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John Williams’ Superman Theme (Superman March) — 23 Comments

  1. Fascinating post. I loved how you revealed the connection between the fanfare and the love theme. I must have listened to that a thousand times and never caught that little piece of genius.

    Thank you for this website and the insight that you bring to cinematic music.

    Perhaps you could continue analyzing this film with some of the more minor themes like The Destruction of Krypton, The Journey to Earth, Growing Up, Lex Luthor’s theme (The March of the Villains), etc.

    Can’t wait for your analysis of Man of Steel. Saw it last week expecting to be disappointed by both the music and the film as a whole. Boy, was I glad to be wrong.

    • Thanks, Marcus. Great idea about analyzing more of Superman. I’ll put it on my “to do” list (no really, I do keep one!). So it’s just a matter of time before I get to it now.

      Good to hear that someone liked Man of Steel. I haven’t yet seen it, so I’m not sure what to expect. But the score I know quite well now, so it will be interesting to see how it fits into the film.

      Cheers. 🙂

      • That was another thing I was wondering about.
        What it your modus operandi when analyzing these musical scores?

        Do you listen to it first and then watch the movie?

        Do you often analyze it on paper as well as in your ears?

        Just curious as to your routine for preparing these posts.

        • My method depends on what it is I’m analyzing. For entire films, like for the James Bond series I just finished, I always watch the whole film then go through it more selectively a second time, making note of what cues come in where. So it’s a lot more work to do those kinds of posts. For new films, it’s harder because I don’t have the luxury of stopping the film and going back over certain parts. In those cases, I prefer to know the music very well before going in so I can try to focus on the story and just know without too much strain what music is being played where. It’s best to see these films twice because of that. For themes like the John Williams series or this latest Superman post, I generally know the theme so well that it’s more a matter of going through the score, listening to certain parts again, and just thinking about it away from the score and recording. I often find that the best ideas come to me that way, when I just sit and think about the theme, because it’s as if my mind is testing out the theme from all sorts of analytical angles, like trying to find the right fit for a puzzle piece.

          In grad school, I had a professor who encouraged us theorists not to stop when we found one pattern, but to see if that pattern exists at other places and at other levels (the small, medium, and large scales, for instance). Because with just about all composers, that’s going to be the case – they take an idea an keep repeating it in all sorts of ways. It’s certainly possible to go too far in saying what relates to what, so I really only go for patterns that are strong and, hopefully, convincing.

  2. Although I had noticed the musical intention of the march to draw a picture of Superman’s greatness, I never realized such important details as you wrote about. I’ll certanly pay more attention on the musical structure next time. I mentioned your site in a review of Superman’s films on my blog when I talked about the score, if you don’t mind. Once more, congratulations for the post!

    A hug

    • Thanks for the kind words, Felipe. I’d much appreciate your mentioning my site in your blog. That would be great. Thank you.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  3. Dear Mark,

    Thank you for yet another of your wonderful film music analyses. I have been following your site in the past months, and found so many interesting things about my favourite composers (Williams, Morricone) that are not available anywhere.

    You really should consider writing a history of film music, providing similar analysis of the best film scores, supporting it with sheet music excerpts (this is what other film music history books lack and what makes your site so unique).

    Another of my favourites from Morricone is his music for “A few dollars more”, the second part of the dollar trilogy. I hope you can devote some time to that film as well in the future.

    Has the Morricone book you mention sheet music excerpts?
    Or do you take your sheet music examples from some published anthology, or do you simply transcribe what you hear?

    All the best, keep up your wonderful blog,
    Karoly

  4. What a terrific post! I just stumbled across your site today, and I’m thankful I did. The Superman March is one of my favorite compositions by John Williams, and while I’ve poured over the score myself more than a few times, your level of insight puts me to shame. Looking forward to combing through the archives here and seeing what new stuff you post!

