The Empire Strikes Back or, Everyone has a Theme! Part One: Leitmotif and "The Imperial March"

The Empire Strikes Back
Released: May 21, 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Music by: John Williams
*All music is the property of Lucasfilm

The Empire Strikes Back is considered by many to be the greatest movie of the original Star Wars trilogy and it’s no wonder. The film contains battles both on land (Hoth) and in space (the Millennium Falcon vs. Star Destroyers), a terrifying villain (Darth Vader), moments of comedy (C3PO) and one of the biggest twists in the history of film. It also features a gorgeous score composed and conducted by John Williams, a film composer who has been working in Hollywood since the 1950s and is solely responsible for some of the greatest film scores of all time.

For his work on The Empire Strikes Back, Williams began with the musical themes he had established for the original Star Wars and used it as a starting point for the sequel. Two themes were already set in stone:

Luke’s Theme/The Force

Leia’s Theme

As the role of Darth Vader was being greatly expanded from his first appearance, Williams concluded that Vader would need a theme to match. This lead to the creation of “The Imperial March,” a theme that is now synonymous, not just with Star Wars and Darth Vader, but with anything evil in nature.

Darth Vader’s Theme/The Imperial March

These themes, and how they are used, derive from a technique created for opera, known as leitmotif. Leitmotif was made popular by the Romantic composer Richard Wagner in his famous series of “Ring” operas.

Leitmotifs, by nature, are meant to evoke a particular character and are played whenever a specific character is seen on stage OR when they are mentioned by another character. This happens a great deal with “The Imperial March”, and not just in The Empire Strikes Back.

Starting with The Phantom Menace, echoes of “The Imperial March” are heard towards the end of the film when Yoda (reluctantly) gives Obi-Wan permission to train Anakin. (specifically: when Yoda says “Nevertheless, grave danger do I feel in his training”)

The theme grows stronger in Attack of the Clones, but again is heard primarily at the end of the film when the Clone fleet is seen landing in Coruscant, announcing the start of the Clone Wars.

Finally, in Revenge of the Sith, the theme is finally heard in full when Anakin turns to the Dark Side and is dubbed Darth Vader by the new Emperor Palpatine. (The theme can be heard in snippets throughout the latter half of the film, but fully comes out when Vader is being placed into his armor, particularly when the mask slips into place).

Part Two will explore the theme of Han and Leia’s love and the theme of Yoda. Until next time!

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One thought on “The Empire Strikes Back or, Everyone has a Theme! Part One: Leitmotif and "The Imperial March"

  1. Pingback: Film Music 101: Leitmotif | Film Music Central

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