Friday Song: “The Duel”

This exceptional bit of film score from "The Empire Strikes Back" was a milestone for movie soundtracks

Bring to mind the Peter Gunn theme by Henry Mancini, with its thumping piano bass line (“do-do-do-do-do-do-DO-do”).

Guess whose heavy left hand played that piano riff?

None other than renowned film composer John Williams.

Williams’ compositions have defined the sound of films for decades, from Jaws to Superman to the Harry Potter franchise to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park. His output has been astounding, as has the number of iconic melodies he’s penned. His jazz background might hint at why his scores seem to have a bit of swing and bounce to them.

My first movie soundtrack album was Star Wars (now Star Wars: A New Hope). I remember listening to it again and again through can-style headphones, and being absolutely enthralled each time, the evocative music transporting back into the film I managed to see seven times, including the first time on its opening night. (Yes, I’m still amazed my parents had the foresight to make that happen.)

Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the score benefited from a “working band” playing it — after all, symphonies are just really big cover bands. That said, the first chair trumpet had just joined the LSO, and his first recorded note as a performer was the initial blast of the Star Wars theme. What an amazing thing that must seem in retrospect.

This is the thing with culture-altering creations — you may only realize how much has changed in retrospect, and what seemed pedestrian at the time gains a new veneer of cultural importance over the years.

Williams perhaps sniffed out something, however. He fought to write an original score, as George Lucas originally envisioned a pastiche of selections from existing classical music. Williams’ vision of a theme for each character or major setting — leitmotif — disallowed this approach, and gave rise to one of the most memorable set of film scores ever written.

After the success of Star Wars: A New Hope, Williams was granted greater artistic freedom for The Empire Strikes Back, and the recording is comparatively pristine compared to the rough-and-ready recording and mixing of the first soundtrack. The result is music that outdoes the first score, both sonically and creatively.

Williams’ success inspired a raft of great movie composers, from Jerry Goldsmith to Danny Elfman to Hans Zimmer to Howard Shore to Michael Giacchino, all of whom write scores you can enjoy as standalone works.

Today’s selection from Williams’ soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back is “The Duel,” music that accompanies a pivotal scene in which Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battle with light-sabers before one of the greatest reveals in cinematic history. The chilling violin whips really make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, the horn blares are flawlessly timed, and you can hear other character and setting motifs mixed in as the film cuts back and forth across the main storylines.

Interestingly, the reveal scene itself has no music.