Does anyone write music that better speaks to America's self-image than John
Williams? I pose the question thus to preclude political arguments from those
inclined to challenge our admittedly self-congratulatory (or perhaps just self-obsessed)
demeanor. At issue here is the manner in which Williams has, over the years,
composed music that resonates so deeply with the American ethos. It helps, no
doubt, when you're Steven Spielberg's house composer -- no filmmaker since John
Ford has done more to turn the American milieu into an iconic experience. But
there is more here than just music to wave the flag by: Williams' music can,
and often does, invoke a nearly spiritual sense of this country's experience
and, like a good movie score, he might even be said to influence how we Americans
feel about ourselves.
No wonder, then, that he's been repeatedly commissioned to compose music for
Olympics held in this country. Beginning in 1984 in Los Angeles, and continuing
in Atlanta in '96 with a stopover in Calgary in '88 (well, Canada's almost American!)
Williams has set the tone, the drumbeat and yes, the heartbeat, for Olympians.
He does it again with 'Call of the Champions' for the 2002 Winter Games in Utah
(which will have been just finished by the time this is read). This time, an added touch:
With a nod to the Salt Lake City setting, Williams utilizes the magnificent
Mormon Tabernacle Choir as well as the Utah Symphony (the latter being no stranger
to film music fans for its recreation of several classic scores over the past
few years.) Admittedly, the choir's role here is largely decorative, but its
considerable power is not lost, most particularly in the work's opening, a lusty
enunciation of "Citius! Altius! Fortius" (swifter, higher, stronger), encapsulating
that aspect of the Olympics. The choir also helps lend an anthem-like sense
to 'Call of the Champions,' which Williams propels muscularly through its 5-minute
course with the help of an energizing, 12-note motif. Especially effective is
the use of wordless female voices with orchestral bell sounds.
This is followed by a 6-movement, uninterrupted suite from "American Journey,"
which Williams wrote to accompany a multi-media presentation by Spielberg and
other artists to mark the millennium. It is here, in what Williams has called
"an attempt to portray the 20th century thematically," that the composer truly
shines. With cue titles such as 'Immigration and Building' and 'Flight and Technology,'
the music is sufficiently celebratory and often inspirational (and with more
than a passing nod to Copland in the cue 'Popular Entertainment'). Yet this
is clearly not an America seen only through rose-colored glasses. Williams reins
in the heroic mode at the proper moments, such as the beginning of 'The Country
at War' and portions of 'Civil Rights and the Women's Movement,' the latