To review a score as classic as this, a score that so many knows so well, and already has a firm opinion of, is not an easy task. Well, in one way it is a very easy task, since there is not even any question about the rating. A more solid five star score hardly exists. But, it is not possible to treat this score like just any score when reviewing it, due to a number of reasons. There is the already mentioned fact that so many already know it, and then that this is only one part of a series of scores, where all of them are closely related, and next that this is not in anyway new when I am doing the review – even this particular release is older than six years. So, I will not pretend that the world is new to this music, nor will I pretend that I do not know the music for the other four Star Wars episodes. But I will try to state why this so clearly, perhaps more clearly than almost everything else, is a five star score.
The score for The Empire Strikes Back adds a large number of new themes to the Star Wars musical universe, both major and minor. For the first Star Wars film, Episode IV, Williams created major themes for Luke, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi/The Force, Darth Vader/The Empire and The Rebels. Williams also wrote a theme for the droid-scavenging Jawas and a motif for the Death Star. The two latter themes are not featured in The Empire Strikes Back for natural reasons (no Jawas or Death Stars in the film), but four of the other themes are featured throughout the score. The theme for Darth Vader and the Empire in Episode IV was however rather weak - an eleven-note theme without much potential, and was therefore replaced in Episode V, by the now very famous Imperial March. This new march theme for Vader and the Empire is featured a lot in the score and is, with its harsh brass character, very fitting for the Empire. Moreover, the Princess Leia theme has been complemented by a new theme for the relationship between Han Solo and Leia; a very straightforward, classic love theme. Also, the introduction of the Jedi master Yoda is accompanied by a theme for him. Apart from these three major themes a playful theme for R2D2 and C3PO, a march for Lando Calrissian and his mining city in the clouds and a two-note motif for the bounty hunter Boba Fett are also featured in the score.
Overall the scored is filled with classic Williams' brassy orchestrations and fast-paced action, together with an absolutely exquisite use of the Wagnerian leitmotif technique. The themes are combined in different ways depending on the action on screen, changing all the time, but sometimes a theme is allowed to soar all by itself, in full symphonic treatment. The score is full of all this diversity and full symphonic thematic moments, so it never gets boring as it is represented on these 2 CDs. (Which by the way is arranged into film order.) In regular intervals one of the themes always pops up and makes sure you will continue to listen until the appearance of the next theme. In between the thematic moments there is classic Williams brassy action music, with enclosed themes, and there are atonal moody moments of the kind Williams does so good. The orchestration features everything in the traditional symphony orchestra, and it is as skilfully done as ever by Williams, with almost every instrument in the orchestra getting its moment of glory. Among the more unusual instruments Williams favours we find the piano and celeste, as well as different mallets. The master of the orchestra is truly at work here, as always.
Highlights of the album are hard to point out; everything is so good that it is all one big highlight! But, great moments include the great thematic work right at the beginning of the film, where both the Han/Leia theme and the Droids’ theme are introduced, as well as the development of Yoda’s theme from its introduction as a playful woodwind and plucked strings ditty in “Luke’s Nocturnal Visitor” to a full symphonic statement in “Yoda and the Force”. Great action music is featured in “The Asteroid Field”, and in the battle scenes on the ice planet Hoth, where the Imperial March is extensively used. The scenes where the protagonists approach and enter the cloud city of Bespin is also very well scored, and is a moment worthy of remembrance. The finale of the movie and the end credits is also one of the very best Star Wars ending sequences, mainly because the themes are so well known and memorable. A line-up with the Imperial March, the Han/Leia theme and Yoda’s theme can’t be anything else than great!
The score is presented on this double disc album as it is heard in the film and the release also includes music written but never used in the final film. The concert arrangements of Yoda’s Theme and the Imperial March are also included. Also worth noting is that the album opens with John Williams’ new recording of the 20th Century Fox Fanfare. The album presentation stands as a whole above all criticism. You never need to wonder if any music is missing – it’s all there, and the chronological track order creates, thanks to the diverse nature of the score, a great listening experience. The sound quality is superb, and the London Symphony performs in a manner that makes one understand why they are regarded as one of the world’s best orchestras.
In my opinion The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars score so far. To me, the diversity and thematic richness in Empire rise this score one level above the others. But, you ask, don't the other Star Wars scores also have those two things? Yes they do, but in The Empire Strikes Back all the elements that define the “Star Wars sound” are present and, to get personal, I like all the themes in this score, too. No themes are weak, all main characters have a memorable theme being developed during the course of the movie, and the way this score changes mood and character all the time makes for an absolutely perfect listening. If I were to recommend one Star Wars score to buy I would without doubt recommend The Empire Strikes Back. This is the very core of Star Wars music. And, to be frank, in my opinion this is one of the one of the best examples of great film scoring. A masterpiece.