The classical themes that John Williams references in new Star Wars

The classical themes that John Williams references in new Star Wars


norman lebrecht

December 28, 2015

Michael Shobe on WQXR offers close analysis of the composer’s likely ‘inspirations’:

For Han Solo and Princess Leia’s theme, Tchaikovsky sets the tone… Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D is where Williams found his melody for Han and Leia’s theme. The two are almost identical; the Tchaikovsky is faster, the Williams more sentimental….

Frederic Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, nicknamed the Funeral March, is where Williams found Vader’s melody. To give the Imperial Death March some momentum, Williams turned to a different work about outer space, Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” specifically “Mars, the Bringer of War.” The pulsating, repeating rhythms, the melody played by the low brass, the super ominous feeling it evokes — Vader also brings war everywhere he goes. “Mars” was a good choice.

Read more – and listen to the comparisons – here.


dudamel john williams

with Gustavo Dudamel, laying down soundtrack


  • Alison says:

    Ah, but they missed the foreshadowing of Darth Vader’s theme in the music for young Anakin Skywalker, who grows up to become Darth Vader. The last sad, sweet notes of the little boy’s flowing theme are actually the first notes of Darth Vader’s theme.

  • Halldor says:

    This is pretty poor stuff. If possessing a vague resemblance to the first two bars (or less) of a pre-existing melody means that a later melody must be based on it, there can be few composers who’ve not done the same. It’s like “revealing” that Richard Strauss “based” the big horn theme in Don Juan on Siegfried’s horn call, that Mahler took the opening of his Third Symphony from Schubert, or that Holst was “inspired” to write the lyrical melody in Jupiter by Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches. Yes and simultaneously, very much No.

    As Brahms once put it of one of his own greatest melodies (“inspired” by Beethoven but still indelibly his own) “any damn’ fool can see that”.

    • John Kelly says:

      Actually I think Mahler took the opening theme of the 3rd symphony straight from the broad theme in Brahms’ First (4th movement). Da Daaa Da Da Daaa Da.

    • T. Manor says:

      It’s clear from your argument that you are oblivious to the mind of a composer. Most musicians tend to clump performer and composer together – a major crime of the ignorant.

  • RW2013 says:

    Igor Stravinsky: “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”
    (not saying if JW is one or the other. I don’t watch films like this.)

  • Mr Oakmountain says:

    I hope none of you finds out that Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is half stolen from other composers (Chorale) and half stolen from his own secular cantatas!!!
    Seriously, why does everyone take so much delight in talking badly about a composer who has been a gateway drug for an entire generation of peolple who now love orchestral music? BTW if you listen to one of his scores in its entirety, for instance “The Empire strikes back” which is often used to find “stolen” themes, you may find something that is as closely thematically knit, originally written and beautifully developed as any Richard Strauss opera could possibly hope for.

    • RW2013 says:

      And which Strauss opera did you have in mind?

      • Mr Oakmountain says:

        I did not mean to start a direct competition between JW and Richard Strauss – I don’t believe in such things. What I meant was that many of JW’s scores – when heard in their complete form (as opposed to “Theme from …”) – have IMHO a high artistic integrity that should be taken seriously. Every composer should be judged by their highest acchievements, and I do not think JW may then stand proudly in the tradition of Strauss and Korngold.

        • Mr Oakmountain says:


          I meant to write:

          “and I DO think JW may then stand proudly in the tradition of Strauss and Korngold.”

          • RW2013 says:

            First Dudamel says that “John Williams is the Mozart of our day.”,
            (I recently saw GD conduct Figaro in which the orchestra came across as one of the palest of soundtracks), and now JW is in the tradition of Strauss and Korngold!
            Can we have just one opera from JW to prove this?!

          • Mr Oakmountain says:

            I concede that – JW being one of my favourite composers (others being Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius and Nielsen) – I might overestimate him. However I do not think that a two hour film score is by definition less hard to do than a two hour opera. The fact that Williams did not write an opera does not necessarily make him inferior to composers who do. I do hope that those who judge JW harshly have at some point sat down to investigate one of his major scores in its complete form to get a fair measure of it, rather by judging him on the basis of a main title theme collection.

    • Milka says:

      A composer who has been a gateway ???? you are joking !

      • Mr Oakmountain says:

        Maybe my English is not as idiomatic as I had hoped. What I ment was that JW’s music has opened the ears of many people to orchestral symphonic music who without him might never have bothered to find out it about “classical” sutff.

        • Milka says:

          Come on , be serious !

          • Mr Oakmountain says:

            I am. Do feel free to disagree, by all means!

          • Balancement says:

            Mr. Oak Mountain is correct. I’ve met and also had many an online correspondence with people who have said that John Williams’ music was the impetus for them to begin exploring classical music–which is what he meant by Williams being a “gateway.” There have been many people who have come to online music forums, for instance, who are there primarily because they liked Williams’ music and were on a quest to discover more music similar to it. I don’t understand your resistance to this concept…

          • Pete Parker says:

            I to had my ears opened to orchestral music by John Williams ….

  • milka says:

    “Stealing from” and “referring to” is an art in itself . The trick is to land on the “memory notes”
    that sum up the total of a “borrowed” phrase so the listener is put into an” iffy” position
    in questioning the originality of a work . “Is it original or is it stealing ” How many” borrowed”
    notes add up to a referral and how many borrowed does it take to make up an outright steal ,or “it reminds me of ?””….The clever constructor stays with “it reminds me of…..” where
    originality can be argued until the next “it reminds me of…. work .Shobe wastes his time.

  • sixtus says:

    Everybody seems to miss that the agitated rhythmic underpinnings of the Imperial March come NOT from the Planets but more directly from Walton, a great film composer himself. The two Walton coronation marches, Crown Imperial and Orb and Scepter, turned into the minor, could almost be used as the Imperial March.

    • Ppellay says:

      Funny, to me the Imperial March has always sounded like something Sir Arthur Bliss might have done. Can’t for the life of me explain why………..

  • Scott says:

    The theme from Lawrence of Arabia sounds a lot like the main theme of the first movement of the Lalo piano concerto.

  • C. Squarcialupi says:

    Here’s what the great film composer Dimitri Tiomkin said as he accepted his Academy Award for The High and The Mighty in 1955, “Lady and gentlemen, because I working in this town for twenty-five years, I like to make some kind of appreciation to very important factor what make me successful to lots of my colleagues in this town. I’d like to thank Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov. Thank you.”

  • Jimbo says:

    Korngold, Holst, Ravel, Stravinsky were on the original temp track before John Williams was brought in. Williams just meshed the sounds together into a single style. Common practice in those days. Just listen to the unused 2001 soundtrack by Alex North, sounds very similar to the original temp track that ended up in the final film.

    By the way the Imperial March is plagiarism of A Spoonfull of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down from Mary Poppins. Once you know, you will never be able to stop hearing it.

  • Milka says:

    It isn’t so much that people may trace this or that theme back to some former” original ”
    work it is that present results are so banal .This music comes to life when seemingly
    quoting a past theme or even a variant of the past .It so lacks imagination ..but then one
    suspects it is for audiences that lack imagination .

  • Luke says:

    When all that needs to have been said has already been said, we need simply quote the best until everyone has heard.

  • Nairsabes says:

    the march of star wars is directly taken from brahms piano concerto number two, first movement.

  • shadowpk says:

    Same here, I find the march of Star Wars eerily similar to the theme at two minutes of Brahms Piano Concerto No.2 first movement