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John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

London Symphony Orchestra/John Williams
Also includes Bonus DVD Star Wars: A Musical Journey narrated by Ian McDiarmid
rec. Abbey Studios, London. 2005
SONY CLASSICAL SK94220 [73:00] 


It’s difficult to overestimate the magnitude of John Williams’ achievement over the course of the six Star Wars movies. It’s a truism that before Star Wars in 1977, the frankly operatic ‘Golden Age’ style of film scoring had fallen into abeyance, replaced by a sparser, more modern approach – as in much of Jerry Goldsmith’s best work of the late-1960s – or the nakedly contemporary sound of, say, Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry.

Fortunately for us, Charles Gerhardt’s Korngold records for RCA must have been on John Williams’ turntable in the mid-1970s, since no-one who has heard them could miss the influence Korngold’s music exerted on the original Star Wars. This is famously the case in the comparison of Williams’ main theme with Korngold’s for the 1942 melodrama Kings Row. More importantly, Korngold’s scoring ethos – his concept of a film score as ‘an opera without words’ – informs Williams’ approach to his own ‘space opera’. That is to say, Williams’ Star Wars scores are genuinely through-composed in exactly the manner of grand opera. What this means is much more than just the basic idea of adopting musical leitmotifs to depict specific characters, groups or concepts (Luke, Leia, the Rebel Alliance, the Empire, the Force etc). Like Puccini’s Tosca or Wagner’s Ring cycle, the music of Star Wars forms a unified whole, architecturally conceived, within which specific themes are subordinate to the grander plan and develop as the drama progresses.

In the specific case of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, this Korngoldian idea of an ‘opera without words’ is arguably perfected in a way that no other film score – either Golden Age or present day – has accomplished before. Why? Because this score links the whole impressive edifice together, at last making six individual works into a single piece.

It’s worth looking briefly at just one of the techniques Williams has used to achieve this: melodic variation. Consider the following pairs:

  • Anakin’s theme – Darth Vader’s theme
  • Amidala’s theme – Princess Leia’s theme
  • Duel of the Fates – Battle of the Heroes
  • ‘Anakin’s Betrayal’ theme – The Force theme

All are thematically related to each other, the latter growing organically from the former according to the established principles of musical composition. The fact that some of the latter pieces were written decades before the former only makes this theme and variation method even more interesting. Technically the new themes for Episodes I-III are variations on the older ones for Episodes IV-VI. In the chronology of the drama, the situation is reversed: it is the new theme (say, ‘Amidala’s theme’) that is the ‘original’ Theme and the older theme (in this case, ‘Princess Leia’s theme’) that has now become the Variation.

To my mind, nowhere is this more subtly and effectively conceived than in the case of the cue described on the Sith album as ‘Anakin’s Betrayal’ (track 4), in which the pastoral optimism of the ‘Force theme’ is twisted and subverted into a dark lament. Musically it’s a brilliant sleight-of-hand, but also a paradigm example of Williams’ gifts as a dramatist: what could be more appropriate to accompany the destruction of the Jedi than their own ‘Force theme’ transmuted from gold into base metal?

It’s worth noting in this context that the Sith soundtrack sequence cues out of film order, according to Williams’ common practice when releasing albums. The composer’s argument is that this produces a more satisfying listening experience away from the screen, but in the case of the Star Wars saga, I must disagree. By taking the music out of its intended running order, the development of the principal themes, that is their careful reworking into new forms, is lost.

In the movie, for example, there’s a noticeable change in mood as the music moves into the final reels. Indeed, from the first sight of the volcanic planet Mustafar, Williams begins the musical task of preparing us for the final confrontation by shifting both the thematic content and the orchestration into darker, more aggressive mode: tr. 10, ‘Anakin’s Dark Deeds’ with its splendidly grim fanfare as the camera focuses on Anakin, standing alone after slaughtering the Separatists, a single tear running down his cheek. When, at last, the ‘Battle of the Heroes’ erupts with all the bravura the LSO can muster, we’ve had at least ten minutes of musical preamble; on the album, this build-up is not apparent.

