Following on the success of his mid-1970s scores for Jaws and Star Wars, John Williams produced yet another iconic movie theme with Superman in 1978. At the initial recording session for the film, the theme made such an impact on director Richard Donner that, unable to contain himself, he exclaimed “Genius! Fantastic!”, promptly ruining the first take. The theme also leaves an indelible mark on the memories of many a filmgoer, particularly in the way it accompanies the film’s main titles, which literally fly on and off screen like the Man of Steel himself.
Thus, the Superman theme has become so inextricably linked with its filmic association that it can seem as though it is the only musical representation possible for the character. How does Williams manage to do this? As in so many of his other themes, by carefully coordinating the musical features so that they converge and provide us with a fleshed out picture of the thing it represents. In this particular case, and as many have pointed out before, the music even seems to speak the name “Superman” in its first big cadence (more on this below).
The Superman theme consists of three main components, which are in fact smaller complete themes in themselves: a fanfare, a march, and a love theme. In the following film music analysis, I discuss several of the features that contribute to the expression of the Superman theme in each of its components and over its entire structure.
Below is the concert version of the Superman theme:
This version begins with the fanfare (whereas the film version omits this initial appearance), which is set in a moderate tempo and at a moderately loud dynamic. Together with the noble brass melody and the subtle but dramatic timpani roll, it is as though a great storyteller is preparing us to hear a mythic tale of epic proportions, the musical equivalent of Star Wars’ famous “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.
Structurally, the fanfare begins with two motives that outline a perfect fifth and fourth, intervals commonly used to denote heroism. But these intervals go beyond the merely heroic since they are based on only two different notes of the scale: the tonic (the scale’s first note) and dominant (its fifth note). Together, these notes suggest the most restful chord in any key, the tonic, which gives the impression of stability. With no intervening notes, the scoring in the trumpets and horns, and the relatively slow rhythms, these tonic and dominant notes attain an awe-inspiring sound not unlike the opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, heard over the main titles of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On top of that, the triplet rhythm adds a militaristic quality that suggests something powerful. Thus, even in these first few bars, Superman’s heroism, stabilizing presence, and strength are all hinted at.
The perfect fifths and fourths in the fanfare don’t just form note-to-note motives, they also permeate the fabric of the fanfare at a more long-range level. The fanfare breaks down into four short pairs of motives – I’ll call each pair an idea:
Each idea contains two notes that stand out more than the others: the very first note and the “goal note” of each idea (shown in the top staff below).
In the first idea, the goal note is the highest note; in the second idea, it’s the last note (though this note is embellished by a note a step higher); the third idea repeats the first, so again it’s the highest note; and in the fourth idea, it’s the last note. Notice that these pairs of prominent notes all delineate either a fourth or fifth.
More importantly, these fourths and fifths form a gradual progression. The second goal note is higher than the first, as though heroically overcoming an obstacle. (The goal note here is embellished by a note that is actually a step higher [shown in parentheses] and physically stands in its place, pushing the goal note off to the next beat.) Notice that the goal note to this second idea is precisely where Williams ramps up the intensity by rising to a loud dynamic, and adding trombones and a cymbal crash to boot. This is also the moment where the music seems to utter the word “Su-per-man!”
Heard as such, the music fuses the characteristics of these first few bars with Superman’s very name. But coming to rest on the dominant chord here, the music, and therefore our hero’s story, sounds unfinished. Will Superman be victorious in the story we are about to hear? The third idea repeats the first idea, and so returns to home base before reaching an even greater height in the fourth idea (again embellished by a higher note), suggesting the ability to surpass mere heroism to achieve superheroism. The fanfare, however, is left tantalizingly unfinished. (More on this later.)
With the arrival of the march at 0:41 in the recording I gave above, we hear in its melody many of the same features of the fanfare: a perfect fourth and fifth at its start, tonic and dominant notes, a triplet rhythm, and trumpet scoring. The same personal traits are therefore suggested in this section as well, but now the accompaniment pounds out chords of great might in the lower parts and, in the upper parts, creates a shimmering effect that suggests something heavenly and god-like. Not to mention that this theme is presented at a loud dynamic in contrast to the start of the fanfare. Clearly, our superhero has arrived and sprung into action.
The melody, however, moves in a new direction:
As before, the dominant, G, is the first prominent note. Twice the melody rises a step to an elated-sounding A, as though celebrating one’s heroic efforts. But it doesn’t stop there. The melody continues to rise by step to B, which desperately wants to move up one more step to C at the top of the scale, but twice this rise is thwarted as the melody drops down instead of moving up. It appears our superhero is up against some great force, and using all his might to try to overcome it. Finally, with the third attempt, the B manages to break through and reach up to the climactic C before falling confidently down an octave on a comforting tonic chord, as if to punctuate the victory. Note that this is essentially the same melodic shape that we saw in the analysis of the Force Theme from Star Wars, which also seemed to depict the struggle of overcoming obstacles, and hence I termed it the “struggle” contour. Significantly, the contour in the march outlines another heroic rising fourth.
