A Brief History of Film Music


What would happen if “Star Wars” opened without it’s famous music?

Imagine the unexpected void one would feel if the brilliant and bombastic chords that greet the sudden explosion of “STAR WARS” failed to sound. What if instead of John Williams’ score, György Ligeti’s 1961 composition Atmosphères accompanied the opening? Quiet and dissonant whispers of sharp violins would emerge, eerie and distant. The opening crawl would take on an entirely new meaning. Instead of a swashbuckling space adventure, the music would change the very meaning of the words into a dark, serious, and terrifying story of intergalactic strife. To understand the transformation that music alone can produce, try muting the opening of “Star Wars” and letting Ligeti’s Atmosphères play in the background. You’ll experience the difference.

Changing the music of “Star Wars” might seem like a blasphemous prospect; its score is an indelible part of its timeless appeal and legendary status. Considering the times in which it was made, however, the music of “Star Wars” could—even should—have been much different. Listening to scores from Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Space Adventure films of the 1950’s-1970’s, one would expect anything from the sweeping orchestral score of “Star Wars.” These pre-“Star Wars” soundtracks are dissonant, electronic, and harsh sounding. They use small instrumental ensembles to convey mysterious moods and “otherworldly” sounds. Movies of the 1950’s were obsessed with the technology of other planets and the music in them sought to represent this foreign, futuristic element. Their names give away their alien obsession: “The Thing from Another World” (1951), “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), “The War of the Worlds” (1953), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). To help represent alien sounds, many of these movies used a Theremin, an instrument whose iconic and spooky sound is achieved by using one’s hands to manipulate electromagnetic fields on the machine itself.

The themes in these films and their soundtracks partly reflected the times in which they were made. After two devastating World Wars, cultural and artistic trends tended towards uncertainty. Many writers and artists seemed overwhelmed with pessimism, even hopelessness, in the face of the atomic age and the Cold War. Traditional narratives of good and evil became less appealing to a more cynical public. One escape was an obsession with outer space and new technology. By the 1970’s films became less about hokey alien invasions, but still hit theaters with musical scores of limited instrumental scope and dissonant, abrasive, and experimental sounds. Films like “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “The Andromeda Strain” (1971), “Silent Running” (1972), “Soylent Green” (1973), and “Rollerball” (1975) continued to employ music that sought to capture a futuristic sound world.

But what exactly was the future of sound? What music did film composers look to in order to project what the future might hold? In the 1950’s and 1970’s one could only imagine the future of music was, as the movies captured, experimental and avant-garde. Elite, academic, and “high-brow” musical circles still worked in the shadow of atonalism, a new form of musical expression developed in the 1920’s by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951). After many versions and alterations, Schoenberg produced the “twelve-tone” method of composition, later named “serialism,” which methodized the creation of music without reference to any key, traditional harmony, “home base,” or tonal hierarchy. Tonal music, by contrast, contains a “home base” to which the music returns and from which the music builds. This inherently infuses music with a narrative, a sense of leaving home, going someplace else, and returning again. Nearly all music that enters the ear of an average listener is tonal; Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and The Beatles all worked in tonal frameworks. Although Schoenberg’s system redefined musical reality in just as ground-shaking a way as any other First World War cultural crisis, Schoenberg never considered himself a revolutionary. Rather he saw his work as an unavoidable and logical progression of a musical tradition stretching back to the 17th century. He was nothing more, he claimed, than “a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!” Understood in a natural line of progression, then, atonalism to contemporaries of the 1950’s-1970’s was not only the regnant mode of musical thought, but also the only direction in which music was heading. The world of tonal and traditional music had been left behind and experimental, avant-garde music was left for the future.

It was this musical atmosphere in which “Star Wars” was born. Why, then, is its music so different? Where did John Williams’ legendary score come from? To shed light on our question, we must step back to the Operatic world of the 19th century and its most influential composer, Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). Opera before Wagner was a casual experience. Audiences would talk, eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and cause all sorts of commotion. The theater was often just as lit as the stage, those in the parterre ran the risk of being hit with debris, and Italian Opera especially was a space for socializing above all else. Wagner changed all of this. In his own Bayreuth Theater, which he designed himself, he expected the lights to go down, the hall to become silent, and the audience to worship his artistic creation with full attention. Hoards of people did, many still do. The Operatic masterpieces Wagner delivered to his worshipers were on a scale and magnitude of nothing that came before. Thinking of Opera as his own secular religion, Wagner sought to incorporate all art into one conception—poetry, literature, scenic design, staging, action, and music all worked together to form what Wagner called a Gesantkunstwerk or “total” or “collective” art. Although all the arts played a role in the overall production, there was no question that music played the largest role in elevating Opera to the level of sacred, transcendental experience. Wagner’s musical language was one of high expressivity and dramatic impulse, made possible by his significant expansion of the symphony orchestra. In order to achieve a more bombastic, militant, and heroic sound, Wagner enlarged the brass section of the standard orchestra used since the beginning of the 19th century, often inventing instruments himself. As the number of brass instruments increased, it became necessary to expand the quieter woodwind and string sections as well to make sure they were audible. This new and enlarged orchestra is what film composers over the entire 20th century inherited and is fundamentally what still exists today. Wagner’s music, however, is not just music played with a larger orchestra. His musical language was in the first place sweeping and grandiose because he often concerned himself with themes of mythological and transcendental proportion. His music also relied heavily on the idea of leitmotif, a system that delivered meaning through motivic associations. Certain themes or impressions were assigned to certain characters, things, events, or ideas and worked into the music in subtle ways.                    

