The 'Star Wars' guide to classical music

An orchestra performs "Star Wars: In Concert" in Las Vegas in 2010.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

May 03, 2021

May the 4th be with you!

The Star Wars franchise has been an iconic sci-fi series for more than 40 years. It has grown from a simple three-movie saga into a bigger movie saga, TV series, spin-offs, video games and even theme-park attractions. But the most recognizable part is the music. Nothing is more satisfying than listening to the opening credits at the beginning of each movie.

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John Williams has been the composer behind most of the music, and it is common knowledge that inspiration for the music came from other composers, such as Igor Stravinsky, Wolfgang Mozart and Richard Wagner. If you like these popular musical selections from the Star Wars films, you’ll probably enjoy our recommendations for similarly styled classical works. May the 4th be with you!

"The Throne Room" from A New Hope

After the rebels blow up the Death Star, our heroes Luke, Han and Chewie are greeted by Leia with a warriors’ welcome. At the big ceremony, you hear this triumphant melody.

John Williams — “Throne Room and Finale” from Star Wars

Originally part of the four-act opera Mlada, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov arranged “Procession of the Nobles” as a symphonic piece. It uses an opening brass fanfare to signal the entry of nobles, kings and sultans.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov —  “Procession of the Nobles”

 

"Duel of the Fates" from The Phantom Menace

While not the most popular film of the franchise, The Phantom Menace gave us one of the most exciting lightsaber fight scenes of all time. While Darth Maul battles both Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the massive choral piece gives the audience shivers to accompany the exhilarating visuals.

John Williams — “Duel of the Fates”

“O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana might already be a familiar work because it has been used in many films, including Natural Born Killers, Excalibur and The Hunt for Red October. The work gives a sense of an epic battle waging in front of you.

Carl Orff — “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana

 

“Main Title” from Star Wars

This is the tune that everyone knows, even people that have never seen Star Wars. (Do they exist?) It is accompanied by the unforgettable golden-lettered scroll that begins every movie.

John Williams — "Main Title" from A New Hope

We know that Williams got inspiration from classical and romantic composers. But what many don’t realize is that he also drew material from early American film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Some of the films Korngold scored included The Adventures of Robin Hood and Kings Row, whose triplet-driven main theme many cite as a direct influence on Williams. But Korngold’s music should resonate with many Star Wars fans, including his main title for The Sea Hawk.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold — “Main Title” from The Sea Hawk

 

“Cantina Band” from A New Hope

The ditty heard in the alien-crowded cantina is one of the most iconic works from Star Wars, setting the tone of the spaceport Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” But did you know that the work and the band have a name? In the fictional world of Star Wars, the song is “Mad About Me” and is performed by Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes.

John Williams — “Cantina Band”

Klezmer is a musical tradition that was created by Ashkenazi Jews. Used primarily for social functions, like weddings, there is a large performance scene in Eastern Europe. After the Holocaust, Klezmer music was introduced to the United States and influenced popular and classical music — and offers a cantina vibe for our purposes.

Barcelona Gipsy balKan Orchestra — “Od Ebra do Dunava“

 

“Princess Leia's Theme” from A New Hope

“Princess Leia’s Theme” is one of the most obvious uses of Wagner’s concept of leitmotifs. Often when Leia is on screen, we hear her theme.

John Williams — “Princess Leia's Theme”

With its soft, beautiful background accompaniment and lush but sensitive horn, Maurice Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess has the same style and feel to its Star Wars counterpart.

Maurice Ravel — Pavane for a Dead Princess

“The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back

“The Imperial March” is meant to strike fear into viewers. When you first hear it in The Empire Strikes Back, you know that Darth Vader is a formidable enemy of the rebellion.

John Williams — “The Imperial March” (“Darth Vader's Theme”)

Another power yet menacing march, any lover of Darth Vader is sure to enjoy in the 2nd Movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich — Symphony No. 10, Mvt. 2

“Luke and Leia” from Return of the Jedi

This piece captures the essence of Luke and Leia perfectly. A cautious, yet wondrous melody is supported by a heartwarming orchestra portraying the complicated past and future of the siblings.

John Williams — “Luke and Leia”

Peter Tchaikovsky’s horn solo in the 2nd Movement of his Fifth Symphony displays more complexity and passion than heard in Luke and Leia’s theme. A master of emotion, Tchaikovsky should be a favorite for all fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Peter Tchaikovsky — Fifth Symphony No. 5, Mvt. 2