Wagner, Williams, Star Wars and Alex Ross: The perfect combination?

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 5 January 2018 | 12:07:00 am

One of our often featured Wagnerian commentators, Alex Ross, discusses the use of "wagnerian" leitmotifs, in John Williams's scores for the Star Wars films.  Highly interesting. It's published over at the New Yorker, but don't let that put you off.

By the way, and before continuing, when Mr Ross notes, "Wagner had spoken of “melodic moments” and “ground-motifs” in his work, but he criticized his acolyte for treating such motifs purely as dramatic devices, neglecting their internal musical logic." he is referring to Wagner's essay, "Uber Die Anwendung Der Musik Auf Das Drama (On The Application Of Music To Drama). In this Wagner wrote, "...one of my younger friends has devoted much attention, to the characteristics of what he calls, the Leitmotives. However, he has treated them from the point of view of dramatic importance and effect rather than as elements of the musical structure". Should you want, you can read this essay in full (in Ellis's idiosyncratic translation) by clicking here

The film-music scholar Frank Lehman, an assistant professor at Tufts University, works fast: within a day of the opening of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” he had updated his “Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII,” which can be found online. The catalogue now includes fifty-five distinct leitmotifs—thematic ideas that point toward characters, objects, ideas, and relationships—and forty-three so-called incidental motifs, which, Lehman says, “do not meet criteria for proper leitmotifs” but nonetheless possess dramatic significance. Such beloved tunes as “The Force,” “Han and Leia,” and the dastardly “Imperial March” are here, along with more esoteric items like “Planetary Descent Figure,” “Ominous Neighbor Figure,” and “Apocalyptic Repeated Minor Triads.”

All this refers, of course, to the eight scores that John Williams has composed for the “Star Wars” cycle, with a ninth in the works. In decades past, it was fashionable for self-styled serious music types to look down on Williams, but the “Star Wars” corpus has increasingly attracted scholarly scrutiny: Lehman’s catalogue will be published in “John Williams: Music for Films, Television, and the Concert Stage,” a volume forthcoming from the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini. This attention has come about not only because of the mythic weight that George Lucas’s space operas have acquired in the contemporary imagination; the music is also superbly crafted and rewards close analysis. Williams’s latest score is one the most compelling in his forty-year “Star Wars” career: Rian Johnson’s film complicates and enriches the familiar template, and Williams responds with intricate, ambiguous variations on his canon of themes.

The word “leitmotif,” like much else emanating from the gaseous Planet Wagner, has caused considerable confusion over the years. The term was coined by Hans von Wolzogen, one of a coterie of intellectual sycophants who surrounded the composer in the years before his death, in 1883. Wagner had spoken of “melodic moments” and “ground-motifs” in his work, but he criticized his acolyte for treating such motifs purely as dramatic devices, neglecting their internal musical logic. As happened so often, Wagner’s idea took on a life of its own. Wolzogen lived long enough to hail Hitler in the pages of the Bayreuther Blätter, the dismal Wagner fanzine that he edited for decades.

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