In his score for Return of the Jedi, John Williams introduced a handful of new memorable themes into the Star Wars saga including that for the Ewoks, Jabba the Hutt, and Luke and Leia. But the only one to have significant reverberations across the ensuing prequel trilogy is the Emperor’s theme. This post will therefore be devoted to a musical breakdown of this theme and a study of its meaning in particular scenes.
Harmony and Tonality
The chillingly evil sound of the Emperor’s theme is in large part a product of its supporting harmony. Every last chord in the theme is a minor chord, which may seem to explain its emotional quality, but Williams does make use of this same basic technique in his theme for the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in the opening foraging scene in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The emotional quality of these passages are not so much evil as they are mysterious. Hence, the use of minor chords to express evil goes beyond the mere use of minor chords. More significant is the way in which they are strung together to form progressions.
Darth Vader’s theme is another that uses only minor chords, but as I showed in my analysis of the Vader theme, the progressions they form can be understood as warped versions of more normal ones like i-v-i and i-iv-v-i. Indeed, one could even say that to hear Vader’s chord progressions in this way is an apt musical representation of Vader’s character as an antagonist whose once good side (the normal chord progressions we understand) have now been completely subsumed by his twisted, darker side (the warped progressions we hear).
In the progressions of the Emperor’s theme, however, there are no such allusions to normal chord progressions (those heard are i-biii, i-bv or i-#iv, and bvii-bv). Without the underlying “normal” basis to its progressions, the theme’s chords sounds disturbingly unpredictable, as though describing some completely irrational being. Perhaps this is why the minor chords of the Emperor’s theme sound not just evil, but frighteningly so.
I would also point out that both the Emperor’s theme and Vader’s theme are most often sounded with the G minor chord as the home tonic. This link through tonality reinforces the close relationship between Vader and the Emperor, especially in scenes where the two themes are sounded in close proximity to one another, as when Vader brings Luke to the Emperor in Return of the Jedi (Vader’s theme from 0:12-0:40, Emperor’s theme from 1:06-1:40):
Another major contributor to the emotional character of the Emperor’s theme is its orchestration. The theme’s dark association is made obvious by its sounding of the melody in a very low register. But more subtly, there is a lack of music in the middle range of the orchestra, that is, the instruments are either in the low or high registers. Since the middle registers are those where most human voices naturally fall, the Emperor’s theme ends up sounding hollowed out and heartless. This emotional effect is emphasized by the melody’s scoring for low male choir—the lowest portion of the human vocal range.
Rhythm and Melody
While the rhythm and melodic intervals of the Emperor’s melody do not exactly stand out, they do stand in stark contrast to those of Vader’s theme. Of course Vader’s theme is a march and, as such, it possesses a rhythmic vitality in both its vigorous accompaniment and its forward-driving melody. Both this and its several large melodic leaps give it an energy that suggests much of the action taken by Vader and the Empire during both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, hence my description of it in the previous post as an “evil-in-action” theme.
The Emperor’s theme, however, is composed of rhythmic figures that constantly come to rest rather than drive forward. And its melody largely wavers between two closely-spaced notes in its opening minor chord. These features do not simply express a low-energy state but, taken together with the theme’s harmony and orchestration, suggest the terrifyingly calm, cold, and calculating nature of the Emperor.
As we have seen with the Force theme and Vader’s theme, a leitmotif may be broadened to include meanings that extend beyond its primary association. Although the Emperor’s theme is almost always heard when the Emperor (or Darth Sidious, as he is secretly known before becoming emperor) is onscreen, there are a few places where this is not the case. In Attack of the Clones, for example, we hear the theme when Anakin reveals to Padmé that he slaughtered all the Sand People in retaliation for their abduction and killing of his mother. We hear it once more when Padmé tries to console Anakin, who replies, “I’m a Jedi. I know I’m better than this.” It would be a stretch to say that the theme represents some sort of influence of Darth Sidious on Anakin since none of that has yet taken place (it awaits him some years later in Revenge of the Sith). Instead, it is much more convincing to understand the theme’s reference to Sidious as a representation of the Sith more generally, especially since they are timed to correspond with Anakin’s admission of killing the Sand People and of his hatred of them. Since the scene is also infused with a couple of statements of Vader’s theme, the implication is clearly that, by allowing his anger and hate to dictate his actions in a Sith-like manner, Anakin places himself steadily on the path to becoming Vader. Part of the scene is given below (the Emperor’s theme enters at 0:24):
A similar usage of the Emperor’s theme occurs when Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) says he does not trust Anakin and that it is very dangerous to put him together with the Chancellor (Sidious). Yoda then suggests that the prophecy that the Chosen One would bring balance to the Force by destroying the Sith “misread could have been,” upon which we hear the Emperor’s theme. In this case, the theme could be a reference to Anakin’s ultimate allegiance with Sidious (since the Chancellor is mentioned here), but given that a theme’s meaning can focus upon an individual within a group or suggest more broadly the group itself (as with the Force theme’s association with both Obi-Wan and the Jedi), it is simpler and more intuitive to understand the theme as referencing the Sith in general and Anakin’s future as one of them.
The Augie Connection
It has long been known that the tune to the final in-film cue in The Phantom Menace, the “alien” celebratory song called “Augie’s Great Municipal Band” on the soundtrack, is a transformation of the Emperor’s theme. For those who are unfamiliar with this connection, compare the two below:
Emperor’s theme (hear 1:07-1:40)
Augie’s Great Municipal Band (hear 0:06-0:19)
The explanation for this relationship has been aptly explained as a symbol of “Palpatine’s [Sidious’] first step to galactic dominion,” Palpatine having just been elected the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. ((See this Star Wars wikia page for reference.)) Hence, although the song’s cheerful tone expresses the jubilation of defeating the Federation, it is also an ironic statement that, through the subtle reference to the Emperor’s theme, has sinister connotations.
