Star Wars vs. Beatles
It's not very often that two of my analytical interests coincide, however this afternoon I discovered an intriguing (although no doubt coincidental) similarity between John Williams' Star Wars main theme and the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home".
I have a distinct recollection of sitting in a theory class taught by Dr. Stanley Kleppinger as a sophomore at Butler University in which he pointed out the fact that in the Star Wars main theme, the second scale degree resolves not down to the first scale degree, but rather up. This is most unusual because 2 is such a strong tendency tone, having a very potent tonal pull downwards to tonic (scale degree 1). In Star Wars, however, this pull is thwarted by the jump a minor seventh up to tonic rather than the step down to it, as indicated in the example below with a blue line.
This unconventional resolution helps provide the theme with a sense of heroism - a feeling of overcoming obstacles, just as the melody overcomes the descending harmonic tendency.
Since that class, I have been on the lookout for another such example, and some eight years later I have finally found one: Paul McCartney's "She's Leaving Home", off of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While in different keys (and thus using different tones), I have helped show the similarity by including scale degree numbers above each note.
"The Throne Room", which concludes A New Hope, shares significant structural similarities with American marches (a la John Philip Sousa). Marches typically follow a six-part formal layout:
Introduction - brief, fanfare-ish, and often in unison until a cadence at the end
1st Strain - the first melody, repeated immediately
2nd Strain - the second melody, builds slightly in intensity, repeated immediately
Trio - a section of repose (lower intensity), key change of +1 flat
Dogfight - intense and harmonically unstable section, to be resolved by the...
Grandioso - the climax, often repeats back to the trio/dogfight the first time
Of course, not every march follows this structure exactly, but this is the basic template. Let's use perhaps the most famous march ever composed as an example: "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa.
0:08-0:23 1st strain
0:23-0:38 1st strain, repeated
0:38-0:54 2nd strain
0:54-1:10 2nd strain, repeated
2:35-2:58 Dogfight, repeated
2:58-3:30 Grandioso, repeated
Now compare that with the formal design of "The Throne Room".
0:00-0:17 Introduction - C major
0:18-0:34 1st strain (Force theme) - F minor
0:34-0:48 1st strain repeat (add trombones) - F minor
0:48-0:56 Transition (based on the introduction, but a perfect fifth lower pitched)
0:56-1:12 Trio - D-flat major
1:12-1:29 Main theme, part b - D-flat major
1:29-1:46 Grandioso - D-flat major
"The Throne Room" uses a very simplified version of the march structure, but it is clearly related. Both share opening fanfares that start in unison, a repeated first strain, a transition to a trio with a key change of one added flat, and conclude with a grandioso.
That being said, of course, there are also obvious dissimilarities. "The Throne Room" omits the 2nd strain entirely, along with the dogfight. Instead, the 1st strain and trio are separated by a transition based on the music of the introduction; and the trio and grandioso are separated by the secondary part of main theme, the melody of which is then repeated as the grandioso.
That transition from 1st strain to trio (which in terms of structural function replaces the 2nd strain) is worth a close look.
The first two measures of the transition are identical to the first two measures of the introduction except for the fact that the transition is based on F while the intro is based on C. The transition then abbreviates the introductory fanfare by jumping straight to a secondary dominant (A-flat 7 functions as a V7 of D-flat) in the fourth measure, which functions both harmonically and structurally as the impetus for the traditional key change of one added flat at the trio. In other words, both the intro and the transition conclude with dominants requiring resolution, but in different keys.
Although much of "The Throne Room" follows traditional march tonal designs, one aspect that is somewhat unconventional is the fact that the first half is in minor. The majority of marches are in major the entire time (with the possible exception of the dog fight). Even so, there are some notable precedents, perhaps the most famous being Sousa's "The Gladiator March".
Lastly, although the term "character" is far more subjective than tonality and structure, there are several other marches that share similarities with "The Throne Room" in terms of character - that dignified, noble, heroic quality that makes "The Throne Room" such effective music at the conclusion of A New Hope. Sir William Walton's "Crown Imperial March" (the name of which would obviously influence John Williams' score to The Empire Strikes Back) is perhaps the most obvious such example. (Notice how the very first notes are remarkably similar to the secondary main Star Wars theme, as heard in "The Throne Room".)
Another such example of similarity in musical character is "Orb and Sceptre" by the same composer. (Note how it opens with a trumpet fanfare, quite similar to "The Throne Room".)
To summarize, then, John Williams' "The Throne Room" combines elements of formal and tonal designs of American marches (as seen most notably in John Philip Sousa) with the majestic and regal character of English marches (as heard most notably in Edward Elgar and Sir William Walton).
The Music of Star Wars
These posts will help focus and develop my analyses of John Williams' film scores.