It used to be said, back in the Hollywood days when Alfred Newman was head of music at the Fox studios, that he was the king of music award nominations – by my count, 45 Oscar nominations for 255 films. But now comes John Williams – 52 nominations so far. In twelve of those years, he had double nominations, his own scores competing against one another; in one year, 1995, he had three nominations all at once. This is unprecedented for any artist in any category of the motion picture awards. Not only in the music category, then, John Williams is alone at the top. He's been invited to write for many of the classical virtuosos of our time: Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Luciano Pavarotti; not to mention jazz greats like Stan Kenton and Toots Thielmann. This kind of dominance would seem to indicate that there is simply no serious competition around him these days in film scoring. Among the current crop are talented music people who have been successful at applying various appropriate sounds to various films, but precious few know how to compose and score with any complexity or insight – or to make real music that can hold-up on its own. And so, year after year, there's his name on the nominations list, not even for his best work, but just because the field is so pale by comparison. Of course, he did have the advantage of being trained right in the heart of the studio system, sometimes at the right hand of the aforementioned Alfred Newman. So, his dominance now is not just by comparison to juniors. A lot of his secret has been a story of hard work, keen observation and sheer productivity.
John Williams is 88 as I write this, and his first Oscar nomination was exactly fifty years ago, now. His recording sessions, these days, are closed to press and patrons to preserve his energy, and yet he goes on. But where did such a conqueror come from? It's not enough to say that he worked his way up through the Hollywood studio ranks, although that apprenticeship explains part of the story. I propose to review the record here, like some defense attorney; gather evidence, consult witnesses, and even have the defendant testify on his own behalf.
John Williams's preparatory years don't seem like a major composer's story. Born in Queens, NY in 1932, the son of a percussionist, he learned to read music and practice piano at home. "I used to sit in the basement of our house in Flushing, Long Island, and pore over orchestration books", he once told 'Ovation Magazine' (6/83; 12-15). "I'd apply the principles of Rimsky-Korsakov to the pop tunes of 1940 and 1941." By the time he was sixteen, his father took them all out to California, determining to find steadier work as a percussionist in one of the movie studio music departments. By then, music was becoming a greater interest for the teen Johnny and, so, he decided to commit to a music major at LA City College and, later, UCLA. The renowned Robert Van Epps was teaching him orchestration in those early years but he had begun to consider a pianist's career, either as a jazzman or even a classical soloist.
A stint in the US Air Force hijacked his late teens but, on returning to civilian life, he auditioned at Manhattan's Juilliard School and trained there with the great piano empresario Rosina Lhevinne. She was encouraging but she was "a reality check" too. As he told me once, "I don't think I ever believed I was extrovert enough or good enough to have a career as a pianist". He described hearing, in one of the adjacent practice rooms, the rehearsal sounds of the young keyboard virtuoso John Browning "and thought perhaps I should consider another profession! Plus, I was always lured by the orchestra".
After a year at Juilliard with extra music theory classes, Williams hit the road as a band manager/arranger for touring pop crooners like Vic Damone or even the gospel-great, Mahalia Jackson for whom he arranged seven record albums. One singer he met at this time in the mid-1950s would become his future wife, Barbara Ruick, and they would settle in Hollywood. (Barbara can be seen in the role of Carrie in the film musical, Carousel.) Like his father, he would find work in some of the movie studio music departments helping soundtrack composers with their music for TV shows and supplementing that work with gigs as a pianist around town for jazz guys like Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, and Bud Shank. In the studios, he would play the piano parts in scores by veteran composers like Alfred Newman ("Who always wrote beautifully, I thought, for films.") or Bernard Herrmann ("Benny was encouraging; he never flattered but he encouraged me.") Even more than encouraging – in fact, downright championing of Johnny – was another classically trained jazz pianist and rising film composer, Andre Previn, roughly his contemporary (three years older), whose eventual influence on him was, I will be suggesting here, considerable. Certainly, Previn was more extrovert, to use Williams's word. He had a broader European education, a passive/aggressive personality, an active career as a recording pop-pianist -- and he was scoring dramatic films under his own name – goals that Johnny, so far, coveted only as a spectator.
The late 1950s is where the Williams evidence begins to spill out of that introductory file and becomes its own story. I first became aware of Williams as the session-pianist on Henry Mancini's innovative jazz-based scores for the TV detective series, Peter Gunn (1958-1961) and on three of Mancini's subsequent jazz-pop record albums. What Mancini appreciated in Williams's playing was his combination of sparse-but-sophisticated improvisation and, somewhere in the midst of his solos, a composer's know-how of what chords to employ in support of the tune under consideration there. On Mancini's impeccable album from 1960 called "Combo", scored for just eleven players, you can hear Williams winging it on jazz-harpsichord. I always found his piano playing on those dates to be satisfying in conjunction with the other experienced soloists; he was aware of how to fit into the arrangements without taking over; perhaps a bit hesitant and simple as a soloist, but ultimately effective. As the 1960s took off, Mancini switched to the more stylish, subtle, and jazz-savvy pianist Jimmy Rowles and a series of ever more ambitious records ensued. But that was not because Johnny Williams was being overruled as a Mancini regular – it was just that Williams was starting to get offers to write some screen scores of his own. And, by my hearing, his fledgling soundtrack work shows the influence of the two mentors already mentioned here: Henry Mancini and, soon, Andre Previn.