What I would add to this interpretation is a comparison of the two themes’ melodic and harmonic basis. As we have seen, in the Emperor’s theme, the harmonies form unusual progressions of minor chords that contribute greatly to the theme’s hauntingly evil sound. In Augie’s Great Municipal Band, once the tune enters, the sense of harmony is derived entirely from the melody since there are no supporting chords, only a bass note that constantly sounds the tonic note. Together, the notes of the melody form the major pentatonic scale, a key feature of which is the absence of harshly dissonant intervals (specifically the minor second, major seventh, and tritone). Consequently, the irony of the song’s message is enhanced: the avoidance of dissonance or any kind of negatively-associated harmonic or melodic feature suggests that, with the evil in the Federation having been (supposedly) eliminated, all is well again with the Republic and there is nothing to worry about (!). This irony is played up visually by ending the penultimate scene with a close-up of Palpatine, then cutting directly to the victory celebrations.
As with so many of John Williams’ themes, that for the Emperor seems to be a perfect accompaniment for its associated character. And yet, in a couple of places in the films, it is broadened to suggest not just the Emperor but the Sith in general. Finally, its transformation into the celebration song is a fitting end for the first prequel film as it sums up well the Republic’s overconfidence in its perceived defeat of the Federation’s evil. Hence, even with a theme as tightly bound to its character as this, there is a flexibility that allows for the creation of new meanings beyond the most obvious ones.
Coming soon… Duel of the Fates.
7 thoughts on “Celebrating Star Wars Themes, Part 3 of 6: The Emperor’s Theme”
Thanks for another interesting analysis. I often wondered why the Emperor’s theme is so effective, but have not given as much thought to this as you have done.
I recently read how often Williams has used the so-called “Tarnhelm progression”: two minor chords a major third apart. Richard Wagner had used it prominently in Rheingold to represent a mysterious and sinister object that makes shape-shifting possible.
The “Tarnhelm progression” can be heard at the beginning of the Imperial march (as G minor → Eb minor), in the Ark of The Covenant theme (several times, first as C minor → Ab minor), but also in the second period of the Emperor’s theme, where you abbreviate the harmony as bvii-bv (so/ta/re-ma/fi/ta). i.e. F minor → Db minor. However, the chord inversion on the last note (using Ab in the base) makes this progression a bit difficult to hear.
Thank you for the fascinating discussion. I am looking forward to your treatment of the music of VII. Am I misguided in hearing strong allusions in Rey’s Theme to both the Emperor’s Theme and Vader’s Theme? It feels like it turns those into hopeful, optimistic ideas.
Thanks, Ron. I know several people claim there is a link between the Emperor and Vader themes and Rey’s theme, but I would say there isn’t. What people seem to latch onto is the interval of the descending minor third, which admittedly is a part of all of these themes. The problem is that this interval is such a common facet of tonal melodies that it is difficult to claim that it signifies any particular melody. For me, more similarities are needed to hear the connection. Like in Augie’s Municipal Band above, the rhythm and contour of the entire first phrase almost exactly matches that of the Emperor’s theme, so the connection is fairly easy to hear and has a convincing narrative significance. With Rey’s theme, the rhythm, contour, harmony, and most of the intervals are different from Vader’s and the Emperor’s themes, so I wouldn’t put any stock in claiming there’s a connection. Who knows what’s coming with Episode 8, though!
I wrote here because there isn’t a specific article on the other themes of “Return of the Jedi”, but i found a link on Jwfan to a very interesting news related to the the theme “Luke and Leia”: https://indierevolver.com/2016/05/13/john-williams-talks-star-wars-episode-viii-and-reys-father/. Specifically: “In between the music the soft spoken Williams addressed the enthusiastic audience, playfully recalling writing his Luke and Leia piece as a love theme before knowing any better”. This perhaps explains the underuse of the theme on the movie and even why the theme wasn’t used at all at the end of episode III, e.g. when we see the twins together?
Interesting point. I suppose Williams meant that he wrote it as a romantic love theme rather than one for siblings. Even so, probably the reason for the theme’s short usage in the films is the small amount of screen time devoted to Luke and Leia’s emotional bond. I think that’s why it doesn’t appear at the end of Episode III – that scene ends the trilogy on a tragic note with a small amount of hope, so Lucas probably felt the Luke and Leia theme to have the wrong emotional character. In other words, it may be that it would sound too positive for a film that ends on the negative. They probably could’ve done without the theme altogether for the films, but then we would be deprived of a great romantic theme from the maestro!
Love this to death! I had never heard of the Emperor’s theme being referenced in the Naboo Augie’s Band track at the end of Phantom Menace but I think there could be a lore connection as well. Sheev Palpatine (alias Darth Sidious and later The Emperor) is actually from the planet Naboo. So maybe that was John Williams way of saying that the theme has its roots in Naboo folk music which were once joyful and quixotic but by the time of the Galactic Empire (heck even by the end of Phantom Menace) this theme has been twisted to the dark side of the force (and harmony lol)
Great observation, Joseph! I had never thought of the theme this way, as a sort of imaginary precursor of the Emperor’s theme, a folk song corrupted by the Dark Side. I love it. Thanks for the great comment!