Happy 40th birthday Star Wars!


Forty years ago today, on 25 May 1977, a film was released in cinemas that would go on to become one of the most important and influencial films of all time – and not only in film making. For Star Wars marked a new era in large orchestral soundtracks and the start of a new era of recognition for the London Symphony Orchestra.

There are many stories about how the LSO got involved in recording the soundtrack for this new film. According to the Orchestra's then-Chairman and oboist Anthony Camden in a story recounted in Richard Morrison's superb book A Century of Triumph and Turbulence, during a tour in the US with then-Principal Conductor André Previn the Orchestra found itself in Iowa with a spare afternoon. The Orchestra's chairman and oboist Anthony Camden sat down with Previn to talk business, with the first request being that he should write a film score for the Orchestra to record. Previn, however, said he was far too busy and so the talk turned to other composers who could be approached.

'His favourite was John Williams,' he recalls, 'so I asked André to ring him immediately in Los Angeles. John answered the call, and André passed the phone over to me. He told me that he had just started writing the music for a film, but that it wouldn't interest the LSO because it was all "up in the universe". In fact, he said, they were thinking of calling it Star Wars.'

Being the businessman that he was this did not put Camden off, who immediately declared the LSO interested in recording the score. There was the small hurdle of the fact that the sessions needed to start within a month and that the Orchestra would be required for 18 sessions – not an easy block of work to accommodate into the LSO's busy schedule. But something about the project must have chimed with Camden, for he told Williams that he would ring him back in 24 hours, went away and from a payphone in the American Midwest fixed 18 sessions at Denham Studios, just outside of London. Some started late at night after the Orchestra's concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.

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Attendance sheets for the first recording session for Star Wars: A New Hope, March 1977

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Denham Studios, 1977 – Episode IV: A New Hope

And so in March 1977 the LSO laid down the music that would become its calling card for the next 40 years. One musician in particular stands out and became a name and a sound that everyone remembers: the LSO's late Principal Trumpet Maurice Murphy, whose diamond-sharp notes open the whole score. For Maurice, the sessions held a particular memory – that of his first day at work. 'I started with the LSO on 5 March 1977,' he recounts in Morrison's book. 'They had sent a work schedule for that month, and I could see a large block of time covered by something called Star Wars. I thought: what on earth is that? I soon found out.'

This podcast was recorded in 2007 when Maurice retired from the LSO after 30 years and contains a wealth of Maurice's stories and the reminiscences of his colleagues, including about Star Wars (starts around 12'50").

Star Wars of course immediately went stratospheric; its soundtrack along with it. The music captured the imaginations of the public so vividly that it has been named as the 'most memorable score of all time' and in 2004 it was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry, who called it "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant." Seemingly the LSO's name became synonymous with the music, making it a significant part of the LSO's global profile. Hardly a day goes by on social media without the Star Wars music and the LSO being mentioned, and it is often cited by people as the music that brought orchestras and classical music to their attention. Without Star Wars, perhaps the LSO might not be nearly as well known; and for that we will be forever grateful.

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Abbey Road Studios, 2005 – Episonde III: Revenge of the Sith (photo: Michael Humphrey)

And what of the Orchesta's relationship with the man that started it all? Those sessions 40 years ago helped to cement a relationship with the composer John Wiliams that would last for decades afterwards – soon to follow were blockbuster scores for Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, several of the Harry Potter franchise, and not to mention the next five of the Star Wars films. Although filming and editing schedules meant that the LSO could not be involved in the newly-rebooted series from Episode 7 onwards, the relationship with John Williams is as strong as ever. In a recent interview, especially recorded for a concert of Williams' music at the Barbican in November 2016, John sang the orchestra's praises: "I miss them greatly and I hope I will see them soon."

Happy 40th birthday Star Wars. May the force be ever with you.