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 Recording of the Week  John Williams's soundtrack for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A few departures from the usual pattern this week, including a change of genre. To begin with, I think I'm right in saying that we've never sent out one of our newsletters on Christmas Day before, so I should start by wishing you a Merry Christmas; I hope Santa brought you everything you asked for! Just in case he didn't, here's something to try and tempt you into purchasing a belated gift, namely the soundtrack album from the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.

John Williams conducts Star Wars: The Force Awakens
John Williams conducts Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The film has only been out for just over a week, and so I'm not going to reveal any plot spoilers; I will mention some of the track titles, but only ones that do not give away too much about the actual story. Suffice it to say that, as part of the filmmakers’ avowedly nostalgic intent to make the new instalment feel like a Star Wars film, for the music they have once again turned to John Williams, who has written the scores for all six previous films in the saga.

As one would expect, it begins with the familiar theme, which brings me to another first: unlike all other Star Wars scores, this one is not performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, but instead by Los Angeles session players. If I have one criticism regarding their generally outstanding performance, it would be that, in the Main Title at least, I did miss the bright, ringing tone of the LSO trumpets. Other than that, though, the score is fabulously performed, and there’s some great horn playing in particular.

Of course, no composer can be expected to write in the same style now as he did almost forty years ago (Williams is currently 83 years old), and so if you're hoping this music is going to be exactly like the old stuff then you might be disappointed. Although a handful of themes from the original films do appear, I’d estimate that the score is about 95% new material. There aren't any big set-piece cues along the lines of, say, The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back or Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace. If I had to oversimplify this stylistic change I would describe it as a move away from the thematic and towards the motivic. By this I mean that he tends not to write extended themes but rather shorter motifs, often just four or five notes.

Perhaps the best example of this is one of the motifs for Kylo Ren, the principal villain of the piece. Rather than a lengthy melody along the lines of Darth Vader’s Imperial March, Williams provides a five-note horn motif. Even such a short motif is instantly recognisable, however, and despite the character it represents, I couldn't help but smile every time it cropped up, so deliciously and knowingly old-school Hollywood “here comes the bad guy” is it in tone!

Having said all of this, Williams can still pull his old style out of the bag when he needs to, and nowhere is this more evident than the March of the Resistance, a gloriously defiant, minor-key, Walton-tinged march that brings to mind some of the militaristic music from his 1970s scores like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Black Sunday, and Midway. There’s also a string-based threnody that recalls other elegiac cues such as The Immolation Scene from Revenge of the Sith and The Death of Topthorn from War Horse. Furthermore, there's an exuberance to some of the brass writing that could easily have come from a much younger Williams, particularly in tracks such as Scherzo for X-Wings, and possibly my favourite action cue of the lot, I Can Fly Anything.

However, for me the clear standout in terms of new material is undoubtedly Rey's Theme, although, in keeping with my comments earlier, it's not so much a theme as a group of melodic tags that recur throughout the score in a variety of guises and moods. It has such a grand, noble feel to it, conjuring up the majestic sweep of film scores of the past.

In some video footage from one of the scoring sessions, Williams is heard at one point to say to J.J. Abrams, the film’s director, that “this stuff in Reel 7 really needs to be good; I hope it is...” Well, I think I can confidently say: mission accomplished! As you may have noticed, I can be slightly nerdy when it comes to film scores, so it has been a genuine thrill to hear this new music. It’s an album that keeps getting better with each listen, and I hope that even if you have only a passing interest in film music you will want to check out why, after almost sixty years of writing movie scores, he is still, at least in my humble opinion, the best in the business.

Williams, John: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Available Format: CD

Williams, John: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Deluxe Edition)

N.B. The content of this Deluxe Edition is identical to the standard version, but the packaging is different.

Available Format: CD