A Novel Symphony: The “Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire” Soundtrack

Copyright © 1996 by Varèse Sarabande and Lucasfilm Ltd.

In the years before George Lucas released his Star Wars prequels, there was an attempt to bridge together The Empire Strikes Back with Return of the Jedi.  The result was a multimedia project by Lucasfilm called Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, spawning the release of a video game, a comic book series, a toy line, a set of trading cards, and a novel by Steve Perry.

It was based on a new storyline involving Luke Skywalker and his friends trying to find and rescue Han Solo–now frozen in carbonite and on his way to Jabba the Hutt–while being targeted by Darth Vader and his rival, a revenge-seeking alien crime lord named Prince Xizor.  The series introduced new characters like Xizor, his gynoid bodyguard Guri, and a smuggler named Dash Rendar (whose strong resemblance to Han Solo was not lost on the fans).  The project focused on the Underworld of the Star Wars galaxy, involving bounty hunters, smugglers, assassins, crime lords, and fugitives from the Empire.

My first intro to this series was the novel by Steve Perry.  Then I discovered, several years later, that John Williams got another conductor and orchestra to create a soundtrack based on that novel.  And as far as Star Wars music goes, it’s really, really good.

Track 1: “Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare”

This track is mostly a replaying of two established pieces from the original Star Wars trilogy: the main theme and the music from Empire Strikes Back that plays over the scene where Han and Leia share their last kiss before Han gets frozen in carbonite.  The context for the music is that Leia has a nightmare based on her experience of that event at the beginning of the novel.  It’s a nice tie-in for both the story and the music, using the music from the last film.

Track 2: “The Battle of Gall”

The Story: Luke and his friends track down Han and the bounty hunter Boba Fett to Gall, where Luke joins Rogue Squadron in an attack on an Imperial base.  However, Xizor’s minions sabotage a friendly starfighter to shoot down Luke, who survives the attempt.  Meanwhile, Leia hires Dash Rendar to help them find Boba Fett, but the bounty hunter eludes them once again.

The Music: This song goes through a few phases.  First it builds up the action with some nice trumpets and drums, showing Rogue Squadron gearing up for the big battle.  Then it goes into an extended chase music with a repeating motif.  As the chase wears on and things go bad, the motif begins to break down and give way to increasing frenzy.

Track 3: “Imperial City”

The Story: About half of the story takes place on Imperial City, the capital of the Empire located on Coruscant.  Here we see Prince Xizor running the criminal organization known as Black Sun and putting his schemes against Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker into action.

The Music: The melody is ethereal, to say the least–a mixture of chimes and harp strings with solemn trumpets rising.  It captures the grandeur of the city-planet seen from afar and the majesty of its skyscraper-rich surface.  Probably in keeping with how the Empire wants its capital to seem, even though this is part of a story where the most prominent citizens are crime lords and officials of a tyrannical regime.  The epic horns section and haunting choir near the middle of the song certainly carries a sense of doom.

Track 4: “Beggar’s Canyon Chase”

Beggar’s Canyon Chase Sample (Dash Rendar’s Theme)

The Story: After going back to Tatooine to build himself a new lightsaber, Luke finds himself under attack by a swoop gang–again, hired by Black Sun.  This leads to a swoop bike gang through Beggar’s Canyon, which Luke has flown before, though he ends up being saved by Dash Rendar.

The Music: Like most of the score originally penned by John Williams, this song captures a chase scene with a quick tempo.  However, there’s also a nice turn at around 2:34–almost at the very end–where the music swells to a joyous crescendo.  This particular snippet has been dubbed in other Star Wars media as “Dash Rendar’s Theme” and boy does it fit.

Track 5: “The Southern Underground”

The Story: In an attempt to meet and negotiate with Prince Xizor himself, Leia and Chewbacca make contact with his representative, Guri, who takes them directly to Coruscant.  Since they’re entering the heart of the Empire, Guri leads them through Coruscant’s deepest levels, a series of slums called the Southern Underground.

The Music: When I hear this song, I think of the music that plays when C-3PO and R2-D2 are taken into Jabba’s palace at the start of Return of the Jedi.  It signifies the transition into a den of scum and villainy, where all manner of lowlifes can be found (but not in the same vein as when we enter the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope).  Again, very appropriate to the scene in question.

Track 6: “Xizor’s Theme”

Xizor’s Theme Sample 1 (Reptile Version)

Xizor’s Theme Sample 2 (Primal Version)

The Story: There really isn’t much plot to this theme, though it does serve as a nice build-up of Xizor’s presence in the story, ranging from being a sinister background figure to a direct threat to the main cast.