The Mancini model can be heard, first, when Williams began to score a 1959 TV mystery series, Checkmate, lifting the jazz-pop style from Peter Gunn, though sounding a bit more formal; more in the tradition of a studio orchestra than of a big band or combo. His blends were smooth and his orchestral settings showed a broad academic education, even if his melodies were not as natural, and his interaction with the screen was not as original, as Mancini. At the same time, though, he was learning how to score TV westerns like Wagon Train, police shows like M Squad, and comedies like Gilligan's Island and The Tammy Grimes Show, each genre having its own musical needs and its own clichés to memorize (then, later, to avoid). "I had to write about 20 to 25 minutes of music a week", Williams remembered; "then score it and record it. A tremendous learning opportunity, though".
Before too long, a few small-budget theatrical films were willing to take him on as composer – teen-oriented titles like Because They're Young (teen hipster music with bongos, et.al.) or Gidget Goes to Rome (with lots of accordions in the score); suburban comedies like Bachelor Flat, or urban dramas like Nightmare in Chicago (suspense music in gray tones). He was glad to get the work and to see how the visual medium of film absorbed the medium of music. What he wanted, though, was to try his hand at a higher calling: scoring A-list motion pictures like his other mentor and pal, Andre Previn – narrative scoring; storytelling music.
Although I set his true emancipation as a major film composer some six years after this period, I trace his first efforts in that direction to his Previn-inspired score for the 1963 melodrama Diamond Head. A brace of French horns attempts to set an epic tone at the beginning of the film and there are two main motifs that will appear throughout the score, hoping to tie it all together: one is a wafting, tropical island song (not by Williams but by Hugo Winterhalter) and the other is a more serious, modal and rather Previn-like "problem" motif. These themes and motives are not varied, but the narrative music throughout the film draws on them, giving at least an impression of integration, though Williams has not quite come to that level of mature scoring; not quite up to Previn's experience yet. Previn, in his best film scores, had used a motif approach, too, but he had also been as careful with his narrative music – the merely illustrative background music -- as with his themes. This made his scores like Elmer Gantry (1960) or Irma La Duce (1963) exciting and orchestrally alive, all the way through – not just when they were pushing a tune. Previn was also willing to go further and explore dissonance and modal themes, if the film allowed it, such as in his complex score to Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) where the faint awareness of Shostakovich can be heard as different keys jostle-and-resolve at will. Johnny Williams's Diamond Head was certainly not up to that level, but it aspired to be.
I take all these examples and comparisons as evidence that, right from his beginnings in Hollywood, Williams was ambitious beyond the easy-listening love themes and conventional tension- music he had been hearing during other guys' scoring sessions. Ambitious like Previn but, as he had once said, he just had a more introverted, long-term way of pursuing it.
I hear nothing special in the rest of his TV work from those days – series like Flying Spikes, The Virginian, The Wide Country -- although there is a spark in his music for the 1965 kids' series Lost in Space with its dotted-note fanfare: half-heroic (leaps of major 4ths and minor 9ths) and half-amused (playful tumbling lines and a mock-robot sound). As a hum-able theme, it was not strong, but as an orchestral setting and a curtain-raiser, it recommended its composer. And so, when he finally was chosen to score a major film, the caper-comedy with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, How to Steal a Million, you can hear his enthusiasm and confidence in how he has chosen to emulate his mentors: you hear Mancini's way with a glamorous, opening melody assigned to a distinctive solo instrument (in this case, some splashy and difficult solo piano decoration), and you hear some Previn-approved counterpoint along the way. Mostly, it is a pop score with rich fashion-show harmonies and glitz – but appropriate for its film and noticeable for itself.
As Williams's Checkmate music had drawn on the Peter Gunn model, two of his mid-1960s comedy scores were copying a page from the wider Mancini catalogue: multi-tuneful, clean and carefully balanced big band scores, unique only when, for instance, Williams would layer-in strings over the samba in a sunny poolside scene or put his own spin on a '60s rock 'n roll song for the femme fatale comedy Penelope. Better yet was his cool, big band song, written with Johnny Mercer called "Big Beautiful Ball" from the farce, Not with My Wife, You Don't. Once, I asked him about songwriting per se and about comedy scoring in general: "Certainly, I think of myself as an orchestral writer first", he said, "and a composer who writes songs, when asked, second. As far as comedy scores that I admire, I remember one in particular that I worked on years ago as a pianist for a man whom I admired very much in those days – Adolph Deutsch – and the picture was Some Like It Hot. Deutsch always used to say that music shouldn't try too hard to be funny itself, otherwise one would have something on the level of Tom-and-Jerry. I think I believe this: If a scene in a film is funny, I would almost prefer to leave it unscored unless, of course, it is some kind of slapstick or burlesque where music can provide, in a balletic sense, tempo." With that much know-how in his bag-of-tricks, to me it all seemed to prove that, by this time in his history, Williams was ready with any kind of writing, whether for the traditional full orchestra or studio jazz-pop players. He would release a pop album of his own in 1961, "Rhythm in Motion", and arrange/conduct another with Andre Previn at the piano, circa 1965, called "Music of the Young Hollywood Composers" offering film themes from Previn, Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Michel Legrand, etc. in clean, conservative, easy-listening versions.
