In June of 1977, shortly after the May 25 limited release of writer-director George Lucas’ Star Wars, 20th Century Records released a 2-LP gatefold album titled Star Wars: Original Soundtrack Composed and Conducted by John Williams/Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
And just as the film it was derived from became both a box office hit and a cultural phenomenon, the album became a certified Gold and Platinum album per the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), selling well over a million copies in its first year and winning three Grammy Awards (Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media; Best Instrumental Composition – for Main Title; and Best Pop Instrumental Performance).
The complete film score also took home several awards, the most prestigious being the Academy Award for Best Original Score; this was composer John Williams’ third Oscar, having won his first two trophies in 1972 (for his adaptation of the music for Fiddler on the Roof) and in 1976 for Jaws.
Produced for 20th Century Records (the music label of 20th Century Fox) by George Lucas, Star Wars was recorded in an eight-day period in March of 1977 at London’s Anvil Studios. It was orchestrated by Williams’ long-time collaborator Herbert W. Spencer, edited by Ken Wannberg, and recorded by Eric Tomlinson. And because the album was intended to be a musical suite rather than an aural beat-by-beat recreation of the music as it’s heard in Star Wars, Williams chose nearly 75 minutes’ worth of music from a soundtrack with a running time of 88 minutes.
Designed to be played on long-playing record players with autochangers, the 2-LP album presented its music thusly:
|3.||“Princess Leia’s Theme”||4:18|
|4.||“The Desert and the Robot Auction”||2:51|
|5.||“Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack”||3:46|
|6.||“The Little People Work”||4:02|
|7.||“Rescue of the Princess”||4:46|
|10.||“The Land of the Sandpeople”||2:50|
|11.||“Mouse Robot and Blasting Off”||4:01|
|12.||“The Return Home”||2:46|
|13.||“The Walls Converge”||4:31|
|14.||“The Princess Appears”||4:04|
|15.||“The Last Battle”||12:05|
|16.||“The Throne Room and End Title”||5:28|
Total Time: 74:58
On the LP version, the tracks were placed in such a way that you “stacked” one record on top of the other on the autochanger, so that when the first disc’s Side 1 finished playing, the record on top would “drop” and the music would resume in a more or less continuous fashion. Then you flipped the records over, stack them in such a way that the player presented the music in the proper order. (Of course, in other formats, such as eight-track tape, audio cassettes, and CDs, the process was less complicated.)
The 2-LP gatefold album (so called because when you opened it, it featured a selection of stills from Star Wars) also included a poster by John Berkey and a set of liner notes written by the late Charles Lippincott, who was the vice president at Lucasfilm for media affairs in the early days of the company.
As noted above, Star Wars: Original Soundtrack Composed and Conducted by John Williams/Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra presented nearly 75 minutes from Maestro Williams’ 88-minute score. The concept was not to provide listeners with every cue written for the 121-minutes-long film but to create what amounts to a symphonic suite comprised of material edited from the master recordings made in London in March of 1977.
In this album – as well as the 2018 Walt Disney Records reissue – the creative team of Lucas, Spencer, Wannberg, and Williams went more for an aesthetic-based approach rather than a completist one. As such, many of the tracks combine re-edited cues from different scenes in Star Wars. For instance, Mouse Robot and Blasting Off mixes material from a scene where Luke, Han, and Chewie infiltrate the Death Star and run into a MSE-8 droid in a corridor with an earlier scene that shows the Millennium Falcon escaping from Imperial stormtroopers in Tatooine’s Mos Eisley Spaceport and evading of an Imperial blockade in order to jump to hyperspace.
Although there is quite a bit of incidental music in Star Wars, the score is dominated by a handful of themes or leitmotivs that Williams, following in the artistic footsteps of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner – assigns to various characters, locations, or even mystical concepts such as the Force.
Basically, these are the themes that are the building blocks for Star Wars:
- Luke’s Theme: Williams’ approach to musical material in Star Wars is more romantic than strictly thematic, and what he usually refers to as Luke’s Theme (aka the Star Wars theme) is more of a generic heroic theme used in action scenes where Luke himself is often absent. (In many instances, especially in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Williams uses Ben’s/The Force Theme as underscore in Luke-specific scenes.)
- Princess Leia’s Theme: This motif is used to represent Leia from Luke Skywalker’s idealization of her rather than as a straight-forward musical description. It blends a sense of femininity with inner strength and a longing for a long-gone era where honor and justice prevail over evil.
