January 9th- Darth Vader’s breathing and Wagner

Imagine this. A rebel ship flying toward the setting sun. Or a stout droid, wheeling slowly down a corridor. The raspy, robot breath of a black caped figure who is part-man, part-machine.

If you’ve spent any time watching any of the Star Wars series, you’ll be able to mentally re-create these moments in a flash in your mind. They are the sounds that define the movies and that pepper the trailers. I want to talk about these sounds, these images, these moments in the context of Richard Wagner’s leitmotifs.

Rogue One: filled with iconic scenes

Richard Wagner composed a series of operas in the 19th Century, including the famous Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, The Flying Dutchman and others. His operas would typically last over several long hours and his greatest epic, the Ring Cycle, contains four operas. If these operas are performed without any breaks, they would still occupy sixteen hours of music. Wagner’s issue in writing these operas was being able to keep his audience understand where things were going. His answer? Leitmotifs.

Leitmotifs are short melodies that represent a particular figure in the opera. This is the one for the main character, Siegfried. This is the one for the Valkyries, of which a rather famous march was composed. This is the one for Valhalla, home of the gods. This is the one for the ring itself around which the whole cycle of operas swings.

These tunes are perseverant little things, and by the end of the opera humming them stirs up a lot more than loud Germanic singing. It conjures up the images of heroism, sacrifice, love and betrayal that all take place in the Ring Cycle. They’ve had a potent effect on anyone whose watched the operas, and perhaps their most potent effects is when a flash of them appears within the melody. A quick suggestion of the Siegfried theme can rouse an audience.

There’s almost 18 hours of Star Wars footage following the release of Rogue One. To make sense of this particular epic, directors have used leitmotif throughout the movies to engage the audiences at crucial times to think “oh, this is what’s happening now!” The raspy wheeze of Darth Vader grounds us in the reality of this cruel, angry man; the sound of a lightsaber hastily drawn takes us back to the fast spirited action of Luke; the sound of a fighter roaring into the far distance reminds us of the desperation of the rebel cause.

Rogue One is a feast of leitmotif. It’s filled with the familiar themes of A New Hope that we’ve become so familiar with over the years since it was first shot. From the CGI recreation of the faces of both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing to the sudden cameo of Cornelius Evazan (that’s this guy), the film gives us what we crave: nostalgic memories of being a kid in a cinema and holding a rebel ship tightly in hand, sprinting across the living room floor.

But drinking from the gourd of leitmotif is a dangerous business. Wagner is often careful to develop his leitmotif carefully as characters are developing, meaning that our ideas about the plot move forward with the actual drama. Continually re-using leitmotif with advancing them artistically can lead them to becoming stale cardboard cut-outs which act more as puppets to keep us grinning rather than anything that is animate, meaningful or alive. And that is dangerous.

That’s not a criticism of Rogue One: I thought it was a cracking film and took an original take on the Star Wars story, including themes on sacrifice which have been over looked many times. Yet it is a critique of its approach. Done over and over again, then there won’t be much more juice that can come out of this lemon.

For some interesting pieces on Star Wars, Wagner and inter-textuality, please follow these links:

Lord of the Rings: how music elevates a story

What makes Star Wars STAR WARS?

Intertextuality: Hollywood’s New Currency


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