But Previn was even more restless than Williams, looking for ways to legitimize himself in the concert world, negotiating with a series of symphony orchestras for conducting gigs. He urged Williams to do the same – at least to devote himself more seriously to writing concert music. (Previn conducted Williams's first symphony in Houston in the '60s and again in London in the '70s.) Williams has commented on his own relationship to classical composing: "I've always felt that my efforts in that area were, more than anything, exercises in self-instruction and self-development, presenting myself with opportunities that I wouldn't have in the restricted field of composing film music. I certainly value both fields, though; concert and screen music." But, unlike Previn, his concert work didn't have to be limited to the classical realm. I'm thinking of his ten-minute piece of progressive big band jazz, "Prelude and Fugue", composed for Stan Kenton's Neophonic Orchestra. It opens with free-form atonal comments by various solo winds, like dots around a canvas. Those sounds consolidate gradually as brass build to a screaming climax; a slow walking bass-line moves-in, then, behind a chromatic motif, as close to a theme as this work will get. There's a development section, a second brass-climax, and an eventual return to the free-form winds in retreat, leaving a kind of Medieval air because of the narrow harmonic of the whole piece.
Even though he never left film scoring behind for very long, upon returning from such concert work, Williams always approached the next film project with the same spirit of creativity as he had conjured for the concert hall. His 1967 score for the trivial comic film, Fitzwilly, surprised even the film's producers by amounting to, of all things, a formidable baroque orchestral suite – not "funny" music, as Deutsch had warned about, but ironically classical and elitist music – that's the joke: part Scarlatti and Handel; part opera buffo but, in any case, way more energetic, focused, and participatory than the film (featuring Dick van Dyke as a butler who has to commit robberies to save his boss) had ever asked for. Consequently, the music lifted the whole film a couple of quality-notches and, as a happy biproduct, made people wonder about the composer: could such a formal and concert-worthy piece of scoring come from a guy called Johnny?
1967 also gave Williams a chance to connect with Andre and (current wife) Dory Previn on one of the Previns's last Hollywood contracts, the box-office bomb Valley of the Dolls. Williams would orchestrate and conduct what ended-up being an attractively sensitive score with a hit theme song recorded by Dionne Warwick and others. If nothing else, the project brought the two fast friends together one last time, then sent them off in their own separate directions for good – Previn to become the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra -- and Williams, at last, off to tackle big-time TV and a big-budget film where, as it turned out, fate awaited him.
As a special TV movie event, Delbert Mann's 1968 production of the children's novel Heidi had attracted international investment for its re-broadcast potential and its global cast. The only evidence I can find as to why the still-unsung, still-known-as-Johnny Williams got the commission to score this major project is that it was a co-production between Europe's Omnibus Films and the American CBS network which had also owned Lost in Space. Although Williams was not allowed to conduct Heidi's soundtrack (Eberhardt Soblick conducted a Hamburg orchestra), the lavish and pictorial music he provided gave the broadcast the necessary scope and class, as though it were a theatrical feature film, and earned its only Emmy Award that year. He kept his themes kid-simple and in a romantic style emphasizing winds and strings but giving the six French horn players the major task of representing Heidi's noble Alpine setting. Any angular harmonies may have derived from such past concert classics as Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony" or a few leftover influences of Andre Previn.
A second Omnibus TV film aimed at the same international network came two years later and would earn Williams his second Emmy Award for Best Score, Jane Eyre. His music, this time, in an absolutely legit 19th century English milieu, incorporated a compelling minor-key misterioso for harpsichord and strings, a plush romantic piano love theme, a polite string quartet playing a piece of parlor music, and a riveting scherzo that took the studio orchestra several 'takes' (with Williams allowed to conduct, this time) to get its tricky time signatures right. Eventually, Williams would mention this score as one of his own personal favorites and I have Previn on tape enthusing about it.
But this is also the time, 1969-1970, of what I hold to be the composer's breakout score and the one film for which his own on-screen credit finally reads "John Williams" as though announcing his graduation from resourceful apprentice to composer-in-charge. This is the film adaptation of William Faulkner's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Reivers -- directed by the young former-actor Mark Rydell (Crime in the Streets-1955) – the Americana story of a charismatic rascal in the old South, circa 1905, who borrows the family's new motor car to joyride to the big city. His eleven-year-old cousin tags along. A conventional Americana music score – some Copland; some dialect instruments like banjo and harmonica and slide guitar – was all that was required for such a film. Indeed, that's what the original composer, Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), had given them. But, when the producers saw how Rydell's film projected so much 'heart' and a rich feeling for its Alabama/Mississippi settings, they felt it needed something more from its music track. Schifrin was fully capable of supplying a rewrite, but he was already off, working on concert commissions for a jazz quintet and a choral madrigal piece. Williams, with his Heidi award in-hand, was called instead.
