How John Williams’ ‘Star Wars’ score subtly pulls us to the dark side

Frank Lehman

THE WASHINGTON POST – ‘This will be the final word in the story of Skywalker …”

So declares the disembodied voice of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in the latest teaser for The Rise of Skywalker. The last film in the decades-spanning space opera Star Wars promises the return of the iconic Sith lord, who’s been pulling strings in this faraway galaxy since our story began. But there is another puppet-master behind the scenes, steering every dramatic incident, orchestrating every twist: composer John Williams.

It’s said that the Devil gets the best tunes, but Williams has long proved that that maxim applies to Sith lords, too. Within Star Wars ever-expanding library of leitmotifs – recurring, malleable musical symbols – much of the most insinuating material belongs to the villains, from Darth Maul to Jabba the Hutt to Supreme Leader Snoke. Listening to these nefarious themes with the ear of a music scholar offers a lesson in the real power of the dark side, showing us how music can repel, deceive and, with the right compositional tricks, even charm.

The standard by which all villain themes are now judged is surely the Imperial March, Darth Vader’s theme. “It should be majestic – he’s a majestic fellow,” Williams remarked in 1980, “and it should be a little bit nasty, because he is our heavy.” Vader’s leitmotif is, as music theorist Mark Richards has shown, a deviously sophisticated tune, full of rhythmic quirks and harmonic corruptions.

But no one in Star Wars is beyond redemption. Vader’s death in Return of the Jedi occasions one of the most stunning musical transformations of the saga. Williams strips away the march’s militaristic trappings, leaving behind a sputtering shadow of the theme, orchestrated with such extraordinary delicacy that part of it seems to evaporate with each new phrase. With a final, hollowed-out rendition on a solo harp, the old dark lord expires, and the once-unstoppable Imperial March achieves a small measure of peace.

Adam Driver is Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Standing in Vader’s musical shadow is his grandson, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Among the various motifs assigned to this dark side scion, the most conspicuous is a motto that is, as critic Alex Ross puts it, “dominated by a stagey tritone” – the most demonic of musical intervals. There is a distinct quality of overcompensation to Ren’s roar of a theme, a studied attempt to project the menace of his grandfather. Yet behind the bravado is insecurity. His theme is a disguise.

Even when Williams hints at a more authoritative transformation at the end of The Last Jedi, the motif is stunted, unable to reach structurally satisfying thematic closure. Like his music, Kylo Ren is unbalanced and unfinished, still just a boy in a mask.

Of all Star Wars Dark Siders, though, Emperor Palpatine has the most intriguing musical representation. Williams’ material for the evidently unkillable Palpatine is aimed at making the character simultaneously repulsive and alluring. Palpatine’s primary leitmotif, introduced in Return of the Jedi, is constructed around commonplace minor triads that progress chromatically, in a kind of violation of natural musical law. As music theorist James Buhler writes, “The music gives the impression that only a very powerful sorcerer, perhaps only a god, could animate these chords thus.”

The brooding, wordless male chorus that intones Palpatine’s theme reinforces the sense of eldritch unease that the character exudes. Unlike the Imperial March, the Sith lord’s music is not overtly threatening, but mysterious and beguiling, like a dark siren’s call. The leitmotif draws from an old association in film and classical music that wordless choruses stand in as the voice of the divine – a technique especially favoured by Williams’ old-Hollywood mentor, Alfred Newman, as in the vision scene in The Song of Bernadette. The emperor effectively takes one of the angelic choirs featured in epics like The Robe and Ben-Hur and gives it a satanic makeover.

Williams’ compositions also capture Palpatine’s insidious influence on other characters. Some eagle-eared analysts have discerned the emperor’s melodic fingerprints in the themes for Kylo Ren and his light-side counterpart, Rey. It seems entirely possible that this latent musical relationship is a clue to Palpatine’s as-yet-unexplained role in the events of the new films.

Even more ingenious is the concealed transformation of his theme into a peppy children’s chorus in The Phantom Menace. This is a deliciously cynical little musical Easter egg: While the good guys think they’ve won the day, everything, including the soundtrack, is actually proceeding according to the villain’s design.

George Lucas wanted Palpatine’s rise to echo the ascents of real-life tyrants. “Democracies aren’t overthrown,” he claimed in a 2005 interview, “they’re given away.” Williams’ prequel scores reiterate that narrative with on-the-nose musical allusions. For example, when, as chancellor, Palpatine is granted emergency powers, the soundtrack channels the stately style Williams uses to characterise American politicians in a positive light: John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Barack Obama, among others. Heard against Palpatine’s power-grab, such noble strains are perversely incongruent. But they illustrate the dangerous appeal of authoritarianism when presented through a filter of (here musically constructed) nostalgia and patriotism.