Celebrating Star Wars Themes, Part 3 of 6: The Emperor’s Theme — 7 Comments

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for another interesting analysis. I often wondered why the Emperor’s theme is so effective, but have not given as much thought to this as you have done.

    I recently read how often Williams has used the so-called “Tarnhelm progression”: two minor chords a major third apart. Richard Wagner had used it prominently in Rheingold to represent a mysterious and sinister object that makes shape-shifting possible.

    The “Tarnhelm progression” can be heard at the beginning of the Imperial march (as G minor → Eb minor), in the Ark of The Covenant theme (several times, first as C minor → Ab minor), but also in the second period of the Emperor’s theme, where you abbreviate the harmony as bvii-bv (so/ta/re-ma/fi/ta). i.e. F minor → Db minor. However, the chord inversion on the last note (using Ab in the base) makes this progression a bit difficult to hear.

  2. Thank you for the fascinating discussion. I am looking forward to your treatment of the music of VII. Am I misguided in hearing strong allusions in Rey’s Theme to both the Emperor’s Theme and Vader’s Theme? It feels like it turns those into hopeful, optimistic ideas.

    • Thanks, Ron. I know several people claim there is a link between the Emperor and Vader themes and Rey’s theme, but I would say there isn’t. What people seem to latch onto is the interval of the descending minor third, which admittedly is a part of all of these themes. The problem is that this interval is such a common facet of tonal melodies that it is difficult to claim that it signifies any particular melody. For me, more similarities are needed to hear the connection. Like in Augie’s Municipal Band above, the rhythm and contour of the entire first phrase almost exactly matches that of the Emperor’s theme, so the connection is fairly easy to hear and has a convincing narrative significance. With Rey’s theme, the rhythm, contour, harmony, and most of the intervals are different from Vader’s and the Emperor’s themes, so I wouldn’t put any stock in claiming there’s a connection. Who knows what’s coming with Episode 8, though!

  3. I wrote here because there isn’t a specific article on the other themes of “Return of the Jedi”, but i found a link on Jwfan to a very interesting news related to the the theme “Luke and Leia”: Specifically: “In between the music the soft spoken Williams addressed the enthusiastic audience, playfully recalling writing his Luke and Leia piece as a love theme before knowing any better”. This perhaps explains the underuse of the theme on the movie and even why the theme wasn’t used at all at the end of episode III, e.g. when we see the twins together?

    • Interesting point. I suppose Williams meant that he wrote it as a romantic love theme rather than one for siblings. Even so, probably the reason for the theme’s short usage in the films is the small amount of screen time devoted to Luke and Leia’s emotional bond. I think that’s why it doesn’t appear at the end of Episode III – that scene ends the trilogy on a tragic note with a small amount of hope, so Lucas probably felt the Luke and Leia theme to have the wrong emotional character. In other words, it may be that it would sound too positive for a film that ends on the negative. They probably could’ve done without the theme altogether for the films, but then we would be deprived of a great romantic theme from the maestro!

  4. Love this to death! I had never heard of the Emperor’s theme being referenced in the Naboo Augie’s Band track at the end of Phantom Menace but I think there could be a lore connection as well. Sheev Palpatine (alias Darth Sidious and later The Emperor) is actually from the planet Naboo. So maybe that was John Williams way of saying that the theme has its roots in Naboo folk music which were once joyful and quixotic but by the time of the Galactic Empire (heck even by the end of Phantom Menace) this theme has been twisted to the dark side of the force (and harmony lol)

    • Great observation, Joseph! I had never thought of the theme this way, as a sort of imaginary precursor of the Emperor’s theme, a folk song corrupted by the Dark Side. I love it. Thanks for the great comment!

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