Those localized sounds of banjo, harmonica and slide guitar are key elements in Williams's score for The Reivers, but they are just condiments to what is actually a large-scale symphonic portrait of the American south, laced with bayou tunes and a whole lot of joyous orchestral energy that one critic described as "so fresh, it sounds like it was conducted with a fishing rod in country air!" Its elements: a large, bright and breezy string section sometimes scored in unison lines, sometimes in open harmonics as if for a country hoe-down – raucous stomping rhythms for back-woods chase scenes featuring a crazy double-time figure on an old-time tin-piano – a pumping brass/strings gallop for a horse race scene -- a grand waltz for the unveiling of that brand new automobile, the fabulous Wynton Flyer – and some genuinely lovely pastoral music from the massed strings. Without such a fully-symphonic score, the film would have missed the narrative sweep and rich atmosphere of the Faulkner original: it would have just been a picaresque period comedy with a soft center – and a novelty vehicle for the star, Steve McQueen. So, it was The Reivers that officially turned the studio pianist Johnny Williams into John, the major film composer we take for granted today. It also garnered his first motion picture Academy Award nomination for Best Original Music Score. "The banjo parts, by the way, were both composed and improvised", Williams wanted to be sure I reported; "about 50% each, since the banjo player was not an expert reader. With regard to the inspiration that one may detect in The Reivers score, I think it must have had to do with the film itself, since I worked to a final print and not a graphic storyboard. Also, I find all of Rydell's pictures especially musical and, since Rydell himself is something of an amateur musician, the question of what kind of music was arrived at mutually. We have always collaborated very comfortably. Lastly, the fact that the little boy in the film looked exactly like my youngest son at the time of the creation of the movie may have had something to do with the affinity I felt for the film!"
Naturally, award nominations and the publicity that goes with them bring a whole new level of attention to an artist, and job offers start coming in from unexpected places. A case in point, one year later: when they adapted the iconic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof for the screen, the studio quickly recommended Williams. To supervise orchestral settings for those all-too-familiar songs would seem to be a thankless task, but Williams dug into the assignment with the energy of a newcomer, creating a vigorous and virtuosic rendition of the big opening number "Tradition!" and yet, elsewhere, distilling the Hebraic elements down to a gentle few for the plaintive paternal lullaby, "Little Bird", and scoring it to feature the pure violin sound of Isaac Stern. The whole experience would bring Williams his second Academy Award nomination (for scoring adaptation) and his first win.
After another film job for Mark Rydell, (The Cowboys, with its galloping Coplandesque score), the years 1972-4 would present two separate and opposing career opportunities. One tract brought his avant-garde side up for air, thanks to one abstract film and one progressive concert commission. The film was Robert Altman's bizarre tale, Images, about a modern woman lost in memories and hallucinations, mixing-up images of herself as a child, her husband, and two lovers. Altman hoped to disturb the viewer by replicating the woman's disoriented mind. It's all like a bad trip. In response. Williams's score rotated three elements that never blend but stand apart: (a) an obsessive piano-and-strings children's tune as Susannah York recites a nursery rhyme to herself; (b) a kind of avant garde essay for strings which seems to include every manipulation possible of a stringed instrument: plucked, tapped, muted, tremolo, jeté... by turns, sinister and violent and brooding; and (c) a cauldron of tonal percussive sounds produced by a set-up of stainless-steel rods, prisms, gongs, and glass tubes which are part of a standing sculpture by the artist Baschet, here being manipulated, being 'played,' by percussionist Stomu Yamashta. It's not right to say that those three streams – the sculpture sounds, the nursery tune in various arrangements, and the atonal string passages – mingle with one another. It is their very contrast that exemplifies the main character's mental imbalance. Williams would always refer to this score as a highlight of his career, but another Academy Award nomination for Best Score was its only public recognition.
Considering Images and string writing in general, Williams says, "You talk about the Images score as being almost a kind of extension of my concert piece, "Essay for Strings". I have often thought that I might make a second essay out of that material used in Images. I think, to my mind, strings make the purest music -- strings vibrating on a violin or a vocal-chord vibrating or the string of a keyboard instrument vibrating. I don't play a stringed instrument but I love them and I suppose this would explain whatever affinity I may have for them. I do play chamber music with violinist and cellist friends whenever possible."
The other aggressively progressive music of this period, sans strings this time, was his concert piece, "Sinfonia for Wind Ensemble", recorded on the prestigious classical label Deutsche Gramophone. This seventeen-minute, three-movement music relies on the precise placement of juxtaposed chords, solo wind entrances, and surprising combinations of winds, rather than on theme lines or performance to declare itself. Williams introduces high winds playing in clots of atonal harmony with a slow stepping meter underneath, then mid-range winds play the same clots with muted brass adding to the mix. At about the two-minute mark, the color darkens and brass add more tension, building in complexity and volume to about the six-minute mark where the work's 'problem motif' comes out, and the first movement (lento assai) ends. Three solo oboes twine around one another for the second movement's introduction; then atonal brass play cluster chords and that stepping meter returns, modified. Jangling sounds of glockenspiel and vibes introduce the third movement with timpani and some aggressive brass writing until an unexpected waltz figure intrudes from a piccolo against those jangling sounds. But not for long. The climax comes with brass and winds blotting thick chords; French horn calling out and winds adding-in, beginning to re-assert the central 'problem' of the piece before cresting to a crash.
Neither Williams's "Sinfonietta" nor his "Essay for Strings " stand-out from the rest of mid-century progressive music, but in their command of ensemble forces and careful design, they demand respect today and deserve to be heard, preferable to the other academic fad-music of its time – i.e. the bankrupt Collage-style or the elementary ideals of Minimalism. Williams had cause to be proud.
The other career tract of this period was unintentional and both a blessing as a big source of income and a curse as it got to be a kind of joke about him – that, for a while, he became the "King of the Disaster Films" – those star-studded apocalyptic melodramas, all made in a row during the 1970s, that purported to portray ordinary people under dire circumstances – a flood; a fire: Who will survive? How dire will it get?? The whole fad had begun in 1970, without John Williams, with an old-fashioned thriller about a bomb aboard an airplane: Ross Hunter's Airport. That film had Alfred Newman's music; in fact, it was his final score as that Golden Age generation gave way to the Williamses of the future. Disaster films, then, suddenly became a genre all their own, and a craze. The second disaster film went to Williams: 1972's The Poseidon Adventure about an ocean liner smacked sideways by a tidal wave and now floating helplessly upside down in the middle of the sea. Its hundreds of passengers would have to work their way through the ship's innards, up towards the hull, hoping to cut their way out of what used to be the bottom of the ship, to find the sky. The compelling score wisely stays away from the passengers' personal stories or any direct depiction of the disaster, rendering instead the suspense and the ominous natural forces around everyone – that is, the encroaching sea. Meanwhile, the inverted ship lists and bobs and is gradually sinking.
To mimic the push-and-pull of the tide, Williams composed an undulating, surging figure for low strings and brass that laps at regular tidal intervals. And for the overall seascape, he borrowed (or independently discovered the value of) a particular modulation-device heard in another film score about a fateful sea journey: Ralph Vaughan-Williams's music for Scott of the Antarctic (1948) that so effectively evoked the boundless and bottomless fathoms of ocean below the ice. Most of Williams's functional score for The Poseidon Adventure was not the violent stuff we would come to associate with disaster scenes, but the more suspenseful, weighty sounds of the bottom half of the orchestra, underlining a sense of constant peril rather than of explosive action. (Williams: "Your assessments, relative to my motives in Poseidon, are certainly correct. As far as any connection between my score and Vaughan-Williams's Antarctica, I would say two things. First, my admiration and affinity for his music is great. Fortunately, disasters have a universal significance, in that all human-kind is subject to their affects and, therefore, the subject of a disaster is, in that sense, larger than melodrama. Poseidon and Antarctica also share in common the vastness of the sea, tidal waves, continental ice cracks, etc. This connection that you make between the two Williamses flatters me greatly!")
And lest it be thought I am critical of the notion of film composers "borrowing" from well-known classical works, or just referencing them in the process of fashioning an expressive soundtrack, I should mention several places in Williams's oeuvre where he has done this with very positive results, exploiting the legitimate and effective affinities (to use his other favorite word) between existing pieces: the heraldic "Throne Room" music from Star Wars which is an obvious paraphrase of William Walton's processional anthem in The First of the Few; his love theme from Superman which is straight out of Richard Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration". Meanwhile, a whole college class could be taught on the match-ups between the bike-chase music or the farewell crescendos at the end of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and the last movement of Howard Hanson's emotional "Symphony No. 2" from 1930. These references and borrowings are not dodges or cheap hand-me-downs; they are valid and, for those who recognize the repertoire, exciting examples of the interconnectedness of all music.
For a third disaster film, 1974's Earthquake, Williams wrote modestly with the same subtle, hands-off philosophy as for Poseidon. The main selling point of this film had been the idea that the audience could experience low rumblings from some specially-installed Dolby SurroundSound speakers in each movie theater to simulate an earthquake during the show (while, on screen, a shaky camera, computer-generated images of crumbling buildings and actors with panicked expressions were supposed to complete the illusion). Again, Williams stayed away from the havoc on screen, addressing only a few quiet concepts: a rather sad, reflective piano theme for the human element, and a rather more hopeful city theme for Los Angeles recovering from the quake and looking toward the dawn.
The most active disaster film score, then, comes as Williams's next entry in this unintended series, The Towering Inferno – another star-studded thriller in which a proud corporate high-rise building goes up in smoke. I note two features of this inferno scoring that make it a positive example of the high rise of John Williams: (a) its exciting and well-shaped opening title cue, introducing us to the aggressive urban landscape – concert-worthy music that pulses with all the urgency and bravado of a big city newscast, and (b) the strength and solidity of the film's functional scoring, or what Previn was calling "busy music" which, although it's just there to keep the action going and keep the tension up, also makes musical sense and has its own logic: it's not just a series of transitions and set-ups and climaxes.
