Beethoven and . . . Star Wars?

Yes, that’s right. Beethoven and Star Wars. What do they have in common? This post will explore that very question, but I am not going to explain the correlation until you have a little bit of background, so stay with me.

First, a brief history of Ludvig van Beethoven – pianist and composer extraordinaire.  A German musician born in 1770, he moved to Vienna when he was 21 to study under composer Joseph Haydn. He lived there until his death in 1827. Beethoven’s is an interesting (and maybe slightly tragic) story to save for another post, so for now I’ll just say he was an absolutely brilliant musician his whole life, and his compositions changed music as a form of art. For more info, read this post here.

So here we go. Today I’m going to talk about one of the most famous pieces in all of music history: the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Written between 1804 and 1808, the symphony’s fame took off after the publication of the score in 1810. Interestingly enough, the 5th symphony was written at a time of increasing tumult; Beethoven’s deafness was quickly developing, and Napoleon Bonaparte was occupying Vienna as he tried to take over Europe (read more about this piece of history here). The first movement of the symphony was also known as the “Victory Symphony” during World War II (read more here). Have a listen:

Everyone knows the explosive opening of the first movement. The signature “DU-DU-DU-DUUHHHHHH” is unmistakably one of the most memorable musical motifs in the history of music. Beethoven allegedly assigned the character of fate knocking at one’s door to this theme; read more here under the section called “Music and Meaning.” The rest of the movement grows out of this “fate” theme. It is transformed to major and back to minor and expanded upon as the movement progresses. This movement is very dramatic, colored by dark brass and light woodwind sounds.

For a cool analysis of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, watch these videos of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein talking about the struggle Beethoven had while writing this particular piece. (For more information about Mr. Bernstein, click here.)

Okay. John Williams is one of the most famous film score composers of our time. It’s safe to say his Star Wars score was inspired by many classical composers, and I could spend an entire post discussing and analyzing his themes and ideas in the Star Wars score. But I’d like to point out something I noticed the last time I listened to Beethoven’s 5th. In the video above, skip to the passage that starts at 4:35 and listen to the chords from 4:40-4:48.

Now listen to the opening chords of “Dual of the Fates”from The Phantom Menace:

The two sections of music are basically the same (as far as harmonic and basic rhythmic structures and dramatic effects are concerned). Seriously. Every time I hear those chords in the Beethoven, I think (and sometimes yell out loud), “IT’S STAR WARS!!!” But what does this mean? It’s very likely that John Williams didn’t take that particular musical idea from Beethoven.  In fact, some say “Dual of the Fates” is more like 20th century composer Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana than it is like Beethoven’s 5th (read more about Orff here). [Side note: there is a lot of debate about Williams’s classical inspirations. Read here and here for more information.] Check out Orff’s piece (skip to 0:40 for the music):

So does this mean that Orff was inspired by Beethoven? Or Williams was inspired by Orff and it just happens to sound like Beethoven for a small moment? Or Williams was inspired by both composers? I’m honestly not sure. And that’s okay! I’ll keep shouting “STAR WARS!!!” every time I listen to Beethoven’s chords, and I’ll think of Beethoven every time I listen to “Dual of the Fates.” That’s the beauty of music. It reaches across all genres, all borders, to create an emotion in the listener. As Master Ludvig once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Or was that Yoda? 🙂

P.S. Check out part two of this series here!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. 43alaska says:

    Nice Post! I never noticed those connections. Super interesting. You should do a post (or several) sometime about all of the inspiration behind John Williams music! That would be awesome.


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