John Williams Themes, Part 3 of 6: The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) — 15 Comments

    • @Boron: The John Williams Signature Edition of the Star Wars Suite has the Imperial March in full score. There, the theme’s melody is scored for 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, and 1 bass trombone. The march accompaniment is played by the strings, timpani, and snare drum. But this is the concert version of the piece. There may be some minor changes in the film version. But the sound of the concert version seems to be very close if not identical to the film version.

  1. Very useful thank you!
    The Imperial march is actually first heard in a truncated form in the piccolo, disguised at the back of the texture just after the opening title sequence- as soon as the Empire are on screen in ESB we get the new theme in its embryonic form.

    Also I wondered if you could clarify/expand on something: you write that ‘Contrapuntally it makes use of dissonance’, but do not make any mention of counterpoint earlier in the article…

    Thanks again!

    • Hi, Tristan. Thank you for your observation on the piccolo hinting at the march. I’ve amended the article to allow for that now.

      As for my allusion to counterpoint, I meant that I was referring to the paragraph on “dissonance” I wrote in the section on the riff. I probably just should have said it had dissonance when I was summarizing.

      Thanks for all your comments!

  2. Thanks for this analysis that is very much appreciated. For a long time I had been seeking for an musical analysis of this theme that is so special, and especially so hard to sing a cappella.
    However, I would like to highlight a few things:
    – it seems (to me, at least) that there is a typo in the fourth included score (the first one with the “ideas”). The displayed last note of the last-but-one bar is a G. I think it should be a B (flat), like in the fifth score (the same one as the one before but with added arrows to show the melodic movement).
    – when mentioning the substitution of iv#/v# to iv/v, you did not mention the presence of a triton between the G (that we can consider to be the tonality) and the C#. The movement from i to iv# could hence be considered as a sort of minor tritone substitution, which is probably far away from the original tritone substitution, that originally applies to 7th chord. However, I want to point out the sort of balance between tritone separated chords, here minor chords i and iv#: you can move from the one to the other or vice-versa, without any change in the feeling you have. i.e. if you play alternatively i and iv#, at a certain moment, you will not remind any more which one is the tonality and which one is the accidental (strange) chord… With minor chords, the effect is emphasized and creates a very particular feeling which, in my opinion, weights a lot in the Imperial theme listening.
    – Last thing : why is it so impossible to thing? … at least for me, who perceive music in an much harmonic way. People that are more “melodic listeners” (with a perception more based on intervals) probably find it less difficult to sing… I think the issue stands in the middle of what you named “3rd idea”. The chromatic run from the upper G to the E (passing by D#) is okay if you only consider it as a chromatic movement to the 6th degree of G minor (i). But actually it is not, it a transition to the tritonic iv# mentioned above, which is not very clear with the G# that follows, but which is fully confirmed at the next bar, with the C# (and with the help of the harmony of the orchestral accompaniment!). The E becomes now the third of this new C# minor chord.
    The problem is that when you sing it a cappella, without any accompaniment, moving from i to iv# is just impossible, especially if your harmonic memory has been disturbed by the chromatic run : changing the perception of this E as the 6th of G minor to the 3rd of C# minor is a nightmare!
    Afterwards, coming back to i (middle of 5rd idea) is less difficult, thanks to the v# that helps a lot: iv# to v# is okay, especially if you consider C# as the temporary new tonality (it’s just a i (C#) to ii (D#) transition). Then iv# to i is easy too, as the third degree of iv# (F# or Gb) is the leading note of G.
    This is my own attempt to explain why it is so difficult to sing, and I would be interested in confronting it to other views.

    • Thanks for such detailed thoughts, Dibou. Yes, I agree that the tritone relationship makes this difficult to sing, and your analysis is quite convincing. Making it hard to sing, or at least unexpectedly “odd” or “unnatural” is, I think, part of the whole “evil” sound of the theme. The Emperor’s Theme is somewhat similar in that, while the melody is not exactly hard to sing, the harmonies are bizarre and would be hard to hear given the melody it has. Evil and even strangeness seem to have these associations with non-functional chord progressions for Williams. The Ark Theme from Raiders is another one that uses a string of non-functional minor chords like Vader’s or the Emperor’s Theme. And he uses it quite a bit in underscore too when the situation is rather intense as in a scene of action or mystery. Interesting stuff!

  3. These analyses have proven one of my best resources for the research essay on John Williams’ use of leitmotif that I’m working on at the moment. You don’t think you have time for me to interview you for your thoughts on some of the other themes and motifs, would you? I would be so grateful. You make such complex parts of music theory so much more accessible and easy to understand. Thank you very much!

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