But even in Hollywood, the land of make-believe, Reality is never quite replaced by fiction and fantasy. Here, in the mid-1970s, John Williams would find Real Life about to interpose itself on all his new-found success: it had disasters of its own to impart, now. For, 1974 would especially be remembered for the unexpected death of his wife, Barbara. As a measured and modest personality, Williams made no public acknowledgment of his loss. Instead, he packed up those feelings, personal and private, and put them into some especially intimate music – true disaster music: a genuinely heartfelt "Violin Concerto", dedicated to Barbara; music eventually premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony with Mark Peskanov as soloist. Intensely posed questions of love and loss focus this concerto somewhere between atonality and romanticism, though its ultimate effect on the savvy listener is one of neoclassicism. His orchestral textures are clear, and the voice of the soloist is lyrical, while an elegiac mood pervades, especially in the middle movement marked "in peaceful contemplation". Solo French horn repeats the violin's main motif, with flute and viola comments; then the full orchestra takes up the tragedy, and the violin pursues the same emotion from many sides. Whether under Slatkin's or the composer's baton, public performances by Shaham and, later, by Mark Peskanov, navigated the piece with consistently warm results. It is a work that holds up as affecting music to this day, deserving to be programmed again by other orchestras, other soloists, even though it's "only by a film composer".
One more disaster would come during this same period – a career misstep to aggravate the personal trial Williams had just been through: I am thinking of his failed foray into the world of the Broadway musical. The production, which never made it past a London try-out performance, was supposed to be a smart, tuneful (17 songs) period-piece about Thomas Becket, Britain's 12th century martyr/priest with a script by Edward Anhalt, lyrics by James Harbert (sic) and a score by Williams; Thomas and the King. It's unfair to call the whole project a disaster but, for those involved, it was certainly a downer. Audiences came to the London theater out of curiosity; but critics only stayed out of courtesy: its dramaturgy, they said "lacks a definable style"; choreography "is lackluster"; musical score "doesn't rise above the serviceable". One fellow composer who respected Williams's career as a whole told me, diagnosing the problem, that "he just can't write a memorable tune". I didn't bother to quote, back to him, the number of Williams "tunes" that I could easily remember, nor how much trouble that critic-composer always had, trying to write his own memorable melodies. Certainly, in writing Thomas and the King, Williams had been trying for more than just "tunes" -- still, as a creative project, it failed, putting a final seal on a bad time. But right around the corner, was 1975.
Just as no one can predict disaster, no one could have foreseen the number of massive successes that were waiting around the corner for John Williams from 1975, on. First, would be his association with the break-out hit movie by Steven Spielberg, Jaws, the tale of a Great White shark terrorizing vacationers at an East Coast beach resort; a modern version of a Grand Guignol nightmare with its own mindless, remorseless villain. Spielberg's forte as director was audience manipulation – to confine, then surprise, then appall and gross-out, then excite and finally release his viewers, very much like an amusement park ride. Jaws turned out to be his perfect vehicle for such antics. As for scoring options, a composer could have either supported the adventure as Korngold or Rozsa would have done, or somehow tried to get inside the panic and inflate it. Williams, of course, chose the latter.
Mass audiences who had never noticed film music before, here found themselves able to recognize William's vivid shark motif on the soundtrack and to anticipate it: double basses repeating just two notes – E to F – then, an ominous silence; then E/F/E; then again, with the pauses becoming more worrisome, the motif hardening into accented strokes; the E/F sawing back and forth and coming-on faster, soon baited by a hollow drum and sharp brass hits; then a three-note warning from a tuba in a foreign key. Once the rest of the orchestra comes in, we understand the dimensions of the threat – that it isn't so mindless after all: in fact, this shark has an agenda. By now, Williams has single-handedly taught the nervous viewer to beware of each return of that E/F motif because it's linked to the presence of the shark. And, of course, now he can manipulate us at will, both by presenting the motif as a false-alert to trick us when no threat is near, and by withholding it, only to have the shark spring out of nowhere and scare us to death.
But the invention of that motif, what Berlioz used to call an ideé fixe – a repeated motif used as a narrative gimmick – is really only an ingenious conceit of this soundtrack. The real accomplishment is the virtuosity and precision of the functional score, the orchestral writing which encompasses some downright primitive Stravinskian siege-music, a seafaring fugue of some complexity, and an heroic chase taken by the orchestra at a thrilling 60 knots. This is film scoring that not only narrates but takes-over its film, while also maintaining its own compositional integrity and interest. The addition of a magical impressionistic underwater nocturne and a buoyant sea-chanty to satirize the blissfully naïve tourist population are yet more scoring features that signify this Jaws score as one of the fifty best screen soundtracks ever. (Further proof of Williams's integrity is that, when they produced an unnecessary sequel in 1978, Jaws II, while the shark motif returned, the rest of his scoring was thoroughly new: two delightful new sea chanties, etc.)
As an A-level film composer now, he got the chance to score what turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock's final film, the mystery/comedy, Family Plot about a phony psychic who becomes involved tracking a real murderer. For the mysticism aspect of the script, the score has a dreamy, floating theme for female voices while, for the conventional detective angle, a crisp harpsichord sound conjures the feeling of a 19th century parlor game. It was clear that Family Plot was never going to challenge the serious history of Hitchcock and the score seemed to know that – in fact, it had the same transient glamor as the music for How to Steal a Masterpiece ten years earlier. It didn't bother to invest more.
