OK. Since this is my first time ever writing an article online, I will start by saying this: I love Star Wars! All of them. Yes, even The Phantom Menace (although Jar Jar Binks annoys the crap out of me). I love them and I’ve watched them many times.
Whether you agree with me or not there is no denying that, thanks to Mr. Williams, all of the seven movies have amazing soundtracks. One of my favorite pieces from the whole saga (other than the main theme, duh) is Across The Stars, which is the love theme between Anakin and Padmé, first heard in The Attack Of The Clones. It is a beautifully crafted piece and I am going to share with you my analysis of this piece.
First off, I will start by saying on thing: this piece has A LOT of modulations.
Yes. This piece has a whopping six keys in total and they happen in this order:
Dm, Cm, Fm, C#m, F#m and Em.
The main melody is presented in all of these keys with the exception of C#m, which is heard in the interlude in the middle. But worry not, I’ll explain how it is that we go through all of them so bear with me. First, here is a chart with the melody and chords as presented in the starting key of Dm.
The first two phrases contain almost exclusively diatonic chords and the progressions is rather standard. The only non-diatonic chord is bII (also called a subV because it is used as a substitute for the V chord). This chord, besides working as a dominant, is also introducing a new flat to the piece: the Eb.
The 3rd phrase is where the modulation starts. The piece has already added a new flat through the Eb chord on the previous phrase. So when the Cm chord appears it already sounds familiar to us, and since it is reiterated, our ears already accept this chord as part of the key. This phrase could be thought of as being in Gm but, the way I see it, it is slowly going to Cm by letting the new flat (Eb) ease into our ears for 4 bars before phrase 4. This phrase ends with what would be a V chord in Gm but don’t let it fool you, it’s still going towards Cm and it becomes crystal clear in phrase 4.
By the start of the 4th phrase we have already been hearing the Cm so when Fm comes (introducing an Ab into the key) it feels completely natural since it is the diatonic iv chord in Cm. This also means that now there are 3 flats in the key: Bb, Eb and Ab (which makes the key of Cm). Then at the end we finally get to a V chord to officially modulate into Cm. Even though the Cm is present throughout phrases 3 and 4 it hadn’t yet felt like it modulated completely because every time we heard it was with a bass on either Eb or G and we hadn’t had a V-i cadence.
So as we can see this melody, besides being beautiful, transitions a whole step down from Dm to Cm so smoothly that it almost feels inevitable. It is clear that this was very well thought of.
Here are some points regarding the use of the melody in the other keys:
- Phrase 1 is identical in all keys, simply transposed accordingly.
- Phrases 3 and 4 are identical (again, simply transposed) in the keys of Dm, Cm and F#m. These phrases don’t occur in Fm or Em because the piece transitions into an interlude after phrase 2 (which will be explained further on). This makes the melody consist of only phrases 1 and 2 in these two keys.
- Phrase 2 ends on a V chord rather than a i chord in the keys of Fm and Em to go to the interlude.
- In the keys of Dm and F#m, phrase 2 is identical. In Cm there is a small difference in chords and melody so that it can go to Fm and is shown below.
There are 2 main differences here. First, the use of the bVII chord instead of the bII. What this does is that it doesn’t introduce another flat the way the bII does in Dm. A bII in Cm would have introduced a Db and it wouldn’t work because the melody still has D natural. Up until this point we don’t feel much of a change in key because Fm is the iv chord in Cm. In phrase 4, Bbm will be introduced (the iv chord in Fm), which adds that Db, thus completing the key of Fm which has Bb, Eb, Ab and Db.
Second, the melody is almost perfectly transposed except for the last bar of phrase 2. Notice how, in Dm, the pickup note to phrase 3 is the same note in which phrase 2 ends, which then leaps up a third into the tonic of the key it’s modulating to, which is Cm. But, at the end of phrase 2 in Cm the pickup to phrase 3 leaps down a fifth to C then up a fourth to the tonic of the key it’s going to, which is Fm. This enables the melody to modulate to Fm. If the melody was perfectly transposed it would have modulated to Bbm (a step down like it did before from Dm to Cm). Try it and you’ll see.
The interlude (which starts at 2:02 on the video at the top of the page, after the Fm part) is made up of two parts. The first 8 bars of it are non-traditional harmony. Even though there are chords that can be named, they don’t actually have a function like the melody part did. The main purpose of these progressions is to create tension. This is accomplished in several ways, like moving between roots that are a tri-tone or minor third apart, by using half-dimished chords and by using minor chords with tensions. Here is a chart of what that looks like.
