A Star Wars Speculation

James Brooks Kuykendall writes one of my favourite classical music blogs, Settling Scores. It’s pretty wonkish: Kuykendall goes into the weeds on the differences between different editions of the same musical score. It’s fascinating, nitpicky, and esoteric.

The other day, Kuykendall posted about something I didn’t expect: John Williams’ opening fanfare to Star Wars. Specifically, he was writing about the first chord of the film—or, more to the point, the chord that almost wasn’t first:

[T]here are substantial differences in [other takes of the fanfare from the recording session]. To use a philological term, the takes are actually variant readings. The most stunning of these to me was that three of the five takes started with a pick-up chord before the B flat fanfare—a “flat-VI” G flat major chord, swooping up with a crescendo into the familiar downbeat. Really?!? That famous first chord almost wasn’t the first chord?!?

Kuykendall goes on to explore the differences between the takes. In short, the right orchestral balance was found by having more or fewer of the musicians play their parts. Different parts were left out until the music became too spare, then the preceding take was used:

[I]t is astonishing to discover that Take 20—the last of the takes, the one just past the “keeper” (no. 19)—begins very sparsely: no big chord, no string tremolo, no woodwinds. Just the cymbal clash, the rolling triangle and the unison trombones. The horns, trumpets and tuba accumulate gradually, but there is no hint of the rest of the ensemble until the pick-up to b. 4. … Was this seriously considered for the iconic introduction?

I find this fascinating, partly because it’s the same iterative approach the film took to its logo design.

But back to the G flat chord. The case is interesting, for a reason Kuykendall doesn’t explore. In his post, he states that he’s not sure when the chord would appear in synchronisation with the film, but I have an idea about that.

Star Wars was a deliberate throwback to earlier films, and George Lucas wanted to use the original Fox fanfare, composed by Alfred Newman, to open it. Newman’s fanfare had fallen out of favour by the time Lucas made Star Wars, but the director presumably wanted the “old Fox movie” feel. And Williams set the Star Wars fanfare as a direct response to the Fox one. Quoth Wikipedia:

By the 1970s, the Fox fanfare was being used in films sporadically. George Lucas enjoyed the Alfred Newman fanfare so much that he insisted for it to be used on Star Wars (1977)…John Williams composed the film’s opening theme in the same key as the fanfare (B flat major), serving as an extension to it of sorts.

I would guess that the G flat chord that Kuykendall explored in his post wasn’t intended as an opening to the Star Wars fanfare, but as a direct link from the Fox fanfare to the Star Wars one. Presumably, Williams and his team tried it out a couple of times, but it didn’t work well enough, and was dropped.

My suspicion is that the G flat chord originally appeared instead of the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” (If you think the opening chord is iconic, imagine removing that text!) The music needs something to transition from the big B flat ending of the Fox fanfare to the big B flat beginning of the Star Wars fanfare, and in the end the film uses a long silence over those words. But I think Williams’ original plan may have been to instead bridge the gap with a single transitional chord. When that didn’t work, some kind of transitional image would have been needed to fill the silence. Hence the text.

To test this, I’ve cut together the three takes from the special edition recording—the ones with the G flat chord—with the Alfred Newman fanfare. I think my hypothesis sounds plausible at least. That said, even if I’m right, it’s something that Williams deemed a failure, so the best I can hope for is an inconclusive result.

1.

In this version, the G flat chord passes very quickly. Even for a link, it makes sense for the chord to be a little more sustained, which is exactly what happens in the next two takes.

2.

This version and the next draw out the intermediate chord a little longer, to make for a bigger landing on the Star Wars fanfare.

3.

If I’m right—and I’m not saying I am—then this is the last take before Williams decided to drop the G flat chord completely. The differences between this take and the previous one are pretty small, especially in the extract I’ve included, but I’ve kept it for posterity.