Superman 1.14: Music from the Hearts of Space

All right, here’s the situation: we are currently three weeks in on this new format that I’ve invented for myself, where I try to comment on every element of Superman: The Movie that I can think of, and today is one of those “face the music” posts, both literally and figuratively. At some point, I have to write about John Williams’ orchestral score, because it’s an important part of the movie and people who like movie scores are entirely obsessed with it, but I don’t know much about music and I am utterly hopeless on the subject.

I mean, I have this booklet that came with the Superman: The Music box set, and here’s what it says about the score during the “space capsule flying across the galaxy” sequence:

“Scherzo for the starship’s three-year journey. A swirling woodwind line suggests the speed at which the spacecraft is traveling while high-register violins sing a lofty melody exclusive to this cue; statements of the Fanfare are overlaid skillfully.”

My issue, obviously, is that I don’t know what scherzo means; I even went and read the Wikipedia article on scherzo, and I still don’t know what scherzo means.

But what the hell, let’s give it a shot. I’ve got the booklet and there’s a music-only audio track on the Special Edition DVD, and I ought to be able to make something out of this.

The music in Superman: The Movie is by John Williams, who had recently scored, both literally and figuratively, with a little movie called Star Wars, released the previous year. By this point, Williams was getting multiple Academy Awards nominations per year. He was nominated for Valley of the Dolls in 1967 and Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1969, and won for Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. In the early ’70s, he scored the three big disaster movies: The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno.

Among the five big mid-70s blockbusters — Jaws, King Kong, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman — Williams wrote the score for four of them, and the one that he skipped, King Kong, wasn’t very good, so there. I don’t know what anybody else was doing in the 1970s, but John Williams basically owned the big movies.

The number one thing that you need to know about John Williams is that the man likes his leitmotifs. Somebody put together a “Complete Catalogue of the Themes of Star Wars“, and it’s 70 pages long. He’s got a theme for Luke, a theme for Leia, a theme for the Rebels, a theme for the Empire, and one each for Yoda, the Emperor, the Force, the Death Star, the Jawas, the Droids and Boba Fett. He’s got two for Jabba, three for the Ewoks, and a pair of themes called “It’s a Trap! (A)” and “It’s a Trap! (B)”.

For Superman, Williams held the line at nine motifs, and so far in the movie we’ve heard five of them:

#1) Superman — Fanfare: This is a trumpet flare that announces that Superman is coming. In the movie, we hear it as those first four trumpet notes as the monochrome curtain is opening. (It’s much more developed on the soundtrack album “Theme from Superman” track; the first twenty seconds of that track is the Fanfare.)

#2) Superman March — A Theme: This is the big one, which starts as the S logo forms and then the “SUPERMAN” title appears. It’s the one where the brass goes dut-dut-dut-DAAAAA! and then continues on like that. You know, it’s the thing that you sing when you’re singing the theme from Superman. (You see? I can write about music. Turns out it’s easy.)

#3) Superman March — B Theme: This is the secondary melody, which starts when the Glenn Ford credit goes by, and the orchestra has the A Theme out of its system. You might ask why you need an A Theme that lasts 30 seconds and then a B Theme that appears right after it, rather than just having one theme and calling it the Superman March. The answer to that question is that I don’t know.

#4) Krypton theme: This is a big statement of how huge and exciting Krypton is, which climaxes as we track into the shot of the dome.

#5) Crystal theme: This is a little five-note motif that starts when Jor-El stares at the crystal and says “He will never be alone.” It pops up throughout the movie to indicate the alien tech, and the radioactive kryptonite.

There are four other leitmotifs, but we haven’t heard them yet, so I’ll come back to those later on.

So far, the music has mostly been there to let you know how big and important and scary and doomed everything is. When something is strange or frightening, John Williams is there to help you recognize that. That is what he does for a living.

Personally, my favorite part of the score so far is the Krypton theme as we get closer to the big white dome. The music just gets bigger and more elaborate as it crescendoes, and I think in the middle somebody runs to ask the other symphony down the hall if they could come in for a minute and help out.

I tried to picture being on a stage and introducing someone using that theme, and wondered who could possibly be so important that they would warrant that intro. All I came up with was if there was a person in the world who had invented the sun.

In the trial scene, John lets us know that this is an alien planet by using a bunch of eerie strings and percussion. There’s also the weird zing of an ARP synthesizer, a fully polyphonic keyboard that used top-octave divide-down oscillators, in case you were wondering where all the noise was coming from.