No composer after Wagner could escape the shadow of his influence. Every musical artist had to come to terms with his philosophy and music in one way or another. Those working around the turn of the 20th century inherited Wagner most directly and would be the last to operate on a late-Romantic scale before the introduction of atonalism in the 1920’s. Two such composers were Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) and Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949). Both extended Wagner’s sound in new ways. Mahler’s 8th Symphony, for example, was nicknamed “The Symphony of a Thousand” because it was intended for over a thousand players. The enormous scale and majesty of Mahler’s 8th symphony, as with his other music, represents the sweeping, brass heavy quest for transcendence of the deepest Wagnerian quality. Strauss’ music, as well, relies heavily on a large orchestra, prominent brass section, and large emotional scope.

It was exactly this late-Romantic mode that atonal music would cause to collapse. However, its death was a slow one. Abandoned by most of the contemporary musical elite, it found its way into other forms; the music that sounded like Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Mahler, Brahms, and others would never again be considered “new” or “cutting edge,” but some composers still wrote music, if not exactly like it, at least in the vein of the late 19th century tonal tradition. When the golden age of Hollywood emerged in the 1930’s and 1940’s, film composers wrote music steeped in late 19th century romanticism that was several decades out of date with the contemporary concert hall. Why was this? Many Hollywood composers were European émigrés thoroughly schooled in the late romantic tradition. A good number of these American-European film composers had first pursued careers in commercial musical theater, both in Europe and on Broadway, which was rooted melodiousness and straightforward tonal harmony—and in the realization that these things were always a prerequisite for popular success. One such Hollywood composer was the Austrian born Erich Korngold (1897 – 1957). The movies he scored are some of the greatest adventure classics of the period: “Captain Blood” (1935), “Anthony Adverse” (1936), “Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “The Sea Hawk” (1940), and “Kings Row” (1942). Korngold was a talented late-Romantic composer who may well have created concert hall masterpieces if born a few decades earlier. Instead, he found work in the movie industry and helped create the classic “Hollywood” sound—that of a big orchestra, bombastic brass, and sweeping romantic melodiousness rooted in the late-Romantic tradition.

When the golden age of Hollywood emerged in the 1930’s and 1940’s, film composers wrote music steeped in late 19th century romanticism that was several decades out of date with the contemporary concert hall.

The sound and style of Korngold’s music, written in the 1930’s and 1940’s, is easily passable as the music of John Williams. It is exactly the Korngold era, before that of the 1950’s -- 1970’s, that Williams sought to recover in his score for “Star Wars.” Both George Lucas and John Williams looked to return to a Wagnerian conception of drama with the musical style of Korngold, itself a style influenced by Wagner. On the part of Lucas, “Star Wars” is essentially a different type of movie than the Science Fiction movies of the 1950’s – 1970’s. The main focus is not on “other-worlds” and alien technology, but on the story’s archetypal characters and a classic battle between good and evil. While writing the script, Lucas was heavily influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell, a scholar who studied the myths of world traditions. Campbell’s influential book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” describes timeless myths to which, for centuries and all across the globe, people react the same way—heroes, villains, mentors, princesses, etc. Along the same lines, the music for “Star Wars” was not intended, like most Science Fiction film scores of the time, to represent the future or alien technology but instead the romantic, heroic, and mythic themes of its characters and narrative. To achieve this, John Williams reconnected to the music of Korngold, a tradition that reached back to Wagner. William’s score is not only brass heavy, sweeping, and romantic, but also relies of the leitmotif system pioneered by Wagner. Princess Leia, “The Force,” Darth Vader, and others all have instantly recognizable musical themes that articulate dramatic points in the movie. Some of these themes even sound very similar to those leitmotifs used in Wagner’s Operas.

By reconnecting to the late-Romantic tradition, pioneered by Wagner, inherited by turn-of-the-century composers like Mahler and Strauss, and introduced to film by Korngold, John Williams made the music of “Star Wars” a tool to elicit the emotional power of a classic story. Since “Star Wars,” most large-scale Adventure and Science Fiction films use a large orchestral score in the mode of Williams; standing as an obvious and recent example is Howard Shore’s score for “The Lord of the Rings.” However much film music resembles music of the late-Romantic period, though, and however talented or versatile film composers are, film music is fundamentally denied a place in the modern concert hall. Trends in classical music today have moved far away from the 1950’s and 1970’s, but have not returned to an abandoned past in the same way film music did. Further still, film music is forever a servant to the film that it accompanies. Its purpose is not to independently hold transcendent power, but to elicit deeper meaning through the characters and themes unfolding on the screen. In that sense, however inspired film music may be, it will likely never find itself in the concert hall as a new, independent, and modern replacement for music of the late-Romantic era. Despite its lack of independent philosophical depth, however, film music is still emotionally effective and popularly successful. It is often a person’s only exposure to “classical” music, and, in the spirit of late-Romanticism, remains a great elicitor of emotional enjoyment.

MUSICFrancis Russomusic, history