As you may know, classical music of all kinds inspired composer John Williams as he wrote the Star Wars score. But what I’m really interested in is how master composer Beethoven exerted his influence on a galaxy far far away. Because there’s so much wonderful music to discuss in regards to the Star Wars score, check out part one of this series here, and get ready to explore some more of Beethoven in a world of light sabers and wookies.
Darth Vader’s Imperial March
We’re all familiar with the infamous opening lines of “The Imperial March”.
“The Imperial March” is one of the most recognizable pieces of film music ever written. It opens with a militaristic accompaniment before the ominous theme dominates the music:
What’s so special about this theme? It oozes confidence – suggesting Vader can and will accomplish any galaxy-takeover he desires. The military approach to the percussion suggests discipline and order. But there’s something else about the theme I want to point out: the dotted eighth-note rhythmic motif (see beats 4 and 2 of the measures above). This rhythm appears several times throughout “The Imperial March”, and this is important insight into Vader’s character.
The Imperial March is a Funeral March
How is “The Imperial March” a funeral march? And what does this have to do with Beethoven? Let’s find out.
The Funeral March
A funeral march is a musical work with a slow, stately pulse imitating a funeral procession. One of the most common characteristics is the use of the dotted rhythm, representing the drums of an old military funeral tradition.
*For more information, read last week’s post about funeral marches here.
Chopin’s Funeral March
Let’s look at one of the most famous funeral marches of all time – Chopin’s Funeral March from his 2nd Piano Sonata (1837):
Do you hear the similarities between this piece and “The Imperial March”? The themes of both works have similar shapes:
The measures in blue follow the same general rhythmic and melodic pattern. Long notes followed by the dotted-eighth pattern repeats throughout both themes (remember that the dotted rhythm is characteristic of a funeral march). Each theme is structured around the tonic note of the key, and in the second half of the phrase each climbs up slightly before falling back down to the i chord (the diatonic chord that is built on the tonic note – this chord identifies the key signature in the context of the piece).
The measures in red also follow the same general pattern: the melody jumps up an octave and descends gradually until the blue measures repeat themselves.
With that in mind, I do believe Chopin’s funeral march greatly inspired Williams’ theme for “The Imperial March”.
But wait, how does this relate to Beethoven?
Beethoven’s Funeral March
Between 1800 and 1801, Beethoven composed his 12th piano sonata (in A-flat major, op. 26). During this time in his life, Beethoven started to experiment in his music by pushing the boundaries of what was “acceptable” to compose. Op. 26 was unconventional for the time; he began with a slow movement instead of the typical fast one, and the first movement is a theme and variations (which was also unheard of at the time – usually the first movement of a piano sonata followed a specific formula called sonata form).
The third movement of op. 26 is a funeral march (Beethoven called it “Funeral march on the death of a Hero”). Notice the slow tempo, the dotted rhythms, and the steady beat:
*Fun fact: this is the only movement Beethoven orchestrated out of his sonatas, and it was played at his own funeral procession.
Also notice the similarities in melody between Chopin’s funeral march and The Imperial March. The theme revolves around one note while the chords change underneath, and the left hand in the 2nd measure climbs up before falling back down.
Chopin greatly admired this piano sonata. In fact, his entire Piano Sonata No. 2 mimics characteristics of Beethoven’s op. 26 – right down to the funeral march movement. And pianist András Schiff, in a lecture he gave about this Beethoven sonata, mentions how Beethoven’s op. 26 was the only piece by him Chopin ever performed in public. It is no coincidence that these two funeral marches are similar; Beethoven heavily influenced Chopin’s funeral march.
*You can listen to the lecture here; skip to 25:15 to hear Schiff’s thoughts on the funeral march movement.
So there you have it. Beethoven wrote a funeral march in 1800, which in turn influenced Chopin’s funeral march almost 30 years later, which then inspired Williams as he composed Vader’s “Imperial March”.
Because of the amazing similarities and connections between the three pieces, I made a medley! Check it out:
*If you like it, download the free sheet music here!
Vader’s Funeral March
I know that “The Imperial March” doesn’t follow all of the characteristics for a funeral march. For one thing, it’s not slow and stately. However, I think that based on the defining features of Vader’s march – a steady pulse in the accompaniment, a dependence on the dotted rhythm, the minor key, and the time signature – we could safely say that “The Imperial March” is a warped kind of funeral march.
This idea can give us insights into Vader’s character: he is a symbol of death. “The Imperial March” is first played in the Death Star. He is revealed to have been Anakin Skywalker, who died during “Revenge of the Sith”. Once he transforms into Darth Vader, he kills a lot of people. And I think “The Imperial March” also foreshadows his own death during “Return of the Jedi”.
What do you think?
Also, check out this video of pianist and composer Richard Grayson improvising Vader’s march in the style of Beethoven. He opens like Moonlight Sonata,and masterfully builds a Beethoven-style work using “The Imperial March” theme.
I hope you enjoyed this post! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time. 🙂