In 1977 John Williams rejuvenated the Golden Age soundtrack with Star Wars: A New Hope, a watershed moment in film music history comparable to Bernard Herrmann's slashing strings in Psycho or, going even further back, Max Steiner's landmark King Kong. Although film scores were in relatively rude health in the mid-70s due to trend-setting efforts from the likes of Jerry Goldsmith (who bagged an Oscar in 1976 for The Omen), Williams' richly thematic approach was a boldly old-fashioned move in an era where pop soundtracks tended to dominate. Much of the credit of course must go to franchise figurehead George Lucas. In-keeping with his return to broadly accessible, mythological storytelling the director was looking for the kind of bold orchestral Hollywood soundscape that would do justice to his nostalgic vision. And that's exactly what he got, Williams capitalising on his Oscar-winning success with Jaws and resurrecting the Wagnerian leitmotif approach, interlinking a host of memorable thematic ideas ranging from the bold to the romantic to the thrilling and threatening. It was a score that would yield the composer's third Oscar win, leading to critically acclaimed sequel scores The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as the prequel trilogy of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
For all of John Williams' enormous success with director Steven Spielberg, not to mention his oft-underrated capacity as a composer of great subtlety and tact (Jane Eyre; Schindler's List et al), it's Star Wars for which he will forever be remembered. Few film score moments are as imprinted on audiences' memories as the brassy, heraldic outburst accompanying the opening title scroll, one of the most memorable declarations of heroism in soundtrack history. Therefore, his return to the franchise with 2015's The Force Awakens made for arguably the most feverishly anticipated soundtrack release in years. There was initial speculation that for this first instalment in the planned new Star Wars trilogy, director JJ Abrams would reunite with regular composer Michael Giacchino. Ultimately though, Abrams made the wise decision to honour Williams' iconic relationship with the series. After all, there is no Star Wars without Williams, and indeed right from those first adrenaline-pumping bars of the opening track "Titles and the Attack on the Jakku Village", a kind of primal, nostalgic pleasure kicks in: an instant reminder of why Williams' powerful works are held in such high regard by score fans and non-score fans alike.
Following the bombastic majesty of the titles, the ensuing Jakku material introduces frenetic action material amidst formidable trombone blasts of new villain Kylo Ren's theme. It's no Imperial March (frankly, what is?) but it's very effective in conveying the dread of Adam Driver's masked, rage-fuelled baddie. Ren's piece stalks its way throughout the score, making notably chilling appearances in "Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle", "The Abduction", "Torn Apart" (where it competes with anguished strings representing the character's internal battle with the Force) and thrilling climactic piece "The Ways of the Force".
However, the score's centrepiece is the beautiful new theme for heroine Rey. As brilliantly played by British newcomer Daisy Ridley, Rey is an unassuming Jakku scavenger who eventually awakens to the power of the Force as she becomes caught in the battle between the evil First Order and the rebel resistance. Williams' theme (including the standard concert arrangement) therefore takes the listener on the same emotional journey, its first appearance in "The Scavenger" building from a delightful flute solo (very War Horse) into an imposingly haunting statement of genuine orchestral grandeur, foreshadowing her eventual growth into a formidable warrior.
Further appearances in "Rey Meets BB-8", the aforementioned concert piece "Rey's Theme", "That Girl with the Staff" and, especially, the rousing "Farewell and the Trip" help establish the theme as one of Williams' most memorable in some time, clad in the orchestral textures of his Harry Potter scores whilst also evoking the classic Star Wars sound of old. It's also adaptable, exploding into dynamic action in "Follow Me", the spectacular "The Falcon", "The Rathtars!" and fighting back against the harsher textures of Ren's theme in "The Ways of the Force", one of the many ways Williams plays his new ideas off each other in typically extraordinary fashion.
Other pieces more deeply embedded within the score include a rousingly brassy motif for Oscar Isaac's gung-ho X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron; this idea is more fragmentary but does make bookending appearances in two of the score's stand-out action tracks, "I Can Fly Anything" and "Scherzo for X-Wings". The latter is surely set to go into the all-time-great Williams action tracks, surging forward with a sense of terrific bravado that evokes images of galloping horses. The other key idea is the burgeoning theme for Rey and Stormtrooper-turned-hero Finn (John Boyega). A platonic, tender statement of solidarity rather than love, it makes delicate appearances in "That Girl with the Staff", "Finn's Confession", the highly emotional "The Abduction" and the beginning of "Farewell and the Trip", where it concludes with a sense of quiet resolve.
As if the multi-faceted interaction between all the aforementioned ideas wasn't enough, we're also treated to several stand-alone tracks including a brand new militaristic heroes theme called "March of the Resistance", whose jauntily rhythmic air recalls the highlights of 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's most memorably exciting rendition comes in "Scherzo for X-Wings". There's also one of Williams' strained, elegiac moments of anguished beauty in "The Starkiller" and a deeply chilling, male throat choir theme for "Snoke", the mysterious uber-baddie as played by Andy Serkis. Not only do the threatening choral textures of Snoke's theme have a genetic link to the villainous Emperor's theme from Return of the Jedi; they also recall the track "Palpatine's Teachings" from Revenge of the Sith, which underscored a pivotal moment where Palpatine corrupts young Anakin Skywalker's mind by telling him about mysterious Sith lord Darth Plagueis. In the process Williams' music further fuels rabid internet speculation that Snoke is the same character; presumably answers will be forthcoming as this new trilogy proceeds.
The cherry on top of this fine cake is of course the integration of the original trilogy themes. Quite apart from the bookending bombast of the opening titles and closing credits, there's also the terrific interpretation of the main theme in "Follow Me" and "The Falcon", both glorious pieces of musical nostalgia that are also expertly timed to the film's visuals. Elsewhere, the subtly enveloping mystique of the Force theme in "Maz's Counsel", "The Ways of the Force" and "The Jedi Steps and Finale" signifies Rey's steady awakening to the Light Side, and the delicate "Han and Leia" re-introduces the charming love theme between the veteran Star Wars characters, concluded poignantly in "Farewell and the Trip". Perhaps most surprising is the absence (bar one fleeting moment) of the imposing Imperial March: given the fact that the evil Kylo Ren is obsessed with Darth Vader's legacy, one might have expected Williams to use it more although its sole appearance is, when appreciated in context, chillingly effective.
The way Williams expertly weaves these more familiar ideas around the new ones is a testament to his extraordinary skill: as a composer, he is actively bridging the gap between the old and the new, honouring both the legacy of the franchise and that of his own music whilst also looking ahead to the future. It's the sort of rich storytelling tapestry of which Wagner himself would surely be proud. Nevertheless, as a standalone Star Wars listening experience, The Force Awakens does demand closer attention than any of the six preceding scores, which were all perhaps more overt in their thematic statements be they lush, anguished, thrilling or menacing.
Even so, this is surely a reflection of how Williams has developed as a composer: now in his eighties, his voice has clearly matured and where The Force Awakens dazzles is in its fabulously complex interplay of familiar themes and new ideas. On initial listening the score could be described as functional, only bursting into life when the famous Star Wars signifiers pop up. However, this is a score that demands and rewards repeat plays for the terrific way it both celebrates the rich legacy of Star Wars and also brings it soaring into a new age: no longer will Williams simply hit us with the obvious heroic signifiers; instead he's carefully thought about how his earlier scores sit alongside the musical building blocks of the new Star Wars trilogy. The end result is a typically vibrant, rich and engrossing piece of soundtrack storytelling, one that further cements Williams' formidable status as the Beethoven of the 21st century. The score is available as both a CD release and MP3 album, via these links at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.