Of Plainchant, Jedi, and Wilhelm

“It was a plot that started in the days of the Knights of Templar and concerns death, doom, and the end of the world.”

That was an introduction I gave of the Dies Irae—a commonly-used motif in music originating as a Gregorian Chant about the Judgment Day—to a friend a few years ago. In past discussions, I wrote the origins and meaning of the Dies Irae plainchant (https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/dies-irae/) and its appearance an context in classical music in relation to the Totentanz or dance of  death (https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/dies-irae-and-the-totentanz/). Both the Dies Irae and the Totentanz are what we call a motif—a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work. Motifs are a means of communication by reference and repetition. We use them every day, especially in writing and artwork.

Even outside of the realm of classical music, the Dies Irae has been used as a motif to communicate. For example, the University of Georgia marching band has been known to play the Dies Irae chant as a rallying song at key defensive points in football games. Usually, the “mood” music played at those times is “Jaws” or “Darth Vader themes,” however, the Dies Irae is just as effective for evoking a dark and apprehensive mood.

The Imperial March is Darth Vader's leitmotif and has become a well-known indication of evil or totalitarianism.

The Imperial March is Darth Vader’s leitmotif and has become a well-known indication of evil or totalitarianism.

Speaking of Darth Vader and Star Wars, the Dies Irae has been used in film scoring—including in Star Wars. Following in the tradition of Richard Wagner’s operas, the massive score of the Star Wars films are largely built up of motif and (more specifically) leitmotifs (a motif or theme associated throughout a musical drama with a particular person, situation, or idea). For example, the Imperial March is forever associated with Darth Vader. It is his leitmotif and functions as his musical calling card. These leitmotifs take on different forms and evolve to fit different situations throughout the movies—Anakin’s theme in Episode 1 makes references to the Imperial March, hinting at his future. As the republic evolves into the empire and Anakin goes to the dark side, the theme evolves into the form known in Episodes V and VI. In its last incarnation—Darth Vader’s death—the theme becomes lighter, thinner, and fades off into instrumental solos. Perhaps more than any other Star Wars theme, the Imperial March has found its way into pop culture and become associated with evil, power, and totalitarianism. Just as the Dies Irae has been used for centuries to invoke foreboding, in our day and culture, the Imperial March has achieved almost universal recognition to the same effect.

While the Imperial March is perhaps the most famous Star Wars themes, there are many other leitmotifs found in Star Wars—a Rebel Fanfare, Princess Leia’s Theme, a Death Star motif, a Jawa theme, Yoda’s Theme, Jabba the Hut’s Theme, Ewok motif, and love themes for Han and Leia as well as Anakin and Padame (“Across the Stars”), and so on. It could be said that the only other musical canvas in modern times that rival the Star Wars trilogy in building a soundtrack on leitmotifs is Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings (see http://www.woodzie.org/lotr/, accessed 26 October 2012). By building a score on leitmotifs, the music is able to tell the story of what’s happening on the screen, allowing for both foreshadowing and more powerful emotional effect. Other recurring motifs appear in Star Wars, such as the Duel of the Fates in the prequel trilogy and the Force motif (for a more extensive analysis of Star Wars motifs, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars_music, accessed 23 October 2012). This last theme is perhaps the most beautiful, frequently used in the films, and one of the best-known themes in Star Wars, primarily for the famous Binary Sunset scene and the march incarnation in the throne room scene of Episode IV. This is the best-developed of all Star Wars motifs and often marks pivotal moments in the films.

The Binary Sunset scene showcases the Force motif.

The Binary Sunset scene showcases the Force motif.

Interestingly enough, the Binary Sunset Scene was originally planned to be underscored by the Dies Irae and some soundtrack CDs include that scoring as a bonus track. Even with the Binary Sunset scene music cut, our favourite plainchant still makes a showing in the Star Wars films—usually with just its first four notes. In Episode IV, it generally arises in connection to Luke Skywalker’s destiny, invoking apprehension. It also is connected to the murders of Owen and Beru Lars. In Episodes II and III, the theme is drawn upon a bit more, such as when Anakin confesses he slaughtered the Sand People and in the scene in Episode III where the Jedi are slaughtered all across the galaxy.

