K: The only Star Wars score John Williams has won an Oscar for is the original 1977 Star Wars. (ESB, RotJ, and TFA were all nominated, but none of the prequels were, which is a travesty we can talk about another day.) I love the ANH soundtrack, as I love all Star Wars music, but it’s missing something the other Star Wars scores have–The Imperial March.
M: Certainly the absolute most iconic bit of Star Wars music, one identifiable within a few notes. However, given that it’s woven so deep into the fabric of popular culture, it’s easy to overlook not only its individual brilliance but also how skillfully John Williams incorporates the theme as a leitmotif throughout the rest of the soundtracks.
K: Although it’s called “The Imperial March,” its subtitle is “Darth Vader’s Theme,” and that’s how most people know it: the stirring and evil-sounding music that blasts every time Vader makes an entrance. But if we follow the story chronologically, starting with the prequels, that’s not how it first appears.
M: No, it first appears in “Anakin’s Theme,” arguably one of the best pieces of Star Wars music EVER, given what we’re about to talk about. And to clarify, I don’t know music very well… I’m sure there’s a lot more here than we’ll discuss.
K: Oh for sure. I bet there have been Masters theses written about the themes of Star Wars and all of the brilliant things John Williams does. I don’t have the technical knowledge to write one, but I do appreciate what I have learned and noticed while listening to the soundtracks. So, “Anakin’s Theme.” It’s a beautiful, hopeful sounding piece of music, full of the promise and potential of this sweet kid from Tatooine. But there’s something darker lurking both in the child and in the song.
M: I love the sort of unsettled nature of the tune. Despite how intensely melodic the song is, it’s hard to break up into segments. The notes carry into each other, rather impressionistically (Think Debussy). But at the very end of the melody, those notes tumble into the notes of “The Imperial March.”
K: Not, it should be noted, as sinisterly as the theme appears throughout the OT. It’s a lot gentler, easier to miss. But it’s a reminder of the approaching inevitable.
M: Once you hear those last few notes and make the connection to “The Imperial March,” it’s hard not to have that mood flavor the entirety of the song. Its unsettled nature, as well as the struggle between the upwardly moving melody and the melody’s inevitable fall at the end of the tune… it all comes down to those last few notes.
K: It mirrors Anakin in the prequels as well–trying to rise but eventually being dragged down to the Dark Side.
M: But it doesn’t stop there. We get to hear the Imperial March throughout Anakin’s fall, as well as in The Clone Wars.
K: I was surprised, listening to the prequel soundtracks, at how sparingly John Williams actually uses the Imperial March. It pops up only at the darkest points in Anakin’s fall, highlighting the big turns in his journey to darkness. And even then, it’s usually pretty subtle. For example, when Anakin slaughters the Tusken Raiders in revenge for his mother’s death, the Imperial March plays not over the shots of Anakin slashing with his lightsaber, but over the scene where Yoda feels his rage and distress in the Force. It also appears in AotC in its less-widely-used function as the theme of the Galactic Empire–as Chancellor Palpatine and select senators look out over the gathered clone troopers and the new battleships of the Republic (so eerily reminiscent of stormtroopers and Star Destroyers respectively) we get that melody again.
M: I love that it isn’t used blatantly in the prequels for two reasons: First, I think it’s important that Anakin is not yet Vader. They’re not one and the same person, hence Obi-Wan insisting that Anakin Skywalker was killed when Vader was created. Not using it oppressively gives Anakin the constant chance for redemption–it’s really not until the end of RotS, when he rises as Lord Vader, that he has completely become that character. Second, it is used so liberally in ESB and RotJ when Vader’s presence and power is a constant. This in contrast to RotS, when Anakin potentially could have avoided becoming Vader. By the time the OT rolls around, the March is unavoidable, drowning out many of the other themes once it arrives.
K: The OT Imperial March is so great. It can be bombastic and in-your-face as it comes striding down a corridor, or it can jump out and surprise you.Going back to your point about using it sparingly in order to emphasize that Anakin isn’t Vader, let’s talk about Clone Wars!
M: GAH, literally my (and I think your) favorite moment in The Clone Wars is in the episode “Voyage of Temptation” (S2 E13). Obi-Wan and Satine are caught in a pickle… this crazy senator dude, Tal Merrick, is holding a detonator that will explode the ship they’re on, but neither Obi-Wan or Satine can bring themselves to kill the man. Merrick says “Who’ll strike first and brand themselves a cold-blooded killer?” Obi-Wan and Satine both hesitate… and BAM, the guy gets stabbed in the back by Anakin, who seems completely unaware of the implications of the situation. And in the background…
K: Duh duh duh DUN DA DUN, DUN DA DUN. We could write a whole other post about that moment, because it is my favorite of all time, but the use of the Imperial March there…gosh. Painful. The same sort of thing happens a few times throughout the show–any time Anakin drifts toward the Dark Side, that theme lurks in the background, reminding us of what’s to come.
