John WILLIAMS (b.1932) The Great Movie Soundtracks
rec. 1977-2012, various locations SONY CLASSICS 88875 127322 [4 CDs: 268:44]
The entry for John Williams on Wikipedia points out that he has written some of the most popular and recognisable film scores in cinematic history and that he ‘has won five Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, and 22 Grammy Awards. With 49 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the second most-nominated individual, after Walt Disney’. There are few blockbuster movies in the last three decades or more whose music isn’t associated with John Williams. From the music for Jaws back in 1975 to War Horse in 2011 and much both before and since Williams’ name is forever associated with music that lifts films into another league and one could hardly imagine them without it. The main theme for Jaws will be forever identified with the great white shark and is doubtless one of the most immediately recognisable pieces of music of all time. I was encouraged to look at Wikipedia because I was surprised and disappointed to find that there was no booklet in this otherwise brilliant and thrilling 4 CD set. I learned that Williams came from a musical family; his father was a jazz percussionist as are two of his brothers. He cut his musical teeth firstly as a jazz pianist in New York and then working with Henry Mancini and crooner Frankie Laine. He has scored all but two of Steven Spielberg’s movies, a total of 26. His music will again dominate this Christmas when it is heard once again in the new Star Wars movie.
This box set begins with the truly magical music for the first Harry Potter film and its theme Harry’s Wondrous World has followed the young magician throughout his school years. It is Williams’ almost uncanny ability with powerful character-driven themes to encapsulate the very essence of a film that makes his music so vital to them and so very memorable. Another theme that immediately conjures up the film character in question is Williams’ music for the smash-hit series of Indiana Jones movies and though there are variations bolted on to make each outing recognisable as such the basic theme that follows this comic strip hero is instantly identifiable. A standalone film whose music is nevertheless no less powerful than the two above is War Horse, a children’s book that was so brilliantly brought to the screen. The excerpt appearing here is entitled Dartmoor, 1912 and this John Williams music has a whiff of Vaughan Williams with its feeling of the sweep of English landscape.
With extracts from 18 of the dozens of movies he’s written scores for I must restrict my coverage but every piece is a wonderful listen in its own rite and leaving them out of this review in no way implies that any are less worthy than any other. I remember being very surprised to learn how many of what I think of as quintessentially ‘English’ films were scored by the Frenchman Georges Auric, particularly those from the Ealing studios stable such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob. Likewise John Williams may not be a composer one might think of having been a first choice to score Memoirs of a Geisha but that is the startling thing about so many composers, namely their ability to think outside their geographical box without even necessarily having visited the country in question. In literature one finds comparisons with the great women novelists of the 19th century like the Brontės whose imagination took them far away from the constraints of their small West Yorkshire town to the world at large. Memoirs of a Geisha received a lot of negative press in Japan, including for its use of a Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang as the main character and that it was disrespectful of Japanese traditions; ah Hollywood. However, it has music that is extremely redolent of what the West at least, rightly or wrongly, thinks of as Japanese sounds and seemingly emerged unscathed by the criticism.
Kicking off the second CD is music that still has the power after 40 years to make people think twice before going swimming in certain seas. Once again just a few bars easily identifies the film Jaws in most people’s minds, so powerful is the film’s main theme, one that has the same heartbeat increasing effect as the music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Psycho’s shower scene. Moving on from things super natural to things supernatural we have two extracts from his score for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial the main theme of which is once again inextricably linked in the minds of tens of millions with this endearing little character. Another likeable little character is Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Tintin and Williams’ music for the film The Adventures of Tintin manages to sound convincingly French. A recent big hit at the box office was the film Lincoln a ‘worthy’ film about the 16th American President’s principled stand against slavery and his determination to end it. The music is as fittingly grand as the subject. Another film with a big theme and a point to make was Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and the music is suitably big representing as it does the Vietnam War and its effect on one soldier that turned him from enthusiastic supporter to active anti-war protester. Another film with a ‘big’ story was Schindler’s List and the main theme for this shows Williams’ facility with Jewish melodies which he used in a heart-achingly beautiful way.
From the awful events that occurred in a war to a totally imaginary world John Williams can turn his musical imagination in every possible direction. Another example of this to put alongside films like ET and The Adventures of Tintin is the music he scored for Jurassic Park which once again instantly transports us to that fantastical island where dinosaurs once again stalked the earth. One more ‘excursion’ into the world of the imaginary for which John Williams composed suitably appropriate music that seems to perfectly match the storyline was for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This disc - which also includes music he wrote for Empire of the Sun - closes with the main theme from Sugarland Express.
