darth Vader, in one way or another. The dark rage of Maul and cold authority of Count Dooku and half-mechanical General Grievous.
Williams’ material for this character remains quite elusive and, in that sense, unlike any other theme heard in the Star Wars saga. It seems to be based around a simple villanous motif appearing all over the score’s first half, particularly in many action sequences involving Grievous. It’s a rather simple idea that can be manipulated easily and fit into many different guises. Williams composed slightly longer piece, based around this motif (soundtrack album track ‘Grievous Speaks to Lord Sidious’), where he creates an exciting march-like declaration of power, complete with full chorus chanting.
Mustafar planet is one of the places fans always wanted to see. There were different incarnations of this place over the years and it was even supposed to be a setting for Return of the Jedi’s climactic confrontation. While this never came to fruition, there was a clip in the film’s novelization in which Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost is reminiscing about the fateful duel with Anakin under a volcano. It took another another 22 years for us to witness it all on big screen.
The planet is certainly not a pleasant and welcoming place. And that is why it might seem like a perfect location for yet another secret Separatist base in Revenge of the Sith. Williams composed a short brassy motif which is introduced when he first see it on screen. It’s militaristic and harsh, perfectly describing Mustafar. Williams also finds some clever ways to sneak in some references into the duel sequence, where he ties subtle hints of this motif into the tail of Battle of the Heroes theme.
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