This is the second in a series of six posts on themes from the Star Wars films. Each post will examine a theme from each of the six films in turn, leading up to an analysis of the score for the new Star Wars film, Episode VII, to be released in December along with its soundtrack.
The focus of this post will be another of the saga’s most recognizable themes, that for Darth Vader, or the Imperial March, first introduced in the saga’s second film, The Empire Strikes Back. Since I examined the musical structure of Vader’s theme in an earlier post, I will here emphasize the theme’s usage over the six films with regard to its associations and developments.
Unlike the uses of the Force theme, which I discussed in the previous post of this series, those for Vader’s theme are narrowly defined. As its name suggests, the theme does usually accompany Vader when he is onscreen and, as with leitmotifs generally, sometimes implies him even when he is not literally present in the scene. In The Empire Strikes Back, for example, we hear Vader’s theme softly in the background when Obi-Wan warns Luke of being tempted by the Dark Side of the Force by rushing off to save his friends before he has completed his Jedi training. Clearly, the theme suggests that Luke may suffer the same fate as Vader by turning to the Dark Side and falling into the Emperor’s hands. See this in the clip below from 0:34-0:43:
But in the two films where the theme makes the most appearances (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), Vader is not only onscreen when the theme sounds, he is also usually engaged in some sort of antagonistic action against the Rebels—that is, pursuing them, plotting against them, or harming them in some way. Hence, Vader’s theme does not only signal the Vader character, but is also expresses what might be called “evil in action”. After all, as a harmonically twisted march, the theme projects a sense of menacing forward motion quite well. No doubt, this is why it is able to acquire other associations outside of Vader himself. In The Empire Strikes Back, such statements of the theme are heard when AT-AT Walkers target and destroy the Rebels’ energy generators in the battle on Hoth, and when Stormtroopers approach the Millennium Falcon to attack the Rebel crew emerging from it. See the first of these scenes below from 8:24-8:52:
This association with “evil in action” is mixed with that of Vader in Revenge of the Sith, when the Emperor’s lightning bolts toss Yoda against the wall. One might have expected the Emperor’s theme to sound here, as it does in Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor is subjecting Luke to the same treatment. The situation in Sith, however, is different: the Emperor has only just revealed himself as such, and his timing was cued by his keen sense that Anakin would be ready to turn to the Dark Side. Hence, the focus is on the devastating potential Anakin’s recent defection will have on the Jedi. As if to confirm this perspective, the Emperor even admits to Yoda during this duel that “Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of us,” whereupon we hear the Imperial March once again. Hear these two statements of the theme in the clip below, the first from 0:27-0:43 and the second from 2:08-2:41:
A common secondary association of the theme is with the Imperial fleet or the Imperial army, which may be interpreted as a logical broadening of the Vader association. This usage of the theme, however, probably owes more to the evil-in-action association since both the fleet and army present monumentally imposing threats. In The Empire Strikes Back, most of the transitions from the Rebels to the Empire involve a statement of the theme with an establishing shot of the Imperial fleet that focuses on the large Star Destroyers rather than the small fighters. In Return of the Jedi, this association with the fleet is sometimes focused entirely on the ship with the greatest threat of all, the Death Star, thus replacing the Death Star motif of the first film, as shown in the following clip from 1:05-1:12:
The theme’s associations of Vader and the fleet can even be intertwined within the same statement. In Vader’s initial appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, the theme is first heard against establishing shots of the Imperial fleet. Only at the theme’s end do we see Vader looking out onto the fleet from one of the command ships. See this below from 1:25-2:03:
This instance of the theme makes it clear that Vader is the one in charge of this massive fleet and hence, even before we have seen him do anything at all in this film, we understand that Vader has become a figure of even greater importance than in the first film, when he was a subordinate to General Tarkin (Peter Cushing). That this statement is complete, in the foreground, given substantial time to unfold, and leads to the first appearance of the main antagonist points up its third function in this scene: character introduction. A similar usage occurs in Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor makes his first appearance with Imperial troops standing in file formation. Of course, this statement is not associated with Vader specifically, but signifies the Empire as personified by the Emperor (watch below from 0:16-0:37):
Developments of the Theme
Aside from using it as a typical leitmotif, Williams sometimes employs aspects of the Imperial March in other themes and passages, suggesting some sort of connection to Vader. Perhaps the most obvious such usage is that heard in the boy Anakin’s theme in The Phantom Menace. The final section of this theme ends with an overt reference to the latter portion of the first idea of Vader’s theme. Hear this in the clip below from 6:59-7:05 (and further references from 7:37 to the end):
Admittedly, this reference only occurs in the film’s end credits and thus does not carry the same associative weight as thematic statements that occur within the film proper. Yet leaving this connection out until the end-credit sequence appropriately suggests a time after that of the film, a kind of projected future time when Anakin will become Vader. In other words, the music suggests both Anakin’s starting point as a young boy and his ultimate incarnation as Darth Vader. Exactly how this transformation takes place is left untold in the music and hence we are left to imagine and speculate how this seemingly unimaginable transformation could take place.