When the big faces on the wall say “Guilty!” there’s the ring of an ominous bell. There are several places during the Krypton scenes when you hear a bell, and it’s not one of those jingle bells or happy wedding day bells; this is more the “everything that you love and believe in will crumble to ash” type bells. People don’t always know about the different types of bells that there are.

It’s important to keep an ear out for these bells because if you hear a lot of them, your planet might be about to blow up. If you hear bells and a spooky wordless chorus of female ghosts, then you need to grab your backpack and head for the nearest exit, which may be behind you.

There are more bells and some martial percussion behind Zod while he’s yelling at the outbound Jor-El. The CD booklet says that “an unsympathetic French horn phrase underscores Jor-El’s exit” but I don’t know how you can tell if a French horn is unsympathetic or not.

I don’t need to say much about the music when the criminals are trapped in the Phantom Zone, because it sounds like it always sounds when a huge rotating mirror arrives from outer space and swallows you in eternal torment.

It’s when the Science Council all gang up and form their special shame triangle against Jor-El that you get the bells and the wordless ghost chorus, which should have been a clue for the council that this wasn’t the best choice they could have made. I don’t know why people don’t pay attention to their background music; if I heard that bell and ghost chorus, then I wouldn’t even go outside that day. I’d just stay home with my PlayStation.

The first time you get anything of a warm sound on Krypton is when Jor-El is making his big farewell speech to the baby, which is quite beautiful and I don’t really know anything to say about it. It might be a scherzo for all I know, but I don’t think so.

You’d think there would be a lot of music around the destruction of Krypton, but there isn’t; it’s mostly just crunching sounds and screams. John is saving his energy up for that swirling woodwind line during the space capsule’s flight across the sky.

So that is everything that I can think of to say about the musical score, and you are welcome to it. I will now sign off and let people correct all my mistakes and make fun of me in the comments. Go on, you and your lightning bolts!

Baby Kal-El listens to audiobooks,
accompanied by a stowaway super-monkey…
1.15: Journey Across the Gulf of Space!

Movie list

— Danny Horn

21 thoughts on “Superman 1.14: Music from the Hearts of Space

  1. There’s a Big Finish audio called “Scherzo” where the 8th Doctor and his companion Charley wander around an abstract plane for millenia and eventually fuse into a single being, and it absolutely rules.

    But I also don’t know what “scherzo” means, outside of that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That would be what those French knights mean in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ when they say they will “break wind in your general direction”!

      They are blowing an unsympathetic French horn.


  2. Unsympathetic French horn, indeed. What does a sympathetic one sound like? Or a comical trombone? A weeping viola? Yes, it gives a very general impression, but is almost as ineffective as “hearing” a full orchestra by reading the sheet music.

    Describing music in words is a singularly unrewarding experience, both for the writer and the reader. Like trying to describe color or taste or smell.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. > let people correct all my mistakes and make fun of me in the comments

    No, I’m ‘classically trained’ and that’s about as deeply as I’d go into film music. Of course I’m not particularly fond of ‘film music’…

    “… except for Star Wars.” There’s something about that movie that made everyone an MVP, whether it was Williams, his orchestrator Herbert Spencer, or Lucas’ influence — I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For someone who doesn’t know much about music, this is a more than thorough discussion. The Krypton theme has lingered with me throughout the years, usually when I imagine that whatever I’m experiencing is far more grand and majestic than it truly is (i.e. laundry, scrubbing toilets, driving 50 mph in a 45 zone). But mostly, my lonely heart longs for the day I meet a sympathetic French horn.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Lately, Mrs Acilius and I have been spending time watching unsold game show pilots from the 1970s on YouTube. Like ya do.