Anakin’s confession (see 2:14-2:45): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCw127qWhuU

John Williams is not the only composer to have used the Dies Irae in modern times or in film scores. Steven Sondheim quoted from the plainchant (quite fittingly) in the musical Sweeny Todd, specifically in “The Ballad of Sweeny Todd” and the accompaniment to “Epiphany.” Hans Zimmer is another composer who has incorporated the Dies Irae in his scores from time to time. For example, in the scene at the Fountain of Youth in Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides, the Dies Irae plays after the British man with the flag is shot, and as the Spaniard takes to cups and breaks them. The Lion King also uses the motif briefly when Scar tell Simba to say that he is responsible for Mufasa’s death, and it was employed in The Road to El Dorado as a leitmotif for Hernán Cortés. The main tune of the “Making Christmas” song is appropriately the Dies Irae motif in Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie We Are Marshall utilizes the theme extensively in relation to the plane crash that killed most of the town’s football team and the TV series Psych used it in the episode “Heeeeere’s Lassie” as Lassiter is driven to insanity and attempts to kill Gus in his new apartment complex. Even the recently-released Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey uses the Dies Irae as a motif related to the orc Azog and the Necromancer. As composer Eric Whitacre noted: “at some point in their careers it seems that every composer tries to use it in one of their pieces.” He went on to point out that he used it in the piano part of his own composition (The Panther from Animal Crackers Vol. 1), and compared it to “one of those great in-jokes amongst film and video sound designers [the Wilhelm Scream].” (http://ericwhitacre.com/blog/the-wilhelm-scream, accessed 25 October 2012.)

Lion King (2:23-2:35): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOHjcaQG9BM&feature=related

Road to El Dorado (0:33-0:52): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Z8YMHId1yQ

Making Christmas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKAxikZmY-0

Eric Whitacre (0:22-0:26): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKIjiqVs5yc

The Wilhelm Scream is a motif that was also used (and popularized) by the Star Wars trilogy, and has become a popular stock sound effect to use in the film industry. It is most often used when someone is shot, falls from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion. Six screams of Sheb Wooley (most famous for his “Purple People Eater” song) were recorded for a scene in the 1951 movie Distant Drums in which a soldier is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. All of these—particularly the 4th, 5th and 6th—have been used in the movie industry as the Wilhelm Scream. It was used in The Charge at Feather River—a 1953 Western in which a character by the name of Private Wilhelm is shot by an arrow and screams, which is why it’s referred to as the Wilhelm scream. The scream was revived by Ben Burtt in the 1970s, when he incorporated it into all three of the original Star Wars films and then several other George Lucas and Steven Spielberg films (such as every Indiana Jones movie). Other sound designers picked up on the effect, and it became somewhat of a tradition in the industry—from Disney films to cartoons to television programs, video games, and other major productions. Apparently Sheb Wooley used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films, and rightly so. Most George Lucas and Peter Jackson films include it at some point, notably all four Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. All in all, the Wilhelm Scream has been used in over 225 productions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream, accessed 25 October, 2012.)

Sheb Wooley in Rawhide. Wooley was the voice that created the Wilhelm Scream.

Sheb Wooley in Rawhide. Wooley was the voice that created the Wilhelm Scream.

A Wilhelm Scream Compilation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdbYsoEasio

I find myself listening now for both the Dies Irae and the Wilhelm scream whenever I watch a film. I am always amazed (and amused) at how often they come up. My wife is probably tired of me being excited when they show up, but it is fun for me at least, even if dramatic and tragic scenes are sometimes ruined for me because they throw in the Wilhelm Scream (i.e. Australia’s Darwin bombing scene).

In conclusion, we use recurring themes or ideas called motifs fairly often in life, and even more often in film. The Dies Irae chant has found its uses in invoking a dark, foreboding mood. The Imperial March has found similar use, beginning with its familiar use in the Star Wars films. Another effect that has found extensive use is the Wilhelm Scream. All of these motifs have their own niche, and it becomes fun to watch for them to see where they pop up.

C3PO Thank the Maker

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