If you listen to it you’ll hear that it is a very tense part, and also there is not a tonal center. As you can see, many times there are chords with the same root but they are a different kind of chord. The reason is that when either the melody or inner voices move they change the quality of the chord. For instance, A(b5) changes to Aø because the 3rd of the chord (C#) moves down to C and the 5th (E) moves down to Eb. On the C7#11, the F# (the #11) moves up to G (the 5th). All these movements feel like suspensions that keep going and never actually resolve. Only at the end do we see a Csus4 resolving to Cmaj7.
After these 8 bars (now in 4/4 time) we go to the pedal parts. For the next 6 bars there is a Fm pedal and after those there are 9 bars with a C#m pedal. The lower brass section plays the roots while the strings play a 16th note figure ostinato as shown below:
Something interesting to note is that the ostinato that the strings are playing implies a i-iiº-i-V progression. All the while this is happening the rest of the orchestra is taking turns and playing little excerpts of the main melody. This gets into the orchestration part, but I’ll get to that pretty soon.
This section ends with the last 4 bars being A/C#. This makes the transition form the interlude back to the main melody very smooth because A is the relative major of F#m, which is the key in which the melody comes back.
So this is, basically, the interlude. It occurs again at 4:02 and it is similar, but in the key of Em. It is also shorter as it does not change key like the first one does.
Again, good job Mr. Williams.
An important thing that makes a piece exciting throughout is a good orchestration, and this piece is most certainly very well orchestrated. In most pieces there are, usually, just 3 things going on. A foreground, middle and background. The foreground is the melody. The middle and background can be either a rhythmic or textural element and a harmonic element.
There are so many things going on throughout this piece and it would take me a whole other article just to explain them in detail, but I will explain the main things that make this piece feel like it is constantly changing and makes it so exciting.
- Melody in Dm: The piece starts with the harp playing arpeggiated chords and the strings playing long notes. The melody is carried out by a solo oboe for the first two phrases. For phrases 3 and 4, a solo flute doubles the melody one octave below and a bassoon one octave below the flute. This gives it, not only more strength, but color. The harp figure is also being doubled by the violas.
- Melody in Cm: Melody moves to the violins and cellos, doubles by the oboes, this adds color to the strings. The harp continues with the same texture and is doubled by violas, cellos and clarinets. Horns play a very subtle harmonic accompaniment for the first 2 phrases, on the 3rd phrase they stop and on the 4th phrase they take over the melody.
- Melody in Fm: The melody is now in 3 octaves spread between the high woodwinds, the horns and the strings. The lower part of the orchestra is playing accompaniment. Having the melody in many octaves gives a sensation of bigness.
- 1st interlude: In the first part, the melody is carried out by the high strings and woodwinds. Brass and low strings are playing, mainly, half notes. On the pedal part. The low strings start with the ostinato, later joined by the high strings. Here, like i mentioned above, the orchestra takes turns in playing excerpts of the melody. First the oboes and clarinets, then the trombones, then clarinets and flutes, and finally the horns.
- Melody in F#m: In the first two phrases, the high strings have the melody in two octaves. the woodwinds play 16th note patterns that accentuate the harmony. For phrases 3 and 4, the melody moves to the horns. The strings now are accompanying with 16th note patterns and the woodwinds with long notes.
- Melody in Em: Big again! melody is being played by all the woodwinds, the horns and the high strings. Trumpets are playing 16th note patterns to accentuate the harmony.
- 2nd interlude: For the first 4 bars, the horns play the melody while the strings play 16th note patterns. In the next 4 bars, the melody moves to the woodwinds in 2 octaves. the strings continue the patterns but alternating between high and low strings. For the pedal part the strings play the ostinato and are slowly dropped. The low woodwinds and the brass play the pedal tone.
- Melody in Em (again): Here the melody is a beautiful harp performance with strings making a very subtle accompaniment. It ends with a very short reiteration of the melody played by a solo english horn and the harp playing an arpeggio at the end as the strings slowly fade out.
So, this was a short (really?) breakdown of the orchestration. And now we’ve reached the end of the article (hooray!). I hope this of use to you in some way. It certainly helped me a lot to analyze this piece because it gave me a deep insight as to how John Williams wrote and orchestrated this beautiful piece. Analyzing orchestral scores is a great way to learn how to orchestrate, so do it as much as you can with any score you can get your hands on.
If you liked and found this article useful, like it! And feel free to leave comments or questions.
One last thing. Keep on learning!
May the force be with you.