From World War to Star Wars: The Music

John Williams' stirring score was influenced by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a legendary composer whose life was changed by WWII.

With news that the Star Wars: The Force Awakens soundtrack is coming December 18, I’m more excited than ever for new Star Wars music. While the inspirations and connections to the Star Wars soundtrack are varied, one of the most interesting is the golden age composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose own wartime history changed cinema scores forever!

From its earliest days, composer John Williams’s score for Star Wars has impressed fans and critics alike. In 1977, film critic Charles Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “John Williams has a score of unstinting dimension, soaring string sections and thundering basses and brilliant horns, which performed by the London Symphony Orchestra for the superlative sound system, lifts you out of your seat.”

Champlin captures it best, speaking to the deep dimension of the film’s orchestral score. In fact, there is more complexity to the Star Wars score than I could ever write about here. Saying that there is just one inspiration for the music of Star Wars would be an injustice. Yet within that complex, brilliant score, it’s safe to say that the work of golden age film composers certainly plays a large roll.  

John Williams

In an interview with Star Wars Insider in 1998, John Williams speaks to those influences. He says, “I’ve been particularly fascinated with the émigrés from Europe in the 1930s — people like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold, but also Vernon Duke and Kurt Weill, who came with [directors] Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood. They brought this tremendous European culture. In a certain sense, my colleagues and I are the artistic grandchildren of these men. We have been the beneficiaries of a rich tradition that grew up here in the early days of sound, in the 1930s and 40s.”

Williams continues, “I’m just old enough to have connected with and worked for many of these wonderful people, which makes me enormously fortunate to have experienced that musical life, and brought it with me into situations like these wonderful opportunities that George Lucas has presented me.”

For proof of this influence, look no further than by comparing the iconic Star Wars theme to the soundtrack for the 1942 movie King’s Row. Listen closely and you’ll find some familiar notes and melodies throughout. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, mentioned previously, composed the score for that movie. But if it wasn’t for the events of World War II, there might never have been a Korngold score for Kings Row at all.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born May 29, 1897, in Brno, Austria, now part of the modern day Czech Republic. Son of Vienna’s foremost music critic, Korngold was a prodigy. He composed his first work at the age of 11: a ballet-pantomime that he performed in front of Emperor Franz Josef. By 1916, he was inducted into the Austrian Army where he mostly played piano until the end of the First World War in 1918.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Korngold worked in opera, theater, and finally in film when he moved to Los Angeles in 1934 to score A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). In 1938, he originally declined the offer to score the upcoming Errol Flynn film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, still holding on to the idea that he would return to his native Austria on a more regular basis.

On February 12, 1938, fellow film composer Leo Forbstein visited Korngold at his home to persuade him to change his mind — which he did when another event happened that very day. As fate would have it, Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg signed an agreement with Germany’s Adolf Hitler that set into motion events eventually leading to Germany’s annexation of Austria. Korngold, who was Jewish, had the foresight to know what such an agreement with Hitler could mean for his country and agreed to stay in Hollywood to work on Robin Hood on a week-to-week basis.

Not only was the swashbuckling film a hit, Korngold’s score for Robin Hood was brilliant and it earned him the Academy Award in 1938. He was a pioneer for film composers; previous to Korngold’s win, the award was given to the head of the studio music department, not the composer himself. From that point forward though, the award was given to the composers directly. Now 70 years later, John Williams has won the award five times and leads all composers with 44 nominations.  

Because of World War II, Erich Korngold stayed in the United States and composed music for films that inspired the score for Star Wars. Now, thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I look forward to hearing a whole new soundtrack by the great John Williams and can’t wait to see how classical film scores might inspire the next generation of Star Wars themes.

Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the new book, Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. He also contributes to and runDisney. You can follow him on Twitter @ColeHorton.

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