Although presented as a standalone piece on the album, ‘Battle of the Fates’ is actually a companion to ‘Duel of the Fates’ from Episode I, and in the movie segues into that piece as Yoda and Palpatine fight in the Senate. Again, this connection is not explicitly made on the CD, which is a shame since, again, the sense of musical architecture is lost.

Finally, the whole comes full circle with straightforward reprises of Luke and Leia’s themes and the Force theme itself, scored just as we heard it in Star Wars when Luke stares pensively at the binary sunset - visually echoed by Owen and Beru with baby Luke here. And just in case we hadn’t already got the idea, the End Credits suite ties us back into Episode IV with ‘Leia’s theme’ and the ‘Throne Room’ music.

So, in sum, this is a magnificent achievement as a single score, an even more marvellous piece of musical construction when put in the context of the other five movies, Revenge of the Sith immediately takes a place in the select canon of unarguably great film music.

Mark Walker

Ian Lace adds:-

After Mark’s erudite review of the Revenge of the Sith score and John Williams’ brilliant through-composition of the whole six-episodes of Star Wars, I would just add a few more words specifically about The Revenge of the Sith. All tracks arrest the ear by virtue of the cleverly wrought harmonies and colourful orchestrations. John Williams’ film music remains nonpareil.

Commencing with the customary Star Wars fanfares and Overture common to all six films, new material soon grows organically: a march cold and cruel as the Empire that is to triumph from the close of this third episode and a prelude to the familiar march we hear in Episodes IV-VI. ‘Anakin’s Dream’ is an impressive creation with the strings singing most tenderly of his love of Padmé before the dreaming swirls horrifically downwards to bleak nightmare as Anakin ‘foresees’ the death of his Princess. This bleak landscape is echoed in the wailings and stark undertow of ‘Padmé’s Ruminations’. The music here is remarkably reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony, one of that composer’s most despondent and bleakest scores and incidentally about the horrors of war. Extraordinary too, is the music of ‘Battle of the Heroes’, so powerful in its use of men’s voices and its novel rhythmic patterns and propulsion. I agree with Mark’s assessment of ‘Anakin’s Betrayal’. The brooding, manifestly evil low string and woodwind figures of ‘Palpatine’s teachings’ lead, again, naturally to the crushing Empire March so familiar in the later Episodes, filmed first.

Another standout track ‘Anakin’s Dark Deeds’ illustrates just how well Williams penetrates to the heart of the psychology of a scene. Here starkly stated is the onset of madness, and, consequently black cruelty, upon the vulnerable, gullible Anakin. Without resorting to cheap mickey-mousing how well Williams underscores the Frankenstein-like transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader. Once more the score leads naturally to the dread Vader music of the original Star Wars. And how moving is the choral and orchestral farewell to Padmé fulfilling her sad destiny in giving birth to the twins who would ultimately triumph over the Empire in their future fight with Vader. The 13-minute ‘A New Hope and End Credits’, bringing in all the familiar themes, is beautifully performed and is a fitting golden nostalgic conclusion to a most satisfying album.

I have to say I was less impressed with the accompanying DVD. Granted that it affords the opportunity to hear Williams’ music without the imposition of dialogue and often ear-splitting sound effects. However the constant rapid change of clips, too often of fast-moving battle sequences, presented too frequently in random and non-logical order - jumping backwards and forwards through all six episodes - soon becomes very disconcerting, distracting and wearing on the senses. On the more positive side, the music often gave me insights I had previously overlooked. For instance, the remarkable similarity of Princess Leia’s theme to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and how nice it was to be thrilled once again by the concluding Elgar-like ‘Throne-Room’ music.

Not to be missed.
Ian Lace

Gary Dalkin adds:-

Really there’s little point me saying anything other than in an astonishing career this is one of John Williams’ finest works. A triumphant finale to the six film sequence which collectively stands unchallenged as the finest achievement in the history of film music. Absolutely essential.

Gary Dalkin

On our sister site, Film Music on the Web, this disc was the reviewer’s choice as Film Music album of 2005

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