M: Honestly, it’s a bit of a killjoy in that it’s this little reminder of the tragedy to come… Anakin will cease to be himself and will turn into Vader instead.
K: Thanks a lot, show–can’t just let us pretend that it’s all going to turn out fine, oh no. Interestingly, when Anakin really does fully commit to becoming Vader in RotS, the Imperial March still isn’t used nearly as heavily as it is in the OT. Probably because RotS is meant to show the absolute tragedy that is Anakin’s Fall, and the Imperial March is so entwined with this idea of Vader as a terrifyingly powerful force of evil.
M: I mean, it’s a march. It has this confidence and ruthlessness and drive to it that isn’t yet appropriate for Anakin. He’s not at ease with that level of evil until his transformation is complete and he leaves behind all traces of his former life.
K: But by the time we reach the era of the OT, the music fits perfectly with Vader’s persona. He is completely relentless and unstoppable, just like the rhythm of the march.
M: OOOH, which is why I love the little snippet of the March we get in RO. We don’t really hear it until the very end, when Vader has boarded the Rebel Cruiser and is watching the Tantive IV fly away, cape billowing in the “wind” (wind doesn’t exist in Space, obvs a bit of Vader using the Force to be extra), the literal definition of BADASS.
K: Dang, that Vader scene is still the coolest, most breath-taking (in the literal sense) 45 seconds I have ever seen on a theater screen.
M: *SHINK* Red lightsaber glows in the darkness as we listen to the same alarm sound from ANH… I DIE, we must change subjects before I talk about this all night. Back to the March in RO, I love that we only hear it, really, at the very end. We hear a few bars of it in the “Do not choke on your aspirations” scene, but using it in its full glory only at the end lets the audience know that the best/worst is yet to come… Vader is just getting started (additionally, this reflects the absence of the March in ANH). Also, I feel I must insert a word for Rebels here, which uses the March in a more Rogue One fashion (except for when they make it major during the Empire day celebrations?! Weird?!). He’s a mystery… scary, but not yet a direct threat to the entire galaxy.
K: I also like that, I think it works best to give the March its biggest and best incarnations during the movie that features everything going Vader’s way (well, until his son jumps down a death shaft rather than join him in ruling the galaxy): The Empire Strikes Back.
M: Exactly. And in ESB the March is kriffing everywhere. Every time we see an Imperial ship, every time we see Vader. I love how larger than life this makes Vader feel. And honestly, at this point, the gang don’t know what exactly they’re facing. They’re only now realizing how big of a problem he is.
K: And once they realize it, there’s no escaping it. Suddenly, Vader is everywhere: hunting the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field, appearing to Luke in a creepy tunnel on Dagobah, even sitting casually in a dining room in Cloud City. And his theme comes everywhere with him.
M: I especially love it in “The Battle of Hoth,” mostly because that’s one of my favorite tracks, but also because even amidst the thrumming of the AT-AT’s theme, the March STILL manages to be the scariest and most bombastic tune in the suite.
K: Gah so good. But, if the March manages to completely take over ESB, it has a much more complicated life in RotJ. It starts out as the same powerful theme, playing over Vader’s and later the Emperor’s arrival on the Death Star 2.0. But things are less clear to Vader these days. And his theme doesn’t always pound out confidently the way it used to. In particular, I’m thinking of the scene where Luke is brought to Vader on Endor. The Imperial March as we usually think of it IS present in the scene, but there’s this whole other section where bits and pieces of the March try to assert themselves only to disappear into the other melodies.
M: I think it’s a signal… Vader isn’t going to be Vader for much longer. It has less surety, more hesitance.
K: VADER isn’t sure anymore. Not sure about the Emperor, not sure about his decision to embrace the Dark Side, not sure what to think about his son–his son, who is insisting that there is still good somewhere inside of that black shell. It’s the Emperor’s theme, not the Imperial March, that takes center stage when Luke and Vader duel–it’s the Emperor Luke truly has to defeat, not his father. Which brings us to the last, really beautiful use of the Imperial March, during Anakin and Luke’s final conversation. As Luke helps his father take off his mask (literally and figuratively shedding Vader), a really high, haunting version of the March plays.
M: It sounds full of regret… just an echo of Vader’s evil and, really, the person he used to be. But also, and I’m just going to go ahead and assume John Williams did this on purpose, it sounds like Anakin’s Theme, especially with the harp at the very end.
K: Yes! It’s got that melodic quality again.
M: And because Vader has become Anakin again, Luke finally gets to meet his father.
K: *gross sobbing* Once it plays over Anakin’s death, the theme does not appear again. Instead, when Luke burns his father’s body we get a powerful version of the Force theme, and I cry and cry…
M: Vader is no more! Anakin is one with the Force. *weeps* Praise the space conflicts.
K: And praise John Williams for scoring them.