Friday, February 16, 2018

Quick Take — A Rose by Any Other Theme

By Naomi Graber

Like it or not, one facet of the Star Wars universe is absolutely clear: girls run the galaxy. Or at least they should. Women have been at the center of the rebellion since Princess Leia grabbed Luke’s blaster and ordered him and Han into the garbage chute in 1977. After Leia, we’ve had Mon Mothma, Jyn Erso, Rey, and most recently Admiral Holdo. Even the much-maligned Padme Amidala held her planet together through war with the Trade Federation, and served as one of the few dissenting votes in the senate during Palpatine’s rise. The Last Jedi introduced audiences to yet another heroic woman: Rose Tico, a rebellion grunt who, along with Finn and Poe, attempt to disable the imperial fleet just long enough for the rebels to escape. Their plan fails spectacularly, but their delusions of grandeur embody one of the primary lessons of the story—that one must learn from failure rather than abandon all hope. Perhaps that is why John Williams chose to give Rose the most prominant new theme in this film; she embodies many of the ideas of these new chapters in the Star Wars universe: the power of hope and friendship, the necessity of perseverance, and the value of learning from your mistakes.

With Rose’s theme, the music catches up to gender dynamics of the rest of the Star Wars universe. Williams and Michael Giacchino (who scored Rogue One) mostly draw on the sounds of the “classical” Hollywood style established in the 1930s, which treats heroism as an almost exclusively male trait, while women usually fall into one of two categories: “virtuous wife” or “femme fatale.”<1> Most of the women of Star Wars are scored like the former, undercutting the characters’ heroics, and filling in the gaps of their femininity.<2> Princess Leia’s theme highlights none of her determination and grit, but rather opens with a rising sixth (scale degrees 5 to 3) followed a delicate, skipping musical “sigh” down to scale degree 2. By Empire Strikes Back, that theme is joined by the “love theme,” which has the same melodic contour: an ascent from scale degree 5 to 3, followed by brief rising “yearning” gesture, and then fall back down to scale degree 2. In the Prequel trilogy, Padme and Anakin’s love theme (“Across the Stars”), again begins with a rising sixth (this time minor), followed by a short “sighing” descent to scale degree 1 before spinning out. Jyn’s theme follows the same pattern, followed by a further (decorated) reach up to scale degree 4, although she lacks the romantic “sighs” of Leia and Padme.

Like most aspects of the “classical” Hollywood sound, Williams and Giacchino’s themes for these women are rooted in the gendered tropes of the 19th century. They bear faint traces of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which begins with a similar melodic contour, and Berlioz’s idee fixe, with its prominent rising sixths followed by musical “sighs.” For Padme and Leia, these themes do not represent how they see themselves, but rather how male characters see them: as potential romantic partners (particularly given that Williams has said that he original conceived of Leia’s theme as a love theme for her and Luke).<3> Leia, despite her grit and determination, and Padme, despite her political acumen and skill with a blaster, only exist musically to soften their potential partners’ harsher edges (although in the more recent films, Leia’s theme has become her own rather than connected to a romantic pairing).<4> While Jyn lacks a romantic story, her theme emphasizes her tragic past, and helps soften her rather gruff exterior. In all these cases, these themes reassure audiences that something gentle and feminine lurks beneath their tough, savvy, sarcastic exteriors.

Rey is more interesting. There are a number of themes associated with her, and her music is still developing. Some of what Williams has foreshadowed in his postludes points to the strong presences of classical “heroic” tropes (triadic fanfares and horn calls). But other parts of her music undermine these moments. She is also accompanied by a pentatonic skipping melody and forlorn chimes, generally played in woodwinds. While the liveliness and lightness of these themes emphasizes her energy and spunk, they also point to a mystical quality that isn’t part of Rey’s personality; on the contrary, Rey is remarkably grounded and practical (particularly in The Force Awakens). The woman who repeatedly orders Finn to stop holding her hand, who faces Kylo Ren with no training, and who commands the attention of no less than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker  could never be described as ethereal, despite the music’s attempt to convince us otherwise. Still, as Rey practices with the lightsaber on Ach-to (unfortunately not on the commercial release of the soundtrack), we may be hearing a hint of how Williams sees her music developing into something more heroic.

Which brings us back to Rose. Simple, courageous, and selfless Rose, who has no Han Solo or Luke Skywalker to mentor her. For the first time in the Star Wars universe, a female character has a theme that suits her perfectly: it is insistently Lydian-inflected major, and often sounds amidst generalized “peril” music, which tends toward minor, chromatic, dissonant, and often rife with horns, trombones and low strings. Rather than the Tristan- or Berlioz-esque framework of short phrases, yearning sixths, and sighing descents, her theme continues to rise upward in a fanfare-like gesture. Instead of spinning out, the melody lands prominently on sharp scale degree 4, which Williams accompanies with a “truck driver” gesture as the harmony moves from I to II (and then on a further whole tone a measure later), giving it an extra lift just before it’s close. Where previous women have only yearned, Rose—her theme implies—actually manages to move forward, tonally speaking. In these contexts, Rose’s theme shines through like a ray of sunlight in an increasingly dark and turbulent world. Like the rest of the women in Star Wars, Rose (and her theme) embodies the best qualities of the rebellion: persistence, kindness, and of course, hope.

<1>On male heroism in the classical Hollywood style and in Star Wars, see Neil Lerner, “Nostalgia, Masculinist Discourse, and Authoritarianism in John Williams’ Scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in Philip Hayward, ed., Off the Planet: Music, Sound, and Science Fiction Cinema (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2004), 96–108. On the limited roles for women in the classical Hollywood style, see Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2001) 70, 176.
<2>This is a common strategy in action/adventure films. Se Pauline MacRory, “Excusing the Violence of Hollywood Women: Music in Nikita and Point of no Return,” Screen 40.1 (1999): 51–65.
<3>Boston Pops, “Film Night at the Pops!” 12 May 2016, broadcast over the radio on WGBH, available online at
<4>This is another common problem of classical Hollywood film, and traces back to opera. See Peter Franklin, Seeing Through Music: Gender and Modernism in the Classic Hollywood Film Scores (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 45.


Naomi Graber is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill’s early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender. Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Trax on the Trail, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Musical Quarterly.

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