There are links between eras so subtle we barely detect them in the fabric of the times. We enter the movie theater and are swept away by the images and the aural force of the music score. But in the films we see we can also find the interesting threads that bind us to past histories. Listen closely to the harmonies propelling a scene forward, and the ear will catch the whisper of a previous era aflame with powerful ideals. At the closure of the film season, audiences have recently flocked to the polarizing new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, the latest, bombastic addition to the canon. In addition to Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, there was another returning marquee name essential to the identity of this franchise, or better put, the pop mythology of the times. I mean, of course, composer John Williams. Audiences may have little way of realizing as they are experiencing a film that they are participating in one of the last stands of the great Romantic period. If we are at the dawn of new revolutions, then in the cinema we find traces of one of the grandest revolutions to have re-shaped culture.
Since the 1970s, Williams has been the supreme film scorer in the world, responsible for some of film history’s most iconic, enduring themes. The melodies conjured by Williams have a way of forever embedding themselves into popular consciousness. Whether the adventurous romps for Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Star Wars, or the evocative scores for Schindler’s List, Nixon, and Memoirs of a Geisha, Williams’s scores carry with them a special aura that makes them universal and timeless — sometimes regardless of what you may think about the movie itself. The lush string sections, accentuated by heroic brass and elegant winds, with a particular emphasis on the stirring of the emotions with awe, such are the ingredients of Williams’s scores. It is a grandiosity also found in the work of film composers such as James Horner and Michael Kamen, Gabriel Yared and Michael Giacchino. What binds these composers together is their devotion to the Romantic tradition. Being a medium based on awe and sensation, it is fitting that some of the last traces of Romanticism are to be found in cinema. Even as newer composers abandon this vein for the cold, electronic sounds that lack the orchestra as a force, the melodies crafted by Williams endure precisely because they are transcendental. In The Last Jedi, it is the grandiosity of the score that gives many of the film’s immense, digital images real impact.
Memoirs Of A Geisha Theme, composed by John Williams
It may sound far-fetched to suggest that there is quite literally a connecting thread between Star Wars and the French Revolution, but it indeed exists if we blow away the gathered dust of time and look. Like all great historical earthquakes, the French Revolution shook the general culture of not only its own land, but the world. If the Revolution and its parallel cousin, the Industrial Revolution, defined the evolution of politics and nationalisms for the next two centuries, the arts were no exception. It is the generation of this momentous period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that produced that glorious moment, the Romantic Movement. Romanticism channeled the revolutionary spirit of the times into works that celebrated the awesome power of feeling, the majesty of emotion over matter and the melancholy of passion.
Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem
William Blake, Ludwig van Beethoven, Goethe, Brahms, Richard Wagner, these composers and authors were the apostles of the Romantic creed. Their arts at times intertwined with the passage of the ages and come down to us in beautiful hybrids. Consider the beautiful hymn Jerusalem, still thought of as England’s second national anthem. It is music by Hubert Parry, composed in 1916, with lyrics by Blake, written in a fever in 1804, as Europe continued to feel the aftershocks of the Bastille’s fall and the coming of Napoleon. The hymn is stirring, with strings that swirl and envelope the listener, framed by Blake’s mystical language. The Greek composer Vangelis includes the hymn with a synthesized flourish in his score for the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. The irony is that today the text has been turned into a kind of nationalist tradition, sung at football games, when in fact Blake was an anti-monarchist radical. The text refers to the “Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution, and one of the lyrics’ most exhilarating passages is a call for revolution:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.
In film scoring the genes of the melodies are infused with strands from specific sounds and names culled from Romanticism’s musical landscape. This is fitting because cinema remains one of our remaining Romantic art forms. It is a medium fueled by dreams, passions, terrors and unabashed lust and longing. Even as the medium is overtaken by the industrialized force of commercialism, the Romantic spirit finds expression in its stories and sounds. Now more than ever it is in the music that cinema finds its Romantic heart.
Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen
In Star Wars, John Williams produced a score beloved the world over for its association with George Lucas’s space opera, a fable more suited for the Brothers Grimm. But its sound has a direct link to the influence of Germany’s Richard Wagner, one of the key Romantic composers. A controversial figure, Wagner’s most famous works are his operas. These works of fantastic grandiosity are timeless in their overpowering romanticism, exploring mythical themes and stories. Wagner was a nationalist in the 19th century sense, inspired by the European revolutions of 1848, when the continent underwent a wave of uprisings similar to the Arab Spring of 2011. His most famous opera, The Ring of the Nibelung, is a timeless epic divided into four operas, grand in its depiction of Valhalla, and the hero Siegfried who must awaken a sleeping princesses surrounded by rings of fire. Perhaps the most famous moment from the opera cycle, Ride of the Valkyries, with its bombastic cadences and visceral strings (precursors to so much cinema music), is instantly recognized from its use in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, in which it becomes the terrible theme for the bloody aria of war in Vietnam. Fascism adopted Wagner for its own ends in the 1930s when the Third Reich saw in the nationalist spirit of the music a celebration of power for its own sake (it also helped that Wagner’s descendants were admirers of Hitler’s militarized cultural vision).
Ride of the Valkyries, from Apocalypse Now
But listen to Williams’s theme for Princess Leia and its textures are linked to Wagner’s most romantic work, Tristan & Isolde. Listen to Wagner’s key theme, the “Prelude,” in particular as conducted by Herbert Van Karajan, and the shadow it casts over Lucas’s fugitive princess is clear. The winds provide a tender backdrop as the string section builds to an enrapturing climax in both pieces. There is a sense of desperate longing, the scope of fantasy and the melancholy of drama. Williams and Wagner build these pieces into crashing crescendos of delicate sound. Even the martial thump of the Star Wars theme, or the baroque melodies of the Empire owe something to the marching themes we hear in the fourth of the Ring cycle, The Twilight of the Gods. Notice how the notes of the famous “Throne Room” march at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, are almost lock in step with one of Wagner’s most famous compositions, the Bridal Chorus from his drama Lohengrin. It is inspiring music which casts an immersive spell. Both composers are dealing with themes of heroism in the face of monolithic forces. In Wagner’s world Nordic heroes face off with dragons, gods and other, immense powers. Cinema has taken the values and heroics of another time and transplanted them into modern entertainment.
