One can be restrained and say that John Williams is simply the most successful and important film composer in history: there are his indelible scores for starwars, perhaps the most important soundtrack ever written; Shark, Harry PotterSuperman and practically the entire filmography of Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones, E.T. Jurassic ParkSchindler’s List… He has won five Oscars, received nominations for another 52 and adds awards reserved for very few, such as the Presidential Medal of Arts, the American Film Institute prize for a lifetime or the 2020 Princess of Asturias. At 90 years old, who turns this February 8, John Towner Williams (Long Island, New York, 90 years old) is, at least, the most acclaimed living composer in history.
All this being conservative. Being a little more generous, it can be said that the now nonagenarian Williams now draws another shadow over his times, much longer and more difficult to avoid; that of a key artist to understand current music, a titan who, by telling stories with the orchestra, has managed to assimilate centuries of musical tradition and renew them with his own applauded voice. Yes, for a great box office but also, lately, for the aristocracy of cultured music around the world. His compositions seem in recent years to have transcended the films they accompany and are heard in auditoriums as inaccessible as the Vienna Musikverein, where living composers are not normally performed, or the Berlin Philharmonic. His chamber music is also recorded on prestigious labels. The man disparagingly called “the one with StarWars” for decades creating works enjoyed by the masses (his films have grossed $20 billion at the global box office) is now a world-class music label.
His is the not very frequent story of someone who, with no particular pedigree, has reached the most closed circles of music. Williams was a teenager with red curls who slept by the piano in his parents’ garage on Vantage Avenue in Los Angeles, where his family had moved in 1947 from New York to play in Hollywood orchestras. Sleeping next to the piano gives a good account of the weight that music had in the life of young Williams. He played in a band jazz“the hottest in Hollywood” according to the magazine Time in 1949, he rode jam sessions at home, he went to concerts and, when not, accompanied his father, a percussionist, to the recordings of countless soundtracks, especially those of Bernard Herrmann for Alfred Hitchcock. He was not seen on the beach or in the bowling alley. Only music.
He still maintains a similar devotion today. Perhaps with fewer concerts, but he still writes, with monastic dedication, daily and in pencil, sitting at the piano: except for a few Sundays, Williams composes every day since he was young, for pleasure, although later what he wrote ends up in the garbage. He studied composition with Mateo Castelnuovo-Tedesco –teacher of other film giants such as André Previn, Henry Mancini or Jerry Goldsmith– and piano at Juilliard with Rosina Lhevinne. He, too, forged himself during four years of military service, arranging marches (it’s no coincidence that many of his most memorable songs, those of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones or Superman, are in that form).
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However, the musical fullness came not from the studio but from the trauma, which he suffered as he was already a regular signature in the Hollywood mid-range: on March 3, 1974, his wife, the actress Barbara Ruick (Carousel), He died suddenly, at the age of 43, of a cerebral hemorrhage. She and Williams had been married for 18 years and had three children. “Before that moment, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Later, my writing, my way of understanding music, everything she did, became clear. What was she going to use the little talent she had received? It was a huge emotional change in my life, let’s put it that way, one that showed me who I was, ”she confessed in 2014 during a talk for the American Film Academy. Atheist, she turned to the lack of another god in her music, what else, and this never sounded the same.
The change was first noticed in a violin concerto that he composed in memory of Ruick between 1974 and 1976, perhaps his most rounded work and certainly the purest distillation of his style, atonal and expressive, outside the demands of a film. But it was also heard in the cinema, where, in addition to his already proven technical expertise and ear for charismatic melodies, he revealed a new ability to move deeply with music now more lyrical, clearer, more alive. He signed the legendary Shark and the first starwars, two Oscars and his leap to stardom (and that of their respective directors, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who still today claim that they owe everything to their main composer). later they would arrive Matches in the third phase (re-mi-do-do-sol) and Superman. At 48 years old, John Williams had one foot in history.
In cinema, his success has been due to the cunning with which he has understood the ground where he stepped. Wagner, Stravinsky and Strauss each inspired, in their own way, the early Hollywood composers, the Viennese Erich W. Korngold and Max Steiner; the latter, above all, was the one who established the cinema sound with the sheet music Gone with the Wind, King Kong or White House and from him Williams learned to set music under dialogue and sound effects, the most difficult part of a soundtrack, and, very especially, to give a melody or chord to each character or key concept of a film. Williams has trained his audience to listen thematically. If Darth Vader is mentioned in a scene, even a child recognizes the Imperial March which will play in the background. Same thing with the lost items Indiana Jones, the magic of Harry Potter, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park: melodies that are simple on the surface, but complex in rhythm and harmony, so versatile that they serve, without being deformed, for both a tense moment and a dramatic one as well as a sentimental one. spielberg calls Max to Williams by Steiner.
The leitmotiv became the ultimate vehicle for New Yorker talent and made the music of starwars something historical. In a cycle of nine soundtracks, each about two hours long, there are more than 60 themes for characters, places and ideas, and some 50 recurring musical ideas with different dramatic meanings (musicologist Frank Lehman has added them up). They are so recognizable that, towards the end of the saga, the filmmakers openly lean on them. It is not necessary to explain with dialogue that Kylo Ren, the villain of the most recent films, is thinking of his mother, Princess Leia, when deciding whether or not to blow up the ship in which she is located: the orchestra clearly sounds the theme of the princess and that underlining is enough. It is impossible to find music with so much narrative weight in the history of cinema. The melodies are evocative (they drink from established musical languages), interesting (they contain the devilish metrics of the jazz) but, above all, they contain soul. They breathe real life and love into fictional universes and inner worlds.
While this technique was successful in Hollywood, Williams was generally despised by much of the establishment musical. His love of tradition and clarity made him, to them, a peddler of tunes for spaceships, computer effects, children, and the masses. At most, an astute technician who had popularized ideas from Berg, Stravinsky, Bartok or Britten. Now, however, when orchestras are once again considered cloying in Hollywood and a sound that is more ambient than dramatic is preferred, Williams’ music has gained a second life in auditoriums today full of performers, conductors and critics who have reached the symphonic to through starwars or Harry Potter: there is, for example, the considered best young composer in the United States, Andrew Norman, who always admits having been interested in music after seeing the galactic saga as a child.
Williams has been invited to play his film classics in Vienna (2020) and Berlin (2021), and in 2023 he will do so at La Scala in Milan, after premiering, this year, the fifth Indiana Jones and the new Spielberg movie. Anne-Sophie Mutter, the impeccable violinist, has recorded her songs and will premiere her new work for violin in March, again at the Musikverein and again with him under the baton. Gustavo Dudamel, who calls Williams “the Mozart of our times,” conducted his classics with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2019.
Perhaps academic recognition is secondary for someone who has managed to move billions of people around the world with his music, who has given voice to the imagination of various creators and awakened countless musical vocations. Perhaps that, which no one ever denied him, is reward enough. At the end of its European premiere, at that concert in Vienna in January 2020, after playing the Imperial March in a Musikverein brimming with critics and dignitaries, people fascinated by the New Yorker’s technique, or seduced by his evocative power, the musicians of the strictest orchestra in the world put down their instruments and approached the plethoric and sweaty old man. They wanted his autograph. At 90 years old, John Williams is not a key composer in the cinema, he is a key composer in history.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.