Da da da dah dah dah… yes, it’s “The Imperial March”!
Star Wars would be nothing without its music. A John Williams score gives any movie an epic texture. Can you imagine Luke gazing into the twin sunset set to the Hawk The Slayer disco guitar track? By far the most iconic theme in the series – outside of the opening fanfare itself – is “The Imperial March”, but what you may have forgotten is that it didn’t debut until The Empire Strikes Back. John Williams wrote “The Imperial March” for the second film and it serves primarily as a piece of theme music for Darth Vader. As an example of a leitmotif, a recurring musical phrase that anchors us to places and people in the story, it’s first heard subtly when the probe droids are launched at the opening of Episode V, then flourishes into its full thumping beat when the Star Destroyers begin assembling under Vader’s command. Echoes of it crash through the battle of Hoth and the asteroid field scene. Later, in Return Of The Jedi, we hear it on the second Death Star – and finally again more quietly, played on a harp, as Vader ultimately dies.
Williams is often credited with reviving interest in grand orchestral scores for the cinema. His style draws on the large-scale classical compositions enjoyed by the early pioneers of film, and Star Wars is the perfect example of this, an audio parallel to George Lucas’s love of the archetypal sci-fi serials. Like a lot of Star Wars music it owes a debt to Holst’s The Planets, particularly “Mars: The Bringer Of War”, but it’s creepier than that, with undertones of Chopin’s famous “Funeral March”. Whatever its ancestry, it’s a beautifully dark, determined piece of music, melodramatic in its rousing villainy, an almost pantomime-like boo-hiss of a soundtrack for the Empire’s henchmen to strut along to. With the main melody in a minor key, the chords come fast and insistent as trumpets and trombones accelerate through a wall of menacing, militaristic sound.
The leitmotif of “The Imperial March” also finds its way into the prequels, a wisp of it colouring “Anakin’s Theme” and then the full thrum of it accompanying the Clone Troopers’ departure into war. We can only hope there’ll be a bit of it in The Force Awakens too, although the Empire itself is no longer with us. Is John Williams composing a First Order March variant especially, perhaps?
The SFX team play this music whenever Darth Bradley enters the office.