1977, however, would prove to be the biggest emancipation for Williams, yet – his introduction to director/producer George Lucas and his mega-hit, Star Wars. Called "elaborate; imaginative" by critics in its day, this was Lucas's homage to the sci-fi space adventures of his youth – all the matinee flicks in which a young idealistic generation took on the imagined villains of the universe. In this case, virtue would triumph with the help of a sage, a couple of robots, an alien, and a kind of cowboy character who knows no fear. What was wanted for the soundtrack was rousing adventure music and what Williams proposed was a fully traditional symphonic score, descriptive and melodic, heroic, romantic, colorful and yet knowingly sophisticated – like Korngold had done for The Sea Hawk; like Rozsa had done for Thief of Bagdad. Thus, besides the blatant fanfare that became its opening theme, Star Wars got an intentional pastiche-score with those past soundtrack-examples in mind. More subtly, the score also rang with echoes of classic composers like Holst ("The Planets") and Prokofiev ("Juliet", "Alexander Nevsky") and, as I've already said, William Walton. More references can be found all the time: notice how the Princess Leia theme fairly purrs with likeness to Ravel's "Sheherazade". Intentionally and cleverly on Williams's part, no one was safe from such a grab-bag of musical tributes and tributaries. But that was part of the matinee-fun everyone was having.
Since Star Wars is so well known, it's unnecessary to rehearse its features here, except to note that its themes were plain, its orchestrations vast and facile (Lucas paid the London Symphony to record them) and it treated outer space as some exotic land, while treating warfare as the ultimate test of courage and manhood. With the enormous success of this style of scoring (the soundtrack record album sold four million copies), Williams had initiated, without meaning to, a whole renaissance of full-scale symphonic music in motion pictures – a rebirth, it was said, of the Golden Age that has now lasted well into the New Millennium and has spawned a whole generation of, alas, Williams imitators.
That same year, Andre Previn, who had long since moved on from the London Symphony to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony (later the Oslo Philharmonic; then, somewhat contentiously, the L.A. Philharmonic), in 1977 helmed a televised concert of film music excerpts and invited Williams onto the broadcast for a personal interview and to conduct the Pittsburghers in a Star Wars suite. And so, of course, from now on Williams became the chief epic-adventure film composer (Superman, Dracula, Far and Away, Raiders of the Lost Ark, War Horse, The Fury) and it began to seem as though all the big-budget scoring jobs were offered to him first. And even when others took his place, they were asked to write like him. Some critics began to grumble about what they considered the clichéd Williams themes – big blustery pronouncements based on the interval of the so-called "heroic 5th" and all that "busy music". So many of his scores for comic book fantasies or boyish adventure films could be accused of resorting to the same unadventurous C-major scales harmonized in simple thirds, and all those ubiquitous fanfare intros. Likewise, his pious or nationalistic music (Monsignor; The Patriot; Born on the 4th of July) seemed forced to some, culminating in the controversy over his Pops concert piece "America: the Dream Goes On" which, one orchestra member complained, was full of clichés – a rebellion that nearly led to Williams resigning. High Fidelity Magazine's writer "P.A.S." worried that Williams's film music had all become "slickly synthetic symphonic Muzak" – "more of the same stylistic sleight-of-hand". And yet, at the same time, another writer, summarizing film music history, concluded that the most important composers Hollywood had ever known were Korngold, Rozsa, Herrmann, Waxman, and Williams. Even after his skepticism in that High Fidelity article, P.A.S. concluded, "In truth, Williams has manipulated his malleable talents with enormous care, skill, taste, and ingenuity and he has successfully resisted a resort to self-plagiarism." (Hi-Fi; 9/1980, pg. 104) That's another way of saying that, although Williams does compose within a fairly conservative range of styles and grammar and of narrative/illustrative response, he usually well-matches the demeanor of each score to its film; music that's fitting and empathetic. By the same token, then, when he finds himself working on a disappointing film, the quality of his scoring instinctively retreats and weakens: titles like Empire of the Sun; Always; Heartbeeps; The Story of a Woman come to mind. But it also means that if a film aspires to some higher vision, Williams seems to encourage the effort with more inspired music, wanting to pull everyone up: thus, you have the magical scores to the Harry Potter series, the moving patriotic anthem at the heart of Saving Private Ryan or the abstract choral cluster-chords and washes of impressionism coming from Spielberg's Close Encounters. Indeed, the whole insightful score to Close Encounters only missed copping the Academy Award that year because Williams was already winning for Star Wars. Now, not only were colleagues competing for attention against him; now he was competing, as it were, against himself, alone at the top.
