It’s said that the Devil gets the best tunes, but Williams has long proved that that maxim applies to Sith lords, too. Within Star Wars’ ever-expanding library of leitmotifs — recurring, malleable musical symbols — much of the most insinuating material belongs to the villains, from Darth Maul to Jabba the Hutt to Supreme Leader Snoke. Listening to these nefarious themes with the ear of a music scholar offers a lesson in the real power of the dark side, showing us how music can repel, deceive and, with the right compositional tricks, even charm.
The standard by which all villain themes are now judged is surely the “Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme. “It should be majestic — he’s a majestic fellow,” Williams remarked in 1980, “and it should be a little bit nasty, because he is our heavy.” Vader’s leitmotif is, as music theorist Mark Richards has shown, a deviously sophisticated tune, full of rhythmic quirks and harmonic corruptions. But no one in Star Wars is beyond redemption. Vader’s death in “Return of the Jedi” occasions one of the most stunning musical transformations of the saga. Williams strips away the march’s militaristic trappings, leaving behind a sputtering shadow of the theme, orchestrated with such extraordinary delicacy that part of it seems to evaporate with each new phrase. With a final, hollowed-out rendition on a solo harp, the old dark lord expires, and the once-unstoppable “Imperial March” achieves a small measure of peace.
Standing in Vader’s musical shadow is his grandson, Kylo Ren. Among the various motifs assigned to this dark side scion, the most conspicuous is a motto that is, as critic Alex Ross puts it, “dominated by a stagey tritone” — the most demonic of musical intervals. There is a distinct quality of overcompensation to Ren’s roar of a theme, a studied attempt to project the menace of his grandfather. Yet behind the bravado is insecurity. His theme is a disguise. Even when Williams hints at a more authoritative transformation at the end of “The Last Jedi,” the motif is stunted, unable to reach structurally satisfying thematic closure. Like his music, Kylo Ren is unbalanced and unfinished, still just a boy in a mask.
Of all Star Wars’ Dark Siders, though, Emperor Palpatine has the most intriguing musical representation. Williams’s material for the evidently unkillable Palpatine is aimed at making the character simultaneously repulsive and alluring. Palpatine’s primary leitmotif, introduced in “Return of the Jedi,” is constructed around commonplace minor triads that progress chromatically, in a kind of violation of natural musical law. As music theorist James Buhler writes, “The music gives the impression that only a very powerful sorcerer, perhaps only a god, could animate these chords thus.”
The brooding, wordless male chorus that intones Palpatine’s theme reinforces the sense of eldritch unease that the character exudes. Unlike the “Imperial March,” the Sith lord’s music is not overtly threatening, but mysterious and beguiling, like a dark siren’s call. The leitmotif draws from an old association in film and classical music that wordless choruses stand in as the voice of the divine — a technique especially favored by Williams’s old-Hollywood mentor, Alfred Newman, as in the vision scene in “The Song of Bernadette.” The emperor effectively takes one of the angelic choirs featured in epics like “The Robe” and “Ben-Hur” and gives it a satanic makeover.
Williams’s compositions also capture Palpatine’s insidious influence on other characters. Some analysts have discerned the emperor’s melodic fingerprints in the themes for Kylo Ren and his light-side counterpart, Rey. It seems entirely possible that this latent musical relationship is a clue to Palpatine’s as-yet-unexplained role in the events of the new films.
Even more ingenious is the concealed transformation of his theme into a peppy children’s chorus in “The Phantom Menace.” This is a deliciously cynical little musical Easter egg: While the good guys think they’ve won the day, everything, including the soundtrack, is actually proceeding according to the villain’s design.
George Lucas wanted Palpatine’s rise to echo the ascents of real-life tyrants. “Democracies aren’t overthrown,” he claimed in a 2005 interview, “they’re given away.” Williams’s prequel scores reiterate that narrative with on-the-nose musical allusions. For example, when, as chancellor, Palpatine is granted emergency powers, the soundtrack channels the stately style Williams uses to characterize American politicians in a positive light: John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Barack Obama, among others. Heard against Palpatine’s power-grab, such noble strains are perversely incongruent. But they illustrate the dangerous appeal of authoritarianism when presented through a filter of (here musically constructed) nostalgia and patriotism.
An even more forceful connection to American history is made when Palpatine declares himself emperor in “Revenge of the Sith.” For this pivotal scene, Williams reworks a portentous brass chorale from his score for Oliver Stone’s “Nixon.” The passage occurs during a re-creation of Nixon’s fiery speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention. The sequence exaggerates Nixon’s fascistic tendencies and, through Williams’s hyperbolic score, works hard to whip the viewer into a fevered, receptive emotional state. As scholars of music and propaganda have shown again and again, music is as powerful as spoken rhetoric when it comes to opening people up to political messaging. Such turbulent tunes invite us to root for the disgraced president — or space dictator.
The clearest demonstration of the seductive power of Williams’s music comes during the “Tragedy of Darth Plagueis” narration in “Revenge of the Sith,” which finds Palpatine attempting to plant dark desires in Anakin’s heart during an opera house performance of “Squid Lake” (really). At no point in the scene, recently singled out by “Rise of Skywalker” director J.J. Abrams as the best sequence in the entire prequel trilogy, does the emperor’s leitmotif play, but his musical machinations are all over the score. The first half of his narration is accompanied by the deepest male choir yet heard in the saga, chanting a single low B on naked vowel sounds, in the style of Tibetan Gyuto monks. The choir ceases being underscore and becomes diegetic — that is, part of the movie’s fictional space, hearable by its characters. The emperor’s malignant music has seeped out of the soundtrack and into the world of the film.
When Palpatine finally makes his pitch to Anakin, his music does something most uncharacteristic for a Sith: It gets ecclesiastical. For a brief 15-second span, the violas and cellos state a hushed, reverential hymn in pure, unadulterated C-sharp minor. The Sith lord’s secret takes up only five measures. But these measures are profoundly salient, evocative of an antiquated style that has not been heard before in Star Wars. If anything, the hymn is a spiritual cousin to Williams’s Holy Grail theme from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” In the orchestral score, the performance instruction is “liturgico” — like a prayer. The ultimate appeal to evil in this series, it would seem, hinges on a feeling of religiosity. A promise of occult knowledge, presented with just the right musical halo, is all it takes. A few scenes (and a temple full of assassinated Jedi) later, Anakin has succumbed to the dark side.
Film music is inherently and unapologetically manipulative, and for decades Williams has proved himself Hollywood’s master musical manipulator. While the black-and-white morality of Star Wars is on its face as simple as can be, the way Williams contributes to this moral universe is far from simplistic. With his music for villains like Vader, Kylo Ren and the emperor, Williams invites us to lower our guards. For the Jedi, the seductive power of evil is a constant threat. And for those of us watching their adventures, likewise, it’s something we can easily hum along to.