The Love Theme
Although the inspiration for the love theme’s melody (at 2:21) is often cited as Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, the melody can be viewed as having grown out of the melody of the fanfare. Indeed, the two share some striking similarities in structure—notice especially how the second idea of the fanfare is reshaped into the love theme. (I transpose the fanfare below for ease of comparison.)
This similarity not only lends unity to the piece, but subtly suggests two sides of the same personality: the brawny hero and the gentle romantic.
Harmonically, the love theme’s opening is based on a progression that is common in pop love songs: I-II#-IV-I, heard for instance in the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”:
In the Superman theme, however, this progression is underpinned by a repeated tonic note (or pedal) in the strings, which continue to play the march’s militaristic rhythm and so suggest an even more overt connection between Superman’s heroic and romantic sides.
In the second half of the love theme at 2:42, the bottom notes of the orchestra fall away and the march’s rhythms yield to an evenly wavering rhythm. Now it is as though Superman’s feet have left the ground and he is gracefully suspended mid-air with his beloved Lois. This theme does, after all, perform double duty as both the love theme and Superman’s flying theme.
The Theme as a Whole
Far from being just a collection of catchy tunes, the structure of the Superman theme as a whole contributes greatly to its emotional power. I have already mentioned the preparatory quality of the opening fanfare, but notice that the first time we hear the fanfare, it doesn’t actually reach an ending. At 0:25, it simply repeats the same penultimate chord instead of moving to a more satisfying tonic chord. This withholding of an appropriately final chord is a powerful tool in the composer’s toolbox as it leaves us craving resolution, forcing us to listen all the more intently in the hopes of achieving it. We’ll return to this point in a moment.
Without a doubt, a significant part of the enormously dramatic impact the Superman theme has on audiences lies in the way a couple of its transitions prepare and build up to the subsequent themes. The first transition occurs just after the opening fanfare at 0:25. At this point, the music is suddenly in a faster tempo and starts to reiterate a new militaristic rhythm at a hushed dynamic (the one mentioned earlier in connection with the love theme). As this rhythm is repeated, the dynamic becomes gradually louder, and more and more of the orchestra joins in. The effect is of something astonishing approaching from a distance. (Is it a bird? Is it a plane?)
Not only that, but the kinds of chords Williams uses in this passage are constructed using fourths (an interval we heard prominently in the fanfare) rather than the more typical chords in thirds (called tertian harmony). These chords in fourths are called quartal harmony and their effect here is twofold. First, as the fourths build up one after the other, almost like a melody, the sound suggests that what approaches is something of great power. Second, when fourths are heard simultaneously in a chord (especially when surrounded by more typical chords in thirds), it sounds as though these quartal chords are actually tertian chords with dissonant notes that need to resolve. Thus, the music attains a powerful sense of forward drive. Furthermore, the final chord of the passage is a quartal chord (or in jazz terms, a “sus” chord) on the dominant, all of which creates a great sense of anticipation, as though something incredible is about to happen.
And incredible it is, as the march theme enters triumphantly, providing the resolution for both the opening fanfare that we had hoped for, and releasing the tension of all the quartal chords into the resounding tertian chord of C major at 0:41.
Much the same thing happens after the B section (or “bridge”) of the march at 1:14, where the music attempts to conclude the section three times, the last time leading into another form of quartal chord on G-flat (here marked as a sus chord with added 7th):
This chord in fact has the same structure as the one heard in the fanfare when the music begins to speak the name “Su-per-man”, only now it is transposed up a half-step. Compare the two below:
Both here and in the earlier transition into the march, what is achieved is a heightening of the drama of the Superman theme. So crucial are these linking sections that the theme would lose much of its power were they omitted from the music. To drive this point home, I’ve recomposed these sections of the theme to exclude these passages.
Clearly, the music just isn’t the same without these crucial “build-up” passages.
John Williams’ Superman theme is one of the most iconic in film history as it so effectively captures the film character’s features in musical terms: his unstoppable power, triumphant heroism, stabilizing presence, and capacity for romance. But there is one other aspect of the film that the music captures equally well. As Williams himself said, one of the things he liked about working on the film was that “it was fun and didn’t take itself too seriously.” Surely, the bright, optimistic tone of the theme is a result of this kind of mindset. After all, these were the days before more troubled, tormented superheroes—Batman foremost among them—began to be the norm. Superman fits perfectly into that group of film heroes of the late 70s and early 80s with relatively sunny dispositions like Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. Significantly, all three of these heroes have jaunty major-key themes that have become just as iconic as that for Superman, all penned by the inimitable Williams.
Coming soon… Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel.