Program Notes: A Tribute to John Williams

A Tribute to John Williams

Concert Date: January 8, 2022 

There is a story in the movie industry. It goes something like this…

The great director, Alfred Hitchcock was preparing to film the movie, Lifeboat. The story takes place on the open ocean in, you guessed it, a lifeboat. He wanted it to feel realistic so he decided that he would not have a film score running throughout the narrative body of the film. There would only be music for the opening and closing credits. When the film composer, David Raskin, who was expecting to score the film got wind of this news he asked Hitchcock, “Why no film score?” According to the story, Hitchcock responded, “They’re in the middle of the ocean. Where would the orchestra come from?” to which Raskin responded, “I’ll tell you where the orchestra comes from when you tell me where the cameras come from.” Excellent point. However, I am sure we are all glad that was not every director’s attitude toward film scores. Especially not the directors who have been fortunate enough to collaborate with John Williams. Take one glance at this evening’s program and I am sure you will agree- there isn’t one single piece that you would want to lose to this way of thinking. 

No composer develops or exists in a vacuum. When we hear the music of John Williams, we are hearing not only his unique voice but the composite influence of many composers who have come before him: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Korngold, Hanson and, most importantly, Wagner. There is an interesting feature found in many of Williams’ scores that harkens back to Richard Wagner and his operatic masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelungen. In The Ring, Wagner uses a compositional device called leitmotiv. Put quite simply, leitmotiv is a musical phrase that can be associated with a person, place or thing being depicted in a piece of music such as an opera or a film score. Whenever you want the listener (or the viewer) to think about the character represented by the leitmotiv all you need to do is toss it into the mix. For instance, in the Star Wars films, if Obi Wan is talking about something evil Darth Vader has done, Williams will cue up the ominous Darth Vader theme heard in tonight’s performance of Imperial March. In this way, Darth Vader need not be present on screen for you to feel his presence or influence on the other characters. Or, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Williams cues up those scary cellos and basses in his iconic two-note motif from Theme from Jaws and, even though you can’t see him, you know Bruce- that’s the shark’s name- is down there somewhere. And you need a bigger boat. That, in a nutshell, is how Wagner and Williams and a host of others use leitmotiv to play with your emotions and your imagination to help tell a story without the use of words. And this is only one compositional skill that helps define John Williams as one of America’s greatest composers of any era. His ability to compose effortlessly and authoritatively in any genre or style, whether for film or the symphonic concert stage, is nothing less than enviable. He is a master of the highest order. Perhaps even a Jedi Master- he has a degree from the Juilliard School of Music, honorary degrees from 21 American universities, the 2009 National Medal of Arts and the 2003 Olympic Order. 

For those of you inclined to trivia and keeping score, here is a smattering of data you can impress friends and family with at your next dinner party. Williams has scored more than 100 films as well as several television shows. He has been nominated for an Oscar 50 times, second only to Walt Disney. He has won 22 Grammys, 7 BAFTAs, 5 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes and has numerous gold and platinum records to his credit. He has worked with many of the greatest film directors: Hitchcock, Wyler, Lucas, and Spielberg to name but a few. Williams is also a gifted pianist and has performed with many of the world’s greatest performers on the concert stage and in recordings: Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and Jessye Norman. He is also in high demand as a conductor and was Music Director of the Boston Pops for 14 years (1980-1993). And, of course, there are the Olympic themes and fanfares we have been enjoying every four years since 1984. At age 89, he’s still going strong- he is currently scoring one of Steven Spielberg’s new films, The Papers.

Written by

Craig Sorgi ©2021 All rights reserved