In the lead-up to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we look back at the first Jedi (narratively speaking) with a series of stories about the much-beloved and never-disparaged prequel trilogy.
Darth Maul is one of the few elements in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels to be almost universally admired. The badass Sith lord — red-and-black war paint obscuring his entire head, which is protected by a crown of dinosaurian horns, girded in a billowing black cloak and armed with a red, double-bladed lightsaber — cuts a terrifying figure from the moment he’s introduced in The Phantom Menace, brooding next to the future Emperor Palpatine. He gets one of the best lines of the movie, delivered in Peter Serafinowicz’s British baritone: “At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.”
Another element that (almost) no one complains about is John Williams’s music, three epic scores added to his soon-to-be eight-cycle space opera. The prequels are chock-full of now-classic melodies, including Anakin’s innocent theme (with its hidden references to Darth Vader’s march), the bittersweet love theme (“Across the Stars”) for Anakin and Padme, and the epic choral showdown “Battle of the Heroes” from Revenge of the Sith. But the theme that came closest to achieving the pop-culture invasion that “The Imperial March” did in the previous Star Wars cycle was the one Williams boldly dubbed “Duel of the Fates.”
You know the one. As Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) lead a heist into the occupied palace of Naboo, the giant doors of its hangar bay open to reveal Maul in all his demonic glory — his appearance heralded by a dark brass fanfare pumping out the opening notes of Williams’s pagan anthem for orchestra and choir. This Lucasian liturgical mass accompanies the lightsaber duel that ensues, motored along by a rippling string ostinato, with low woodwinds, then French horns stacking gravity on the melody before it erupts into a tiered, almost frenzied chorale. But as the theme’s title indicates, it’s about much more than a single sword fight.
Why this theme works so well, and why it transcends the film it was written for, speaks to the composer’s genius at writing earworm tunes that feel like primal, eternal music echoing from the beginning of time. He accomplished this earlier with Luke’s theme, the Force theme, the Imperial March, Han and Leia’s theme — to say nothing of the hundred other melodies he’s written for films that most people could hum from memory. The Star Wars films have given Williams an ideal canvas for these catchy, orchestral folk songs: Lucas’s operatic series is overtly larger-than-life, inspired by grandiose antecedents in film, classical music, and literature. The creator has often spoken of them as “silent films,” and he gave Williams the keys to let music drive the story — and, consequently, tell its own.
The Darth Maul duel provided a showcase for score usually reserved for religious ceremony. The piece was “a result of my thinking that something ritualistic, and/or pagan and antique might be very effective, and that the introduction of a chorus at a certain point in the film might be just the thing,” Williams said in a 1999 interview. He figured it needed a text, and looked to one of his favorite books, The White Goddess by English poet Robert Graves, which he had recently used portions of in a very modern, very non–Star Warsian concert work called “The Five Sacred Trees.”
“I remembered the great Celtic epic poem ‘The Battle of the Trees,’ in which two fields of trees are animated by a Druidic priest and they become warriors,” Williams said. “And they do the battle, and on command from the Druid the trees again freeze and become trees. And there’s a stanza in the poem, translated by Graves from the early Celtic into modern English, which is roughly, ‘Under the tongue root a fight most dread, while another rages behind in the head.’ And for no conscious, sensible reason, the idea of a fight, something raging and imagined in the head more than anywhere else, seemed to be a good, mystical, cryptic piece of business.”
Williams had “some friends at Harvard” translate that line back into Celtic, as well as other ancient languages, and he settled on Sanskrit for its exotic and “beautiful sounds.” “Basically what I’ve done, in this case, is … reduced the stanza, which was translated literally, and used either single words or syllables or combinations of these things — the words ‘dreaded fight’ or this kind of thing — and put them together, repeatedly and melismatically, which is to say repeating syllables. (Everybody knows what that is from the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, where you sing the word ‘Hallelujah’ for 20 minutes, you know.) And it gave an atmosphere, I think, to the music that was at once mysterious and old and dramatic, and I hope effective.”
“Duel of the Fates,” belted out by an 88-piece choir and the full weight of the London Symphony Orchestra, further elevated Nick Gillard’s quicksilver, ferocious choreography and almost made you forget about Jar Jar Binks dribbling Bantha poodoo out of his digital Gungan mouth. (Almost, because Lucas kept cutting away from the magnificent duel inside Theed’s cavernous power generator to Muppet Baby Anakin’s exploits in space and Jar Jar’s unfunny “comic relief” in the land battle outside.) Taken on its own terms, the duel is one of the true high points of the prequels — expertly visualizing Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s master-apprentice relationship and revealing Maul as one of the most formidable villains in the Star Wars universe, culminating in the still-gut-punching death of Neeson’s endearing Jedi. (Before he even reached act two of this new trilogy, Lucas foolishly killed off his best new characters.)
“I just felt the way that George has staged that, the top of that great stage or stairway — I don’t even know what to call it — the way it’s done is so dramatic and so like a great pagan altar, you can imagine, that the whole thing seemed like a dance, a ballet, a religious ceremony of some kind,” Williams explained in his sage, professorial way, “probably ending in the death of one of the combatants, you know. A ballet about that, super-real — or unreal even — and that the medium of chorus and orchestra would give us a sense that we’re in a big temple. The drama is the contrast and the contest between good and evil.”
Which is why “Duel of the Fates” is so good — not just because it’s infectious, but because it is so deep. It certainly works as an action set piece, but Williams really composed an oratorio that captures the spiritual combat for the soul of Anakin Skywalker. In fact, back in 1999, Lucas envisioned this piece reprising in a big way for the climactic clash between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. “You didn’t realize this,” Lucas told Williams in the Abbey Road recording booth at the Phantom Menace sessions, “but it really goes into the third film very well. … It definitely has the quality of the inevitable fate of doom, you know, with larger hands at work.” (For some reason, by the time they got to Sith they decided to go with the related but new choral anthem, “Battle of the Heroes.”)
“Duel of the Fates” far outlived its corny context. It did so right out of the gates, when it landed (in the form of a music video) on MTV’s Total Request Live — the only “classical” piece to do so — where it remained for 11 days. As of 2015, it was the most-streamed of all of Williams’s Star Wars themes on Spotify. YouTube is littered with remixes and covers (from a cappella to little kids on keyboards to heavy metal), and a video that loops the piece for ten straight hours has 2.6 million views. It has the honor of accompanying a parody duel on The Simpsons, and it has underscored countless duels in a variety of sports. It clearly speaks to people, as so many of Williams’s film themes do, as pure music.