The Music: Without a doubt, this is my favorite song on the soundtrack.  Xizor’s Theme is appropriately dynamic, beginning with an almost atonal melody of frantic horns before seguing at 1:22 into an ethereal choir with subdued background notes–a transition to mark Xizor’s reptilian nature.  At 2:24, the frantic melody returns, then dies at 2:58… only to re-surge into a dramatic new piece of Arabian-style trumpets and percussion, signifying the Dark Prince’s true malevolence and his more primal passions.  This is by far the one song from the album that I would love to hear in a Star Wars film.

Track 7: “The Seduction of Princess Leia”

The Story: Leia’s audience with Prince Xizor begins on a bad note and gets worse, as she realizes that, not only is he behind the plot on Luke Skywalker’s life, but the Falleen Prince also desires Leia for himself.  Possessing powerful pheromones, he tries to overwhelm Leia’s defenses, but an intervention by Chewbacca reminds Leia that they’re effectively his prisoners and she regains her iron will.

The Music: The interesting thing about this music is how romantic it sounds, even though the scene itself is more about lust than love.  There’s a graceful and waltz-style tone that makes me think of old musicals from the Twenties and Thirties.  It ultimately reaches an almost cliche crescendo at 3:09–about the point where you expect the lovers to share a passionate onscreen kiss–only to be interrupted by a lone series of rude noises, signifying Chewbacca banging on the door to bring Leia to her senses.  It’s strange musically, but makes perfect sense in the context of the story (this is one romance Leia does not want to develop).

Track 8: “Night Skies”

Night Skies Sample (Ending)

The Story: The story soon enters a holding pattern as Luke and his friends go to Coruscant to rescue Leia and Chewie, Xizor contemplates his next move, and Darth Vader tries unsuccessfully to establish contact with Luke and draw him to his side once more.

The Music: “Night Skies” is very reminiscent of “Imperial City,” which makes sense because it’s all about building up the climax on Coruscant.  There’s a whole medley where we get a very slow and sinister reprise of “Xizor’s Theme,” which then segues into “The Imperial March” at 1:31, as we cut to Darth Vader’s perspective.  Other themes and leitmotifs from earlier on in the soundtrack are briefly reintroduced and woven together after this, including the ever-popular “Binary Sunset” and a few more reprises of Vader’s theme as his outreach to Luke fails.  I actually like this song for the way it gives Vader some emotional depth through its interpretation of his villainous theme, making it less proud and more uncertain.

Track 9: “Into the Sewers”

The Story: Luke, Dash, and Lando Calrissian make their entrance to the lower levels of Coruscant.  They hire an engineer to get them into Xizor’s palace by way of the sewer system.

The Music: A lot of this piece brings back elements of “The Southern Underground,” but also carries a greater sense of dread (appropriate for people inside a gigantic sewer).  Again, it all reminds me of the horror and vile tones as heard from the opening of Return of the Jedi, which is a good way to bridge this work toward that film instead of Empire Strikes Back.

Track 10: “The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace”

Xizor’s Palace Sample (Ending)

The Story: After reuniting with Leia, Luke and his friends confront Xizor, who tries to kill Luke himself.  Fortunately, the young Jedi Knight defends himself well and a bomb dropped by Lando gives them only a short chance to escape the palace before it’s destroyed.  Xizor is the only one from Black Sun who survives the cataclysm, now pushed to vengeance beyond all reason.

The Music: Opening with light notes and that rising ethereal choir, this song quickly becomes more reminiscent of the Endor leitmotifs from Return of the Jedi.  This brings to mind the scenes of the Rebels setting up for the big attack against the Emperor, although in this case it’s more of a stage rehearsal, as a lone band of heroes takes on a crime lord.  We get a nice return of snippets from earlier in the soundtrack like “The Imperial March,” “Imperial City,” and “Xizor’s Theme.”  Starting at 4:10, the tempo rises in a way indicative of a chase scene, especially when it’s Luke and his companions battling their way through Black Sun guards and trying to escape the doomed palace.  Not much more to say other than it’s big, bombastic, and a brilliant way to both end the soundtrack and lead us in–musically, at least–to the stirring melodies of Return of the Jedi.

Final Verdict: Worthy of A Legitimate Star Wars Production

Composer Joel McNeely used the novel as his main inspiration for writing the score and it definitely shows.  It’s a novel idea (pun intended) to have a story with music set to it, but every piece does carry the mood and pace of the original text, even if they don’t sync up line for line.  The music itself is brilliant and the novel isn’t half-bad, though it’s not the greatest Star Wars novel ever.  Both deserve more attention from the fans, both young and old.

Bibliography: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (soundtrack).  Composed by Joel McNeely.  Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus.  Produced by Robert Townson.  Inspired by the novel Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry.  Los Angeles: Varèse Sarabande, 1996.

Audio Credit: All music samples courtesy of user uploads on Wookieepedia and protected by fair use.  The Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire soundtrack belongs to Varèse Sarabande and Lucasfilm Ltd.


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