Let the New Star Wars Awaken Your Musical Appetite

Watching the newfilm, I was struck, beyond the music, how much like a symphony it is: a prospect hinted at the very outset propels us on a quest, luring us through many different moods and emotions, towards a climactic final reckoning.

So most of us have now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One thing it has certainly awoken is a deluge of blogs addressing its merits or otherwise. Forgive me for joining the party.

In the film, and the avalanche of commentary it has inspired, there is fresh discussion about what exactly the 'force' is.

Since the first instalment of the series 39 years ago, it has been presented as a cosmic energy that gifted individuals can tap into, harnessing it to fulfil equally heroic or villainous deeds.

The new film tells us that it flows through all living things - which gives me fresh hope for what I might achieve if I put my mind to it next time I'm stuck in call-waiting or halfway down the Bakerloo line.

Whenever the force is mentioned in the new film, one of John Williams' iconic themes from the original trilogy stirs in the underscore, making one almost feel that the force is nostalgia, a yearning for the past - that it's possibly the young you calling to your present day self, reminding you what you once had in you, a dormant spirit ready for reawakening.

Either that, or the force is the music itself. Seldom in this film when you hear talk of the force is the accompanying orchestra silent. At these moments, music always has much to say.

For all the new film's wonders, where would Star Wars be without Williams' famous soundtrack? From its opening blaze of trumpets and the most Olympic triangle playing you've ever heard to its soaring melodies complementing the nobler characters onscreen, the music has an astonishing immediacy, able to reach inside you and punch emotional buttons faster than the narrative can alone.

I confess I cried several times watching the new movie: only afterwards I reflected that each time it was when Williams' entreating 'force' theme emerged. Music is used in this film, and many others of course, as a kind of emotional shorthand, instantly allying our feelings with those of the protagonists without need for lengthy expositional dialogue.

In a very good profile for The New Yorker, Alex Ross notes that back in 1977, it was John Williams who - almost singlehandedly with the Star Wars score - brought orchestral music back to Hollywood's biggest movies, where it has stayed to this day.

Whatever challenge the orchestral sector (in which I work) faces, it's clear that more and more orchestras are finding currency providing music for major films and computer games alike. That such billion dollar industries are calling on us in this way powerfully contends those who question the relevance of orchestras today. Clearly we've got something that no other form of music can provide. What force is that?

How did orchestral music finds its way into films in the first place? Of course, film was initially silent, and live musicians - pianists at first, then increasingly bigger bands - were assigned to add colour that voices couldn't. (They were also useful in concealing the noisy drone of the first projectors.)

Then came the talkies, into whose pre-recorded soundtracks symphonic orchestras could be more readily integrated. The rise of the Third Reich propelled a host of Europe's most promising classical composers to flee to America. Into the arms of Hollywood they ran.

Among them were the Austrians Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold whose respective scores for King Kong in 1933 and A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1934 lit the touchpaper on how thematically sophisticated orchestral music could powerfully complement film's visual magnetism.

Korngold especially paved the way for Williams: without getting too bogged in technical terms, their music abounds with optimistically leaping perfect fourths and fifths, gilded with tireless xylophones and, in the gentler moments, velvety swathes of celesta and harp.

Alex Ross notes that Williams' music is a great primer for how to listen to orchestral music generally: his distinct, recurring character motifs train the ear for classical music's penchant for thematic development. Indeed, it was a cassette tape of Williams' original Star Wars, E.T. and Close Encounters scores that awoke my own appetite for orchestras as a boy, luring my curiosity to other orchestral composers.

To this end, I would put his Force Awakens score - which artfully fuses exquisitely textured themes for characters old and new in the saga - on the national schools' music curriculum. It opens a door that kids will not hesitate to enter.

Watching the new Star Wars film, I was struck, beyond the music, how much like a symphony it is: a prospect hinted at the very outset propels us on a quest, luring us through many different moods and emotions, towards a climactic final reckoning. (It's notable how in the spectacular final scene, the characters are speechless: the music says everything they are feeling.)

In the programme notes I have written for my own orchestra and others over the years, keen to convey why our music yet speaks to the world today, I have often find myself articulating that before there was cinema, there was orchestral music.

Before cinema, nothing - not even literature - told stories with quite the same pace and propulsive wallop as orchestral works. There are classical works that take us on explicit journeys: Strauss' Alpine Symphony takes us up and down a vast mountain; Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade teleports us to the exotic Orient for a breathless adventure.

But all classical music transports us somewhere; most of it just leaves you to devise the scenery and protagonists in your head as the music unfolds. It struck me lately that concertos are in fact the original action thrillers, their virtuoso soloists the heroes whose pursuits (most of the time) lead us to a happy ending.

Given that cinema and orchestras are evidently such natural bedfellows, might we yet lure some of the millions of people who have loved Star Wars to the concert hall?

It's eighteen months till the next Star Wars episode arrives. If you're craving its kind of drama, exhilaration and energy in the meantime, your local orchestra may just have what you need. Feel the force and give it a try.


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