- Ben’s/The Force Theme: This motif appears quietly (as an English horn solo) early on in the film, and becomes more prominent and potent as the story progresses from the desert world of Tatooine to the do-or-die Battle of Yavin and its aftermath. It is unleashed in full form in the iconic “binary sunset” scene (where Luke contemplates his uncertain future and longs for adventure), then progressively appears as sort of a Jedi battle theme and triumphant march, as heard in the cues The Last Battle and The Throne Room and End Title.
- Imperial Theme: This was a prototype of what eventually became The Imperial March/Darth Vader’s Theme. It’s not as well-developed or iconic as its 1980 counterpart, but it does feature a dark, brooding motif (usually played by a bassoon) in the minor register that’s heard whenever Darth Vader or Imperial stormtroopers are onscreen.
There are also a few other motifs that recur throughout Star Wars (and many of the other follow-on media projects), including the Rebel Fanfare and the Death Star theme.
The only piece of “source music” – that is, in-universe music that is heard by the characters in a scene as well as the viewer – is the Cantina Band jazz-piece.
Inspired in part by jazzy film music composed by Williams’ friend and fellow film composer Henry Mancini (as well as Big Band music played by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra), Cantina Band (aka Cantina Band #1, as there were two source music tracks in the film) is the only composition on this album not performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Instead, Cantina Band is performed by an ensemble of nine jazz musicians led by Williams himself.
I was given the 2-LP gatefold album as one of the many gifts I received for my 15th birthday on March 5, 1978 – the first anniversary of John Williams’s first recording sessions at Anvil Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra. I don’t think my album came with the John Berkey poster – I do not remember seeing it, at any rate – but it did have the liner notes by Lucasfilm’s PR guru at the time, Charles Lippincott.
Back then, I wasn’t a devotee of classical music; I liked short, familiar compositions along the lines of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube and The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini, and I loved Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C-minor (Op. 67), but that was about as much of the repertoire that I enjoyed in my teens.
Star Wars: Original Soundtrack Composed and Conducted by John Williams/Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra was not, technically speaking, a classical music album; it was composed, performed, and released in 1977.
By design, though, with the exception of Cantina Band, Williams’ Star Wars score is written in the musical styles of the 19th Century’s Romantic era; director George Lucas believed that mixing the fantastical visuals of alien worlds and epic space battles with a score grounded in the language of symphonic music from an earlier time would help the audience get its bearings and follow his space-fantasy story set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
(Originally, Lucas wanted to do what Stanley Kubrick had done in 2001: A Space Odyssey nine years earlier: to underscore his vision of the future with different compositions by various composers rather than a thematic score. Williams, who had been recommended to Lucas by Steven Spielberg, disagreed and argued that Star Wars, being a “space opera,” needed an operatic-type score. Williams convinced Lucas that this approach of using leitmotivs would work better.)
Well, my 15-year-old self’s mind was blown when I played my Star Wars soundtrack for the first time; since then I have listened to it countless times in various formats (from vinyl records in ’78 all the way to digital MP3 files in 2020). It’s been my go-to album when I’m seeking inspiration for a new writing project, when I feel the need to remember my younger days in South Florida, and especially when I feel down and lost, especially in these turbulent times of political and economic turmoil.
As I wrote recently in my review of the 2018 Walt Disney Records reissue:
As much as I like the more complete 1997 Special Edition double-CD album – and I have multiple editions of that one, too – the material in (the original Star Wars album from 1977) is my favorite. I love the overture-like ambiance of Main Title, which was made by splicing the first three minutes of Main Title/Blockade Runner with the second half of Williams’ End Title cue. That’s the arrangement I heard for the first time in 1978 on my 15th birthday, and it’s the one that most orchestras perform, with minor adjustments made by Maestro Williams for concert hall “covers” in live performances or albums such as 1983’s The Star Wars Trilogy.
Fun Fact: Although composer/conductor John Williams had recorded film scores – starting in the late 1950s – with studio orchestras, Star Wars was the first time he worked with a symphony orchestra.
If I had to make a list of the 10 essential albums I’d take with me to live out my days on a desert island (with a reliable source of electricity and a kick-ass stereo system), Star Wars: Original Soundtrack Composed and Conducted by John Williams/Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra would be at the top of my list.