New York Philharmonic bassoonist Roger Nye vividly remembers the first time he saw—and heard—Star Wars, in 1977. “I was just swept away by that full orchestra sound,” he recalls. “I really hadn’t heard anything like that in a movie. It made a huge impression on me.”
Nye is one of many musicians and fans who have been inspired by John Williams majestic music. “Younger players on occasion have said to me that their enthusiasm for orchestral music started with scores that I’ve written,” says the composer. “Hearing this, of course, is immensely satisfying and is a very great honor.”
The most popular living composer, bar none, Williams has become as much a household name as the onscreen stars of the films he has scored, such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Even in this peerless canon, Williams Star Wars music is a unique landmark. “It was so groundbreaking,” says David Newman, the conductor-composer leading the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere live performances of the complete, film-synchronized scores to four of the Star Wars films: A New Hope (originally titled, simply, Star Wars), The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens, beginning September 12. “It completely changed film music.”
While the music sweeps us along through the saga’s fast-paced adventures, it’s easy to overlook the incredible intricacy of Williams’s art. In his seven Star Wars scores—the eighth is on the way—the composer carefully weaves musical motifs representing characters and themes. “It’s the heart and characters that make those movies work,” believes Newman. “There are so many brilliant things throughout the series that are so enhanced by John Williams music—and George Lucas ability to understand how important the music was.”
“These live performances allow audiences to hear these scores in a new way,” says Williams. “The performance by a live symphony orchestra enables audiences to hear a lot of music that can go unnoticed in the cinema.”
And the Philharmonic is the ideal orchestra to play these scores, says Newman, with an unmistakably American character that perfectly suits film music: “What they put into these movie nights is just incredible.”
Williams is famed for his brass writing, and the Star Wars scores are particularly rich in electrifying parts for the horn section. Given that film music is recorded in short bursts, the composer acknowledges that it requires Jedi-like powers to play the full scores continuously along with the films. “The orchestra must play pretty relentlessly for two hours or more,” says Williams. “It’s very intense for the brass, particularly in many of the battle sequences that can be 15 or 20 minutes long.”
Horn player Leelanee Sterrett is up for the challenge: “The brass parts are very prominent in almost all the famous themes that you think of: The Imperial March, Princess Leia’s Theme, the Throne Room. We have a really important role to play in the storytelling.”
As do the other players in the orchestra. “John Williams really showcases each section at their best,” Sterrett adds. “It’s like Strauss or Mahler in terms of the quality of the material.”
Only Walt Disney earned more Oscar nominations than Williams, who, in fact, mentioned Mickey Mouse’s creator when reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the first Star Wars release. “George Lucas created something that seems to be timeless,” says the composer. “You’d have to look to Walt Disney or even Dickens to find a comparison for the longevity enjoyed by the fabulous characters George has conjured. Darth Vader, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker are very much still with us, and will continue to be for decades to come. Forty years is now looking like a very short time.”
To purchase tickets to the Star Wars Film Concert Series, click here.
Jay Gabler is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. He writes about music for YourClassical and The Current.