    Anyway, one of them got us wondering about the finances of the Salkind family. Called “Pandemonium,” it was produced by Jay Wolpert and shot on 3 November 1979, when you would think the producers of Superman: The Movie would be rolling in dough. But the theme music for it is Williams’ Superman March. From the looks of the show, Wolpert can’t possibly have paid more than $40,000 or $50,000 for the rights to the music, maybe a lot less. If they were going to license something that valuable at that price, the Salkinds must have needed cash and needed it fast.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow – Had no idea that SW had 70 individual leitmotifs! I will have to look into that.
    I had a commute at one time and was listening to SW audio books and was amazed that these books often used the wrong leitmotif or background music – i.e. the asteroid field belt theme from “Empire” movie (Ep V) somehow ended up in the audiobook for “Return,” etc.
    I LOVE John Williams and all his leitmotifs – and your discussion is spot on and fascinating. I don’t know music and its technicalities either, but I do appreciate music and your discussion.
    Pre-1970s’ film scores, “Johnny” Williams, as he was then known, in the 1960’s wrote theme songs and leitmotifs for 1960’s TV shows. He had a beautiful poignant leitmotif for Will Robinson on “Lost in Space,” which truly captured who Will is and was. I believe he wrote the different “Lost in Space” opening themes and also “The Time Tunnel” theme.
    Johnny Williams even wrote an awkward overly-wordy Calypso-styled theme song for the original “Gilligan’s Island” pilot (!!!), which was re-worked as the catchy sea-shanty theme for the series most of us (who were born in the last century) are all too familiar with!
    When my daughters were very (maybe in 2010 or 2011), I got to see John Williams in concert at the Hollywood Bowl, conducting many of his great film scores. When he played a great Star Wars medley for his finale, he smiled when he turned to the audience to see almost all of us (me included) waving our lighted light sabers in appreciation.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I didn’t know John Williams wrote the music for Valley of the Dolls. I guess I thought André and Dorothy Previn did it, since they wrote the popular theme sung by Dionne Warwick.
    I don’t know that I ever paid much attention to a film score before John Williams. His music now seems an integral part of every movie he does and it’s hard to imagine the movie without it. Is it a good thing that you’re conscious of the film score? I’ll leave that question for film and music critics.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I know exactly what Danny means. Inspired by his Dark Shadows blog, I spent lockdown in 2020 writing the first drafts of a blog covering every Beatles album, together and solo. This despite having no understanding of music theory, leaving me with little to say about the actual songs besides why I do or don’t enjoy them. Now the entries have been gathering dust on my thumb drive for several months until I can force myself to whip them into readable shape. Of course, after making myself listen to eight or nine Ringo Starr live albums, my sense of reality is now permanently warped.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a blog could indeed be very time consuming. In some ways, the solo works of the former Beatles are more fascinating, if not in any sense better, than the group stuff – if only because the variation of quality is so broad, ranging from brilliant to unlistenable. (See George Harrison’s “Electronic Sound” or The Fireman’s “strawberries oceans ship forests”.) I have almost all of it, aside from a few items that I lack due to their being elusive (“Twin Freaks”) or to their having an awful reputation (the pre-“Plastic Ono Band” John/Yoko avant-garde stuff, which I would probably not acquire unless someone paid me to take them). If you think that the myriad of Ringo live albums are mind-bending, consider his “Scouse the Mouse” music. I think, though I have never heard it, that there was a live album of some sort that was not a Ringo album per se, but derived from a live Ringo Starr tribute concert.


      1. The entries on the main Beatles albums were the most difficult to write, because there really isn’t anything I can say about them that hasn’t already been said many times before. It’s easier to write about the weird nooks and crannies of their solo careers–oddball albums like Scouse the Mouse and Twin Freaks, or ones that have a fascinating background to them (like how Give My Regards to Broad Street is essentially Paul’s mid-life crisis captured on film, or all of the insanity with Morris Levy and Phil Spector that fueled John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll).


  9. I would point out, in a friendly though pedantic spirit, that it’s not an unsympathetic French horn, it’s an unsympathetic French horn **phrase**. The French horn itself was probably full of sympathy for the planet about to explode, and weeping inside for the fact that its job description said it had to express Zod’s lack of sympathy for Jor-El.


  10. Long ago I worked with a guy who listened to a classical-music/news station all day. One day I heard a string quartet or something, and as it cranked up the main theme, I heard those six notes of Luke’s leitmotif from Star Wars. I thought it was just a coincidence at first. It was not.

    I’m a writer and composer. I know there are no completely original ideas in fiction or music or movies. But if you’re going to lift your centerpiece themes directly from obscure composers, Johnny, at least give them some credit.


  11. Thanks for the shout-out to MftHoS, a long-running “space music” program.

    “Scherzo” is Italian for ‘jest.’ The term refers to a movement in a symphony (or similar piece) that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Huntley/Brinkley theme, now being used on Peacock service promos, is from the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

    The more you know…


  12. I remember listening to this soundtrack on a loop for probably two solid years. I hoped it would convince my parents that they wanted to watch the movie every day. The only thing my mom ultimately took away from it was one line from the flying sequence:

    ME: Hey, you guys want to watch Superman tonight?
    MOM: Can you read my mind?
    ME: That’ll be a no.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The approach to Krypton music may sound suspiciously similar to the venerated 2001 theme, but it’s not entirely Williams’ fault- Richard Donner asked for something with that feel.


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