Star Wars music: What were John Williams' classical influences?

John Williams at the podium in 2003 Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for LAPA

While movie music buffs can debate whether John Williams' Star Wars score is truly the greatest film score of all time, the composer has certainly created the most recognizable musical universe ever to accompany a motion picture. The familiarity and resonance of the score has grown with each new installment of the series, and Williams has continued to develop new themes for the expanding cast of characters having adventures a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

In this exploration of the musical world of Star Wars, we're tracing Williams' classical influences. Below, the music mentioned in this feature appears as a Spotify playlist—which you can also access here.

A trend-setting throwback

One of the reasons Star Wars made such an impact was that in a decade marked by stark, intellectually ambitious science fiction films—including George Lucas's own THX-1138 (1971)—Star Wars was a shamelessly sweeping throwback to space operas in the Buck Rogers mode.

Part and parcel of Lucas's approach was to commission a grand symphonic score, rather than an experimental electronic soundtrack. In his mid-40s, Williams was already an experienced film composer. Juilliard-trained, he'd worked with such legends as Bernard Herrmann and won two Academy Awards—including one for his still-iconic score for Steven Spielberg's Jaws, the movie that's credited for establishing the still-booming genre of the summer blockbuster.

It wasn't Williams's job, then, to break new aesthetic ground. In fact, it was precisely in the nature of his assignment that he produce a score harking back to the swashbuckling classics Lucas grew up with. His triumph, with Star Wars, was to deploy that musical vocabulary with an unprecedented power and sweep—a sweep that grew with each of the film's two sequels, and then with the three prequels Lucas directed 20 years later.

Wagner: The original franchise king

The ultimate influence on Williams's vision for Star Wars was Richard Wagner, whose Ring cycle combines a wealth of musical ideas that would inform Williams's work. Daringly dissonant and boldly dramatic for its time, Wagner's four-opera cycle was the original "cinematic" composition, its lurid Romantic vocabulary providing the basic toolbox for a century's worth of film composers.

The idea Williams is best-known for copping from Wagner—via many other opera and film composers—is the device of the leitmotif: a distinctive musical "voice" for each major character, a melody and arrangement that can be adapted in various ways to complement the evolving story.

Where the ordinary filmgoer most conspicuously hears Wagner in Star Wars, is in the brass-laden theme for Darth Vader and his evil Empire—which is distinctively reminiscent of Wagner's music for his majestic Valkyries.

Tchaikovsky: Instrumental color

You don't necessarily think Nutcracker Suite when you think Star Wars—but it's more appropriate than you might realize that The Force Awakens is being released during the Christmas season. Tchaikovsky was a master of orchestral color, and when you listen to his score for the "coffee" interlude next to Williams's Jawa score, you're reminded that Clara's magical sojourn was the original trip to a galaxy far, far away.

The grandly Romantic theme from Swan Lake is also echoed in Williams's love theme for Han and Leia, from The Empire Strikes Back. Whether or not Williams was explicitly thinking about a dying swan as he penned this elegiac music, he was certainly going for that feeling that a curtain (of stars?) is about to fall.

Holst: Journey into space

Other than the composers shot into orbit by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 (Ligeti, Khachaturian, both of the Strausses)—and the composers literally shot into orbit on Voyager II (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven)—there's no composer in the classical repertoire who's more closely associated with outer space than Gustav Holst. The Planets has been mined for any number of sci-fi spectaculars, and Mars in particular has been a favorite of film composers including Williams, whose stormtroopers march to a distinctly Martian beat.

Korngold: Movie master

Of all Williams's borrowings, there's none more notorious than his nod to Erich Korngold—right out of the gate, no less. As many listeners have noted, the main Star Wars theme (technically, Luke Skywalker's theme) bears more than a passing resemblance to Korngold's theme for Kings Row (1942).

Whether you'd go so far as to call this a "cinematic swipe," it's no shocker that Williams looked to channel Korngold, whose music for classic films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) is clearly the immediate template from which Williams was working with Star Wars and his other best-known film scores.

Kings Row, ironically, is a hard-edged drama about dark secrets in a small town. One of its stars was none other than Ronald Reagan, who would go on as President to appropriate the terms "Star Wars" (for his proposed missile defense system) and "evil empire" (for the Soviet Union).

Stravinsky: Uncanny Rite

Stravinsky's influence on Star Wars may have come by way of Fantasia, where his instantly infamous Rite of Spring was used to soundtrack a desiccated landscape where dinosaurs marched to their deaths. As C-3PO and R2-D2 survey the barren sands of Tatooine, classical music fans must have wondered when a young Twi'lek was going to dance herself to death.

Orff: Sing a song of Sith

Believe it or not, when it came time to score the Star Wars prequels, there was one classical monster hit that just about every film composer except for Williams had plundered. That's Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, whose O Fortuna choir has been cribbed for seemingly every movie that culminates in a supernatural apocalypse. When it came time for Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to duel to the death with Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, Williams knew who to call.

Elgar: A New Hope and Glory

The theme that soundtracks the Throne Room procession (sorry for the spoiler) in the original Star Wars movie is a perfect example of Williams's special talent for creating music that's simultaneously new and old. Thanks to Williams's gift for melody and tone, you probably don't think about your high school graduation when Luke and Han are walking down the aisle—but listening to Williams's music for this scene next to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance march makes clear that Williams knew whose arrangement to crib when he wanted to evoke the feeling of a formal award ceremony.

An original alchemy

Though Williams owes debts to all these composers—and many more—every composer stands on the shoulders of giants. Williams's homages may have been a bit more direct than some other composers', but the bottom line is that his mastery of melody and deftness of tone make the Star Wars scores a signal achievement in the history of cinema. Just as Lucas knew to hit the books (specifically, Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces), so did Williams; together, the two reinvigorated ancient tropes with freshness and verve.

John Williams at the podium in 2003 Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for LAPA