A less apparent development of the theme occurs near the end of The Empire Strikes Back, once Vader has successfully frozen Han Solo in carbonite. Since Vader has been energetically pursuing the Rebels throughout the film and been foiled time and time again, the freezing of Han signifies the first time he has been successful in carrying out one of his plans. Hence this theme may be appropriately termed “Vader Succeeding” (heard from 4:05 onward in the clip below):
Though this theme may sound entirely new, it contains the same notes as Vader’s theme and in the same order, the main difference being a trill figure that obscures the original’s repeated notes, and two of the leaping notes of the original now being sounded together as a chord instead of individually. The theme’s harmonies are also the same as the original’s opening idea. Compare the two in score below:
As though to highlight the relationship between these themes, the original Vader theme appears overtop of the Succeeding theme in the clip above at 4:24-4:33. The Succeeding theme is structured as a set of two closely-related ideas that undergo several repetitions in a row. This circular nature of the theme’s statements and its foundation in the original Vader theme musically suggests that Vader’s pursuit of the Rebels has come to an end (for now!), leading to a kind of fearful stasis in the action. The Vader Succeeding theme is therefore an effective means of marking the shift of the upper hand from the Rebels to Vader.
One other noteworthy development of the Imperial March occurs in Revenge of the Sith in the opera scene, when Chancellor Palpatine tells Anakin that “all who gain power are afraid to lose it… even the Jedi.”1 This claim is meant to manipulate Anakin, to create mistrust of the Jedi in his mind and push him ever closer to embracing the Dark Side of the Force. This conversation ends up being crucial to Anakin’s later defection and is therefore a substantial step towards him becoming Darth Vader. This interpretation is even subtly suggested by the music at this point, which is another variant of the Vader theme that may be called the “Anakin Turning” theme. Hear this new theme in the clip below four times successively from 1:16-1:55:
Notice that this theme is a variant of the second idea of Vader’s theme rather than its first, as shown in the score and heard in the recordings below:
0:14-0:18 – Vader Theme, 2nd Idea
4:57-5:09 – Anakin Turning
Further solidifying the meaning of the Anakin Turning theme is the confrontation scene between Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Palpatine. After Anakin helps Palpatine kill Windu, he pledges his allegiance to Palpatine, desperate to find a way to save Padmé from certain death. This monumental step towards the dark-suited Vader of the original trilogy of films is marked musically by a recall of the Anakin Turning theme at this point (below from 1:00-1:14):
Once Palpatine (now the Emperor) re-christens Anakin as Darth Vader, we hear a clear statement of the opening of Vader’s theme, given in the clip above from 1:40-1:48. Thus, Anakin’s transformation into Vader is mirrored by the conversion of the Anakin Turning theme into Vader’s theme.
Although the Imperial March is associated with Darth Vader and the Empire in general, it is often employed as a kind of “evil-in-action” theme, suggested by its contorted harmonic progressions and propulsive, driving rhythm. And as we have seen, several scenes fuse two of these meanings together, allowing the theme to ascribe attributes of power and importance to the saga’s main antagonists in an effective non-verbal way. Furthermore, the theme undergoes several developments that suggest either Vader’s (temporary) control over the Rebels, or Anakin’s gradual transformation into Vader. Thus, despite the relatively confined associations of the theme, its applications are frequently a rich source for interpretation.
Coming soon… the Emperor’s theme.
Thanks to Frank Lehman (Tufts University) for suggesting to me the Vader influence of this theme. ↩