Wagner’s “Prelude,” Herbert Von Karajan conducting.
I remember a few years ago sitting in a theater watching the unimpressive Star Trek: Into Darkness, but finding myself stirred for about two minutes by a melancholic piece of music which plays during an early scene in which two parents drive to see their child in a futuristic hospital. The scene is driven by a beautiful piano melody which flows into a driving string section. The track, London Calling, by composer Michael Giacchino, is the best thing in the movie. But it is a beautiful descendant of Franz Schubert or Frédéric Chopin, composers of works where the piano itself turns into an aching voice. The high-nosed may scoff at such a comment involving a Star Trek movie, but there you have it. It is also — I would argue because of the music — the best edited scene in that mess of a movie.
Michael Giacchino, London Calling
When it comes to John Williams, his music finds an immediate impression with audiences precisely because it makes them feel, as opposed to just watch a film. This is why his Romanticism enhances stories that might otherwise seem silly, or at least childish without the gorgeous wall of sound.
The Flying Sequence, composed by John Williams
1978’s Superman features another Wagernian march as its theme, but the velvety The Flying Sequence, scored for the scene where Superman scoops Louis Lane off her balcony owes to the aching compositions of Johannes Brahms. One of the true Romantics, Brahms was forever tortured by his love for Clara Schumann, wife of his mentor and fellow composer Robert Schumann. Robert had gone literally mad, yet Clara and Brahms could not proceed with their feelings due to the social codes of the Victorian era. Tortured and in despair (“I can do nothing but think of you… What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?” Brahms wrote to Clara at one point), Brahms’s music is a sort of emotional release, powered by thunderous movements which transition into dreamlike passages. His Third Symphony is a perfect example of this emotional landscape. The symphony’s first movement opens with soaring strings and moments that feel like unchained frustration, while the famous third movement is a slower, melancholic section colored with nostalgia. Listen to the strings and you can find the vein Williams is mining when he composes for a romantic scene (another great example of which is Across the Stars for the Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones).
Bedřich Smetana’s Die Moldau. Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan.
So rich was the contribution of the Romantics in their fevered emotions that their melodies are used unfiltered on works for the screen. One of the most beautiful recent examples is the use of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s Die Moldau in Terrence Malick’s 2011 opus The Tree of Life. Part of a series of symphonic poems celebrating the landscapes of his homeland, Smetana’s composition is an homage to the river The Moldau, and the winds and strings are written to evoke the river’s currents and the natural world surrounding its ebbs and flows. Imagine the notes as substitutes for words, in which the sound evokes the river as opposed to a descriptive verse or metaphor. Malick takes the piece and uses in it his poetic film which seeks to encompass the grandeur of existence through the microcosmic life one family. The song drives a montage where we see a family live, children born and grow, evolving from infants to kids playing in fields and gazing at adult eyes. For Smetana the notes represent a current in nature, for Malick the melody becomes the score for the currents of human life. Malick himself can be termed a modern-day Romantic, his cinema dismisses commercial narrative or theme, seeking instead transcendence through the flow of images and sound, at times creating a vivid sense of narrative without the restrictions of conventional plotting. You must let yourself be carried away by the film’s currents. This is almost a radical act in an over-commercialized age, where consumerism is the guiding philosophy in an age without philosophers.
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Movement II. Herbert von Karajan conducting.
The music of the Romantics survives out of time, even out of their original passions. In The King’s Speech, the second, mournful movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony colors a monarch’s proclamation announcing the coming of the Second World War. While King George VI’s call to arms is just, the composer himself, the greatest Promethean figure of the Romantic composers, was a revolutionary who scoffed at the pretensions of power (even when he used the powerful to pay the bills). His music is a soundtrack to the age of the Enlightenment and its sword-waving offspring, the French Revolution. Indeed, Beethoven’s immortal 9th Symphony, and its “Ode to Joy,” is so universally rousing that everyone from Fascists to Marxists to liberals have claimed it. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin is quoted as having said, “Everything will pass, and the world will perish but the Ninth Symphony will remain.”
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, “Ode to Joy.” The Folsom Symphony, Michael Neumann conducting.
So now we return to John Williams, possibly the last Romantic standing as even the sounds of cinema transition into the colder shades of an electronic world (with a few exceptions). Composers like Hans Zimmer have popularized the crunching synth vibration, most recently featured to popular affect in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, while franchises now revive the use of pop songs to frame a film’s narrative- Guardians of the Galaxy and the dreadful Justice League being clear examples, although the technique works beautifully for satire as seen in I, Tonya. Yet it is easy to suspect that Williams’s compositions will outlast his younger heirs in the same way Gustav Mahler and Antonin Dvorak survive as rapturous experiences for the willing ear. Listen to Williams’s Journey to the Island from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and then listen to Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, in particular its fourth movement. The rousing trumpet notes propelled by crystalline string passages in both pieces are distant relatives to each other. If the arts are a palimpsest, then if we search underneath the layers of contemporary cinema, brushing away its consumerist pretensions, we still find embedded in its structures traces of beautiful and illuminating ideas, and expressions that will hopefully carry us forward as every year feels as uncertain as the last.
John Williams Journey to the Island
Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, Fourth Movement. Gustavo Dudamel conducting.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.