The Czech Composer Behind the Star Wars Theme

John Williams’ iconic score borrows from Brno-born, Oscar-winning composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Born in what is now Brno, Czech Republic in the late 19th century, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy who wrote his first ballet at the age of 11 (it was performed for Emperor Franz Josef shortly thereafter) and his first orchestral score at the age of 14.

Living and working in Vienna throughout the 1920s, he travelled to Hollywood in the 1930s to collaborate on movie scores; given the plight of the Jewish in his home region, he would stay in the US and soon become a naturalized citizen.

Korngold’s scores for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) would win Oscars for Best Music; the Robin Hood win marked the first time a composer was awarded the Oscar rather than the head of the music department.

His scores for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) were also nominated for Academy Awards.

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But it’s his soundtrack for 1942’s Kings Row that has a special connection. You can listen to the soundtrack suite here. 

Sound familiar? A few passages bear a striking resemblance to John Williams’ iconic Star Wars soundtrack, especially the main title theme.

The allegation that Williams borrowed or stole from Korngold has been around for some time; in 2008, YouTube user hawkeyemediahouse uploaded this back-to-back comparison:

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As the popular story goes, reported here by moongadget.com, Star Wars director George Lucas had originally assembled the film to orchestral pieces (including Korngold’s Kings Row score) a la Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But John Williams convinced Lucas to let him compose an original score for the film that would preserve the feel of the classical pieces while creating an overarching style to tie the film together. And what we’re left with is an iconic score that bears more than a passing resemblance to some classical pieces – especially the main theme, which quite clearly draws from Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

But this wasn’t the first Williams score to borrow from a Czech composer. Listen to this comparison between his famous Jaws score and a snippet of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony: 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which features a new Williams score that will presumably incorporate material from his previous work in the franchise, comes to Czech cinemas on Thursday, December 17.


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