Before Rogue One came out, I remember reading some excited comments on Reddit amounting to a score wishlist from Giacchino. Most of that wishlist came true: first and foremost, Darth Vader’s theme got a good showing (Krennic’s Aspirations and Hope). This is like shooting a whale in a teacup; Giacchino could have stuck in an Imperial quote played by a Peruvian pan flute and made the crowd go wild.
The finer points of the A New Hope score that the aforementioned comment hoped for were the insidious minor-third motif (which I hadn’t really taken notice of before) and the over-the-top Death Star flourish.
To my delight, Krennic’s Aspirations fulfilled the former almost gleefully. Giacchino really did his homework, I imagine. However, the Death Star motif didn’t get any showing that I can remember. In fact, the Death Star doesn’t seem to have any particular musical motif for itself in Rogue One since it is rarely the focal point in this movie.
A shower thought came over me tonight: the 2 firings of the Death Star provide a musical foil to each other from film to film. The cue Destruction of Alderaan is chock-full of dramatic tension, whirling up and down the heartstrings before culminating in a shocking and angry resolution in which Leia’s home is destroyed. The big ending to The Battle of Yavin evokes Holst (a bit like the opening Tantive IV chase) with no less bombast, going for the wholesale brass fortissimo to keep the audience engaged.
Compare these 2 examples against how things played out in Rogue One. In Star-dust, the quiet, almost nonchalant destruction of Jedha is just background noise while Jyn tearfully reconnects virtually with her father. One of the quickest genocides in galactic history plays out over quiet piano chords with minimal orchestral work. The cue and scene are serene, because the emotional crux of the scene lies between Jyn and the unreachable Galen. In Your Father Would Have Been Proud, the rate of mickey-mousing drops below zero as a choir layers a slow-paced cue over the abrupt destruction of the upper Citadel tower (and the death of Orson Krennic). Again, the action need not be frenzied because the outcome is inescapable. Jyn and Cassian have no way out; all they can do is collapse on the beach and wait for their time to come, soaring away on a heroic refrain of Jyn’s theme. The Death Star is mostly irrelevant in the scheme of things, having failed to interrupt the rebel transmission.
Compare the cues against each other and you see that we lose nothing by the omission of the quasi-motif of the New Hope Death Star. Rather, the musical blindness to the Death Star prevents the audience from being distracted by what is the largest on-screen object, enhancing the flow of the story.