Disc three is completely devoted to the Star Wars series which up to the time of writing is the fifth most successful film series ever in terms of box -office receipts and could take the top slot given that the existing episodes which comprise: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977); Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980); Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983); Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999); Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) are set from mid December 2015 to be joined by Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) with a further two in the projected pipeline: Episode VIII (2017) and Episode IX (2019). Up to now John Williams has scored every single one and indeed the fact that he was busy writing the music for the latest episode was the reason why he was prevented from accepting the commission for penning Steven Spielberg’s latest film Bridge of Spies. This disc includes thirteen extracts from various of the films so far released and as much as any other films he’s ever scored shows what an incredible imagination he has when it comes to representing the fantastical world of the future as seen through the prism of George Lucas’ invention. Just as with so many others of his scores he is a master of the ‘big’ theme that helps the visual open up worlds of which we can only dream.
It is pleasing to see that the fourth and final disc in this set is given over to John Williams’ purely orchestral compositions. These underline the fact that, as with so many other composers for film, he should not be pigeonholed solely as a ‘film composer’ as if that is somehow less worthy. Down the years there have been many who were known firstly as composers who also wrote for film (William Walton for example) and this disc shows that the composer whose main income is derived from scoring films is equally adept at writing music that stands alone in the concert hall setting. There have been many who are to be found in this category with people like Miklos Rozsa a case in point. The sad fact is that too often their film work somehow obscures their purely orchestral music. I have always been a great champion on the behalf of these people whose off-screen music is not only equally valid but often superb and well worth exploration.
This disc begins with Williams’ take on Air and Simple Gifts which has carved itself a firm place in American folklore and has attracted several American composers to make versions of it including Aaron Copland. This is scored for the unusual combination of cello, violin, piano and clarinet and is a joy. Song for World Peace is a beautiful orchestral piece that makes up for its brevity with sumptuous sounds. However, the main work on this disc is the superbly crafted concerto for bassoon and orchestra composed in 1995 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for its principal bassoonist Judith LeClair who is soloist here too. It takes as its inspiration the writings of British poet and novelist Robert Graves and concerns the five magic trees of Ireland according to Irish folklore which were cut down in 665 by Christian authorities to demonstrate that Christianity had triumphed over paganism. The work has a powerfully atmospheric feel and makes use of all the bassoon’s special qualities. It is a world away from the cinematic milieu with which we associate Williams’ name most of the time. This work alone helps to remind us that John Williams is a multi-faceted and multi-talented composer whose depths are continuously being shown us away from the silver screen.
Sound the Bells is a short piece of under three minutes but we can immediately determine the ‘Americaness’ in it with a brash and confident air that is to be found in so many twentieth century American compositions. In complete contrast is Williams’ Elegy for Cello and Orchestra which is a poignantly beautiful work which soloist Yo-Yo Ma captures perfectly. Another piece that uses the feeling of cinematic sweep we think of whenever Williams’ name comes up is his theme for NBC News The Mission which is suitably grand in scope. The disc ends with The Olympic Spirit which was written for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Once again Williams’ ability to write a tune with real gravitas is fully displayed with the use of massed trumpets and plenty of percussion alongside the orchestra in full unrestrained flow; a fitting end to this conspectus of the music of someone who has become a household name.
In the majority of cases the conductor on the set is John Williams and, as one would expect, delivers convincing performances of music that is memorable as well as exciting. The only gripe I have I mentioned at the beginning, namely that there is no booklet and therefore no information about any of the music and how it came to be written. This is a great omission and should be addressed as soon as possible to make the most of what is otherwise a valuable document that celebrates the music of a great composer whose abilities span so many genres.
Contents CD 1 [79:33]
Excerpts from: Harry Potter*; Indiana Jones*; War Horse; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; Far and Away; Memoirs of a Geisha; American Journey
CD 2 [68:52]
Excerpts from: Jaws; E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial; The Adventures of Tintin; Lincoln; Born on the Fourth of July; Schindler’s List; Jurassic Park; Empire of the Sun; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Sugarland Express
CD 3 [54:57]
Excerpts from: Star Wars
CD 4 [65:22]
Other Orchestral Works by John Williams: Air and Simple Gifts; Song for World Peace; Summon the Heroes; Hymn to New England; The Five Sacred Trees: Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra; Sound the Bells!; Elegy for Cello and Orchestra; Theme from The Mission; 1941: March; The Olympic Spirit.
Itzhak Perlman (violin); Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Tim Morrison (trumpet); Toots Thielemans (harmonica); Gabriela Montero (piano); Anthony McGill (clarinet); Judith LeClair (bassoon)
Orchestras and choruses include: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Arnold*; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles; Chicago Symphony Orchestra,; London Symphony Orchestra; Boston Pops Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Chen; American Boychoir; Tanglewood Festival Chorus; London Voices; Utah Symphony Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra/John Williams