An issue of the industry journal, The Cue Sheet (Vol. 7, No.3), quoted the veteran Hollywood orchestrator Herbert Spencer, who had often worked on Williams scores, acknowledging the composer's dominance and detailing his admiration for Williams's knowledge and ability. There, he pinpointed a lot of technical details that I find crucial in differentiating Williams from so many of the other wanna-be film composers who may come up with themes but then have no idea how to actually score them. "I'd known him since he was younger", Spencer was saying; "since he was known as 'Johnny', but right away I noticed the quality of his writing. Very up-town. And when he finally did get his act together, he had it all. It was wonderful to see. You see a good mind working there... a full-grown, real composer (who knows how to write for the orchestra)... So many times, with other guys, you listen to a score and it sounds like the instruments have been transposed – written in an incorrect or an uncomfortable key because the guy doesn't do his homework – doesn't know where the strings sound best, how to blend the instruments and so forth. So, he scores in the wrong key where the strings don't sing there; they're playing on the middle strings with the wrong fingerings – all the flats – whereas John is very conscious of where things lay on the string and how to write effectively for each instrument; he's tremendously conscious of all that. He knows the classical repertoire, too, so players respect him and I, as an orchestrator, respect him. John generally makes a very good (compositional) sketch. If you look at it carefully, all the information is there... I must say, my last years with John Williams have been the most enjoyable of all. Truly."
And the whole story I've been outlining here is only the first half of John Williams's career. Two major occurrences, which bring this case-file to its half-time climax, come from the early 1980s. One is his decision to sign a contract – a non-Hollywood contract, perhaps after the example of Andre Previn – to become the permanent conductor of a major concert orchestra, the Boston Pops, of whose thorny history, more at another time. The other occurrence, returning to the spaced-out world of Spielberg movies, is Williams's composing the most sensational example of what music can do for a film, 1982's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. So crucial was this music to both supporting and humanizing its film, that even the staid and self-important audience at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of the film found themselves cheering like kids at one point in the movie's climactic bicycle-chase sequence. Music did that.
The story of E.T. takes a 10-year-old boy as its hero and combines several genres into one tale: thriller, sci-fi serial, space opera, wild west yarn, and treasure-map mystery where only the kid knows the secret of the plot. Here, the boy Elliott becomes the trusted liaison of a friendly, inquisitive alien from another galaxy, E.T., who lands – where else would Spielberg's generation have it? – in suburbia USA, and the story then cleverly and sensitively compares the extra-terrestrial visitor (who's lost on Earth and trying to communicate with his own mother-ship), to Elliott. Though pampered in an upper-middle-class household with more toys and siblings and prospects than most kids in the world will ever have, Elliot misses his divorced father and feels lost. Spielberg knows exactly how to exploit the sweetness of that childhood scenario and the magic of the space-milieu, even as he once exploited our fear of sharks – and so does John Williams. E.T. has all the classic B-movie suspense but with a breathless 1980s pace, some occasional humor, and a not-too-scary villain – in this case, the Government authorities who want to confiscate E.T. first, and understand him later.
So now it's boyhood innocence against another mindless antagonist, the power of the Feds. All of that, Williams understands, and there is not a single aspect that I have just described that's not represented in his score. It is not what you'd call advanced composition. It relies on all the soundtrack clichés that P.A.S. was worrying about in his High Fidelity article – busy music when E.T. is on the run, the usual blatant main theme whose first two notes span the heroic 5th again; there's anachronistic piano music to accompany the sight of Elliott and E.T. magically airborne on a bicycle. But there are darker hues, too, as it begins to look like E.T. will become the victim of human xenophobia; and there is a humorously bitonal cue as E.T. steps out into the suburban neighborhood to experience Halloween. Above all, there is the big-hearted, eventually soaring music which fills and warms the theater at the film's emotional goodbye scenes once E.T. has found his ride home. It is the only time I've ever been to the cinema where, as the lights went up following the gushing music at the end, there actually were children weeping in the aisles for the sentiment of it all, and parents trying to comfort them. This is Spielberg's talent for benign manipulation, of course, but let it be said that it is also the power of film scoring and the wisdom of Williams. The two major characteristics of great film music are there: the master craftsmanship of composition and the personal sincerity and commitment of the composer to the story on screen.
Williams's desire to communicate, whether through sentimental family-friendly music, a very personal violin concerto, atonal concert experiments, or heroic anthems and fanfares, must be what has sustained and inspired him for so long, and leaves him, now, pretty much alone at the top. For the second half of his career, he would set himself new goals – including that stint as a Pops conductor presenting music directly to the public for a change. But he wouldn't let up on movies, either, scoring a series of presidential film biographies (JFK, Nixon, Lincoln); more sci-fi epics like War of the Worlds and all those Star Wars sequels, and more serious moral tales, too, like Schindler's List. Distinctive films would still inspire unexpected music from him: the choral chanting of Amistad; the quiet piano-and-winds ballade of Angela's Ashes; the wicked romping humor of The Witches of Eastwick; the close-harmony third-stream jazz score for Catch Me If You Can. Apparently, at age 88, the desire to reach-out and reach-in is not exhausted. But it would take a Part II of this profile to unpack all that.
For now, suffice it to say that none of his contemporaries has such a record of productivity and dominance – he's pretty much alone at the top. And none of his successors can completely avoid his influence.
John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America, National Public Radio and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series. Caps has also written several articles for mfiles on a range of film composers and film music topics: