by Brooke Kennedy
Update: John Williams’ music manuscript earned a final price of $49,290.
A long time ago in a music studio far, far away…
An influx of crowds flocked to the theater on Memorial day weekend 1977 to see a brand new low budget science fiction film simply titled Star Wars. Patrons filled seats waiting for the film to begin, and in the hush, those now iconic words faded into view: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… An orchestral blaze of trumpets and trombones burst the bubble of silence, descending into a triumphant flourish of sound. As the film told the story of a galaxy on the edge of war, so did one of the most iconic soundtracks of the millennium.
The premiere of Star Wars was a new force in the world of film and entertainment. Audiences were thrust into an expansive galaxy of unknown planets and the adventures of the young Luke Skywalker, rebel Princess Leia Organa, smooth talking bounty hunter Han Solo, and the menacing Darth Vader. The once dead science fiction genre had new life breathed into it, and two sequels to the hit movie soon followed. The following year, the Academy awarded the groundbreaking film with six Oscars (seven including its Special Achievement Academy Award). Fast forward to the 2020s and Star Wars still sees great success through television shows, spin-off books, video games, sequel films, and toys.1 And George Lucas wasn’t alone in bringing his space opera to life.
Weighing his options for the film’s music, Lucas settled on the idea of an old-fashioned symphonic score as opposed to the pop and theme songs that had become the Hollywood standard. To compose an original score, Lucas partnered with famed composer John Williams, who had recently won a second Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s prototypical blockbuster Jaws. Williams had just six weeks to craft a score that captured the universe of Lucas’ vision. When composition was finished, Williams’ ended up with a score of 88 minutes which resulted in his annotated multi-stave manuscripts being converted into about 800 pages of sheet music. All recording was done at the Anvil Film and Recording Group in Denham, England with the score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra over the course of 8 days during March 1977, just several months before the film’s release.
Williams describes the composition in his own words, “The opening of the film was visually so stunning…that it was clear that music had to kind of smack you right in the eye and do something very strong. It’s in my mind a very simple, very direct tune that jumps an octave in a very dramatic way, and has a triplet placed in it that has a kind of grab. I tried to construct something that again would have this idealistic, uplifting but military flare to it. […] And try to get it so it’s set in the most brilliant register of the trumpets, horns and trombones so that we’d have a blazingly brilliant fanfare at the opening of the piece.”2
Once recording was finished, editing and mixing of the best takes was overseen by music supervisor Len Engel and Head of the Music Department Lionel Newman at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in West Hollywood. By summer, Sci-fi fans were met with the playful jazz of the Cantina Band, the looming First Order’s Imperial March, and the vibrant main title in the opening crawl. Subsequent numbered Star Wars films would adopt the crawl technique, and all nine opened with Williams’ enduring composition. Engel’s contributions were instrumental in creating the Star Wars we know, and this was just the beginning of Williams’ and Engel’s working relationship.
In discussing Len’s contributions to the worldwide sensation and his work with Williams, Len’s step grandson wrote of him, “ Len built his home in the Bel Air hills in the 1960s and turned it into a state-of-the-art music studio complete with recording, re-recording, and mixing abilities. He was an ‘analog’ man, saying there is no purer sound, and he refused to go digital, to which John Williams (along with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith) heartily agreed. Len became a working partner with Williams on all of his movies, taking them from the composer sheets to the finished product ready for distribution…After studio recording, every bit of Star Wars was mixed and perfected at Len’s ‘home,’ then given over to Wannberg for final movie editing.”
Star Wars earned Williams a number of accolades to add to his extensive resume. The Academy presented him with his third Oscar (of five), and the soundtrack went platinum and holds the title of the best-selling symphonic album of all time. Furthermore, the original trilogy featuring Episodes IV, V, and VI was chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for its contributions to cinema and pop culture.3
In his appreciation for helping to bring his symphonies to the big screen, Williams gifted Engel with an incredible rarity – handwritten sheet music for the film’s opening title: “To Len – In appreciation for a treasured friendship – John.”
This coming February, bidders will have a chance to relive the vibrant sounds that transported everyone to a galaxy far, far away. RR Auction will be offering the sheet music given to Engel in their Remarkable Rarities event. The sheet, along with his inscription, features music notes that make up the theme as well as lists instruments on the left border – “6 tots,” “4 troms,” and “Stg.” In the upper right, Williams writes the direction “Maestoso,” further emphasizing the film’s booming introduction. Bidding on this incredible pop culture-defining rarity closes on February 22, 2024.
- ““Star Wars” opens in theaters,” History. Accessed Jan. 26, 2024. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/star-wars-opens. ↩︎
- Cary O’Dell, “HAPPY “STAR WARS” DAY: John Williams and the Making of a Musical Masterpiece,” Library of Congress Blogs. Published May 4, 2022. https://blogs.loc.gov/now-see-hear/2022/05/happy-star-wars-day-john-williams-and-the-making-of-a-musical-masterpiece/. ↩︎
- “Brief Descriptions and Expanded Essays of National Film Registry Titles,” Library of Congress. Accessed Jan 26, 2024. https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/descriptions-and-essays/. ↩︎