“There are still many good tunes to be written in C major” said Arnold Schoenberg, a composer famous for atonality. He meant that accessible melodies and familiar chord changes need not be trite or banal – as long as the composer of them is a copper-bottomed genius, of course. And who better to represent genius-level accessibility and familiarity than John Williams, the musical comet who took a mere two notes and turned them into pure psychological terror in Jaws? Or who gave us the once-heard-never-forgotten five note theme of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind? No wonder he’s had 51 – yes that’s FIFTY-FUDGING-ONE! – Oscar nominations. As the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel prepare to celebrate Williams’s work at the Edinburgh Festival on August 2, let’s take a closer look at the most successful film composer of all time.
Best John Williams Works: 10 Essential Tracks By The Movie Maestro
‘Out To Sea / The Shark Cage Fugue’ from Jaws
It’s been reported that when the clunky mechanical shark malfunctioned during the filming of Jaws, director Steven Spielberg – working on the principle ‘less is more’ – decided to use music to suggest the presence of the creature instead. Williams’s simple two-note sequence (based on E and F) then became one of the most terrifying motifs in musical history and one of the best John Williams works. “It grinds away at you just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable,” said the composer. But his score also has much more to offer than just that scary musical spine-chiller. Here’s conductor Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Philharmonic playing the jaunty (and completely hubristic) sea-shanty which accompanies the braggadocio shark-hunters out to sea, followed by the sophisticated fugue for the hero’s encounter with the shark while he floats in a suspended cage.
Excerpts from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
While it is true that John Williams has provided the world with some of the most instantly recognisable tunes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, his rigorous training at the celebrated Juilliard School in New York has given him a facility in hundreds of other styles as well. In the shark-cage scene from Jaws mentioned above, he wrote a dazzling formal fugue (a complicated type of music in which a single tune overlaps itself) for example. These excerpts from Close Encounters begin with a kind of pure jangly atonalism which would surely satisfy the most hardcore of musical modernists. Then the famously unforgettable ‘alien signal’ (D-E-C-C-G) arrives into the mix, and the whole morphs into a lush neoromantic soundworld in one of the best John Williams tracks.
Although the majority of his work has been for the multiplex, Williams has also frequently provided pieces for the concert hall. This tuba concerto was composed for the principal tuba player of the Boston Pops Orchestra to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ensemble. The composer exploits just about everything the tuba can do, and turns on its head the notion that the instrument is only good for an Austrian oom-pah band or blurting out the occasional comical raspberry. Quite aside from the virtuosic joie-de-vivre of the work itself, it’s fantastic to see Williams supporting the ‘forgotten’ instruments of the orchestra.
‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone
John Williams has worked with some of the classical world’s foremost musicians in his six-decade (and counting) career. On the album Across The Stars he teams up with top-drawer violinist Anne Sophie Mutter for a dazzlingly virtuosic re-working of the music composed to accompany appearances of Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig in the film series. In just a few strokes, Williams and Mutter create such a vivid suggestion of nocturnal mystery and flight in one of the best John Williams tracks. Mutter describes it as “Harry Potter meets Paganini” and when you hear the speedy semiquavers and difficult double-stops, you’ll know why.
‘Superman March’ from Superman
“You’ll believe a man can fly!” says the poster. Well, you certainly will after hearing John Williams’s iconic march, which suggests the miracle of human flight using the simplest of means. A soaring high trumpet gives the impression of height, low thudding strings the earth below, and energetic percussion adds to the sense of speed in one of the best John Williams works. The introduction feels like a riff on Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’, but Williams takes the mood in a completely different direction.
Theme from Star Wars
The theme from Star Wars, one of the best John Williams works, uses similar musical material to that of Superman but, for my money, just pips the latter to the post for sheer exuberance and swashbuckling derring-do. The second part of the theme makes an obvious genuflection at Holst’s The Planets, but once again, Williams takes his source, shakes it up, and makes of it something entirely his own.
Theme from Schindler’s List
One of the reasons Hollywood film scores became such a sophisticated source of pleasure from the 1930s onwards was the influx of talented Jewish musicians and composers fleeing Nazi Germany and arriving in Los Angeles. Although Williams does not have a Jewish background himself, his love for the idiom is evident in the delicate and haunting theme from Schindler’s List. “Anyone growing up in film music as I have done has so many teachers who are Jewish; it’s so much a part of what we know and what we do. Those modalities are very familiar to us,” he once said.
‘Yoda’s Theme’ from The Empire Strikes Back
Violinist Anne Sophie Mutter captures all the gentleness, playfulness and even vulnerability in the theme for the 900 year-old Jedi Master Yoda. A sweet melody for a wise and benign character, it might be considered a major-key counterpart to the melancholic minor-key tune for Schindler’s List.
‘Sayuri’s Theme’ from Memoirs Of A Geisha
Displaying familiarity with yet another idiom, Williams provided a Japanese-influenced soundtrack for Memoirs Of A Geisha without falling into the trap of making it sound like the jokey overture to The Mikado. It helped that he chose to work on the project with the Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose wonderful Silk Road project had already begun to explore East-meets-West soundworlds. The resulting score is a fascinating fusion of sensibilities and cultures in one of the best John Williams tracks.
‘Olympic Fanfare And Theme’
Who better to compose the official music for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles than local boy John Williams? The typical Williams-style ‘big tune’ is counterpointed with an energetic, scurrying fanfare idea which perfectly suggests the energy and vision of the event. Goose-bump music of the highest order.
Celebrating John Williams, recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, is out now and can be bought here.