  5. I loved your post Mark – many thanks for this fascinating analysis! I have a question: I had also noticed the musical connections between Williams’ Superman theme and the intro of Strauss’ Zarathustra, and had wondered if this was a deliberate reference on Williams’ part. After all, much of the source material for the Strauss piece (Nietzsche’s book) concerns the concept of the Übermensch, often translated as the “Superman”. Do you think it’s plausible that Williams was making a knowing musical allusion to this earlier “Superman” music?
    All the best, and keep up the great work.
    Ryan

    • Thanks, Ryan. Yes, now that you mention it, there is a more-than-coincidental similarity between the fanfares for Superman and Zarathustra. Besides the octave motion through the open fifth that begins both themes, the end of the first four-bar phrase, where we hear the orchestra almost speak the word “Su-per-man”, has a stepwise drop to it similar to Zarathustra. But of course, this being Williams, the Superman fanfare is more compact and structured as a symmetrical theme with four bars to each phrase whereas the Strauss is much broader in concept, the space between each note feeling like a mile wide. In Strauss, there’s also the juxtaposition of major and minor chords on the same tonic. The overall effect seems to be one of not just awe, but terror as well. Williams does darken the mood somewhat at the end of his fanfare by dipping into the minor mode, but it sounds heroic rather than terrifying. And the theme’s symmetrical construction and moderate length seems to keep things in check, as though not allowing it to spill over into the frightful-awestruck vein that Strauss taps into. Williams keeps his theme lighter, more buoyant, and ultimately somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

      Interesting how very similar basic material can be fashioned in quite different ways even with a strong literary connection to boot. Thanks again for your comment!

  6. What an excellent post – thank you for writing and sharing it. I’ve long been trying to find the most “authentic” and complete solo piano score for playing the full opening theme from the 1978 movie. Most piano sheet music I have found has been “easy to play” type stuff. Would you happen to know if there is a good version out there?

    • Hello, George. I have looked around too, but always found the same easy-play things you mention. This leads me to believe that a more advanced version has never been published. But that’s not to say you couldn’t make your own. After all, the concert score of the theme is available for purchase, and it’s got all you would need.

  7. Thanks for the very detailed and insightful review of this piece. I hope to put it forward to our local orchestra for a performance. Can you tell me how many different instruments it is composed for as I haven’t been able to find the score on the internet. Thanks. David.

    • Hi David. Thanks for your kind words. The concert version of the Superman March calls for 33 parts. Listing these in traditional order, they are 3/2/3/2 for winds, 4/4/3/1 for brass, 4 for percussion, 1 harp, 1 piano, and 5 string parts.

  8. I liked your comments. I’ve also always thought that the jump from the tonic to the dominant in the “march” theme suggested jumping high (over a tall building?), and was also reminiscent of the theme music from the George Reeves/Superman TV series — which had a similar jump upwards. The same way that Hans Zimmer had to contend with people’s memories of the John Williams score, might John Williams himself have had to contend with people’s memories of the “Superman” TV score? For that matter, the theme from the Fleisher “Superman’ cartoon series starts with the same do-mi-sol motif. The adult audience for the first Christopher Reeve/Superman film had been children watching the TV version. Not so today.

  9. Hi Mark,

    5 years late, but I thoroughly enjoyed this break down. I work in the film industry as a Set Lighting Tech in Los Angeles, but have been a life long lover of cinema, and in particular, the rich orchestral themes of John Williams which have inspired me also as a trumpet player. Thought I’d offer a little trivia you may find interesting.

    Williams preferred the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) during this time for their impeccable sight-reading skill, and also for the legendary principal trumpet, Maurice Murphy. His sound is unmistakable, and sadly unmatched. Williams referred to his playing as “The voice of a hero”. Much acknowledgment to Eric Tomlinson also, Williams’ sound engineer of the time, for the way he recorded the brass.

    Murphy was respected world wide, and can also be heard on the first six Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman, Stargate, and many of the Harry Potter Films, just to name a few. Sadly he passed away in 2010, much too early. We are all so lucky the way things went in those magical years when all those movies were being made, and so many talented artists became a part of history.

    • Hi Craig. Wonderful bit of trivia about Maurice Murphy and his distinctive heroic sound! The trumpet, and Murphy’s sound in particular, is such a central part of Williams’ scores from those decades. I quite like the way Williams’ writing for trumpets in these scores subtly differentiates among different kinds of heroism. In Superman, the doubling of trumpets in octaves gives an impression of super-strength; in Star Wars, the high unison trumpets more generally suggest super-human ability; and in the Raiders March, there are again unison trumpets but now in a lower register, suggesting a more Earth-bound hero prone to adventure. Such great scores in so many ways!

      And don’t worry about the “late” comment. I’m glad to hear about these things at any time at all!

  10. Top 10: American Film Score Composers
    1. John Williams
    2. Danny Elfman
    3. James Horner
    4. Jerry Goldsmith
    5. Alan Silvestri
    6. James Newton Howard
    7. Elmer Bernstein
    8. Bernard Herrmann
    9. Ennio Morricone
    10. Hans Zimmer

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