Return of the ‘Empire’
On May 4, 2018 (“Star Wars Day”), Walt Disney Records released Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Remastered), a reissue of composer/conductor John Williams’ score for the second installment (in release order) of the Skywalker Saga. Assembled by a team of recording engineers led by Patricia Sullivan, Dann Thompson, Shawn Murphy, and Leslie Ann Jones from the best available analog recordings available, this marks the first release on compact disc of Maestro Williams’ original 75-minute soundtrack album as it was released in the U.S., Canada, and Japan in 1980.
Naturally, there have been several previous CD releases of Empire’s soundtrack, starting with Polydor’s original compact disc from 1985. Based on the abridged international edition of the vinyl LP album, Polydor’s offering presented 10 of the 17 tracks from the longer 2-LP edition sold in the U.S., Canadian, and Japanese markets.
Now, the abridged version of the soundtrack from The Empire Strikes Back is a strange (and disappointing) album. Not only is it missing seven tracks from the original 2-LP set released in late April of 1980, but it shuffles the track order in an inexplicable fashion:
1. The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) 3:03
2. Yoda’s Theme 3:29
3. The Asteroid Field 4:12
4. Han Solo and the Princess (Love Theme) 3:28
5. Finale 6:28
6. Star Wars (Main Theme) 5:49
7. The Training of a Jedi Knight 3:08
8. Yoda and the Force 4:05
9. The Duel 4:06
10. The Battle In The Snow 3:48
In the early days of the format, compact discs didn’t have as much storage capacity as they do now. For fans of symphonic music, especially, this was problematic; recordings in the mid-1980s and early 1990s were usually limited to runtimes of one hour or less due to the limits of the still-new format. Many soundtracks were either sold as 2-CD sets or were abridged, as in the case of Warner Music’s Superman: The Movie and RSO/Polydor’s The Empire Strikes Back.
Starting in 1993 with the release of Arista Records/Twentieth Century Fox Film Scores’ Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology, soundtrack aficionados benefited from advances in the now mature CD format. Improvements in data compression and disc storage capacity meant that producers like Nick Redman and Mike Matessino could now offer listeners a more immersive and complete film score experience.
Redman, who passed away in 2018 after a long career as a film and music producer, was an enthusiastic film score buff, and he was one of the main forces behind a series of restored and expanded editions of soundtracks by various composers, including John Williams. Thus, the version of Maestro Williams’ The Empire Strikes Back album found in the The Original Soundtrack Anthology box set is an expanded and re-edited version of Williams’ 1980 soundtrack, similar but not identical to the RSO 2-LP vinyl album.
And, of course, RCA Victor/Sony Classical’s Special Edition soundtracks from the original Star Wars Trilogy have been the gold standard by which other soundtracks are measured. They, too, were products of the Redman/Matessino era and are the first Star Wars albums to present the complete scores from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
However, if one wanted a CD version of the original 17-track, 2-LP vinyl album from 1980, it was a quixotic dream – until May of 2018.
In May of 2018, nearly six years after George Lucas sold Lucasfilm Ltd. and the rights to all of its intellectual properties, which include Star Wars and Indiana Jones, to The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney Records released remastered versions of the six original Star Wars soundtrack albums.
These albums are remastered editions of the original commercially released soundtrack albums originally released by 20th Century Records, RSO Records, and Sony Classical between 1977 and 2005, presenting the music composed and conducted by John Williams in the traditional soundtrack album format.
In the case of The Empire Strikes Back, the remastering team at Skywalker Sound in Marin County (California) and Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood took Eric Tomlinson’s original master tapes from the archives and transferred them to a single compact disc. The result: the first-ever CD version of John Williams’ 1980 2-LP soundtrack album.
- Star Wars (Main Theme) 5:49
- Yoda’s Theme 3:24
- The Training of a Jedi Knight 3:17
- The Heroics of Luke and Han 6:18
- The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) 2:59
- Departure of Boba Fett 3:30
- Han Solo and the Princess 3:25
- Hyperspace 4:02
- The Battle in the Snow 3:48
- The Asteroid Field 4:10
- The City in the Clouds 6:29
- Rebels At Bay 5:23
- Yoda And The Force 4:01
- The Duel 4:07
- The Magic Tree 3:32
- Lando’s Palace 3:52
- Finale 6:28
Because The Empire Strikes Back is part of a larger story, its score is a blend of leitmotifs from the first film(Star Wars) and new ones composed by John Williams for this new chapter of the saga, In brief, here are the main themes heard in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back:
- The Star Wars theme: In the original trilogy, this motif is often identified with the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, thus doubling as “Luke’s Theme.” In the context of the Saga as a whole, this iconic fanfare is used in all of the movies’ main title sequences
- The Force theme: In Star Wars, this was used mainly in scenes that featured Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, but it was also used in the “Binary Sunset” scene to foreshadow young Luke’s destiny as he contemplates his need for adventure. Starting in Empire, this theme is used to represent the Force itself
- The Rebel Fanfare is a brassy motif heard in action sequences to underscore our heroes’ acts of derring-do
- Princess Leia’s Theme: This was one of Star Wars’ main motifs; in later films Williams will sometimes quote from it in scenes where Leia is onscreen
- Yoda’s Theme: This is one of three new themes composed for Empire: like the diminutive Jedi Master it represents, it’s in turns quietly powerful, peaceful, yet mischievous
- The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme): This relentlessly martial, brooding, and often eerie march is the Empire’s equivalent to “Hail to the Chief” and represents both the might of the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader himself. (It’s also the only theme that exists in-universe; a variation of it has been used in Star Wars: Rebels and Solo: A Star Wars Story as the official anthem of the Empire.)
- The Love Theme for Han Solo and the Princess: Depending on how it’s orchestrated, this is one of those John Williams themes that can represent either Han’s sometimes daring-but-reckless heroics or the love affair that blooms between the “scoundrel” and Princess Leia
I have been a fan of Maestro Williams’ Star Wars music since I first saw Star Wars (aka Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope ) in the fall of 1977. And I’ve owned every original soundtrack of the nine-film Skywalker Saga since one of my mom’s friends gave me the 2-LP album of the original 1977 soundtrack album in 1978. Whether on vinyl, eight-track, audio cassette, compact disc or even digital, I’ve acquired an Imperial AT-AT’s hold’s worth of recordings, including different iterations of the “complete score” Special Edition CDs released between 1997 and 2016 by both RCA Victor and Sony Classical, the previous licensees for Star Wars music before Walt Disney Records was teamed with Lucasfilm.
When these Remastered Editions of the first six Star Wars soundtracks debuted on CD, vinyl, and digital MP3 formats two years ago, I passed on them. I still have the 1977 Star Wars soundtrack in its 1986 2-CD re-release by Polydor in my CD collection, as well as the abridged “international” version of the Empire soundtrack from 1985 and the Return of the Jedi CD from 1983, also from Polydor.
I also have the 1993 Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology, the original 1997 Special Edition 2-CD soundtracks from RCA Victor, as well as two box sets from Sony Classical with reissues of those albums.
But the power of nostalgia is sometimes hard to resist, and since I have not listened to the original commercially-released version of the score from Empire in many years, I bought the 2018 remastered recording released by Walt Disney Records.
This CD, of course, does not contain the complete score by Maestro Williams for The Empire Strikes Back. Nor does it present the music in the internal chronology of the film. Following the conventions of a commercially-released soundtrack album, John Williams – wearing his hat of album producer – and his 1980 editing team (including recorder-mixer Eric Tomlinson) resorted to such techniques as the use of “concert hall arrangements” not used in the film’s actual soundtrack – Yoda’s Theme and The Imperial March are good examples – and splicing cues from several different scenes, as in Track 1, Star Wars (Main Theme), which incorporates music from the main title crawl, the arrival of the Imperial probe on Hoth, and the Millennium Falcon’s escape from the exogorth (the space slug) in the asteroid field.
So if you want to listen to the entire Empire score as it is heard in the actual film, this isn’t the album you’re looking for. Sony Classical’s 2004-2016 CDs are still available online, although some stores and third-party sellers ask outrageous prices because those recordings are no longer being made.
The 2018 Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Remastered) album is, despite its slick 21st Century CD jewel case and album cover art, a time machine to 1980. Here, for the first time since the Eighties, is the 75-minutes-long album with all 17 tracks of the RSO Records 2-LP set.
Obviously, the digitally transferred tracks have a less “warm” audio texture than you’d get from a vinyl recording. That has never bothered me at all, but some audiophiles swear that CDs, for all their precision and durability, don’t have the same fidelity to a musical performance as old-school LPs. Still, I like the format for various reasons, including compatibility with various disc-based devices (DVD and Blu-ray players, as well as PCs with CD or DVD-ROM drives) and durability.
So if you love Star Wars and its music, or if you’ve never heard the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back as fans did 40 years ago, you’re in for a treat. From the familiar and rousing Star Wars (Main Theme) to the menacing Imperial March and the whimsical yet powerful Yoda’s Theme, Williams’ classic melodies will transport you from the hurly-burly of today’s strange new world to that timeless tale set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
I hope you enjoyed reading this post, Dear Reader. I had a blast writing it and adding the pictures and official YouTube music videos. I hope you stay safe and healthy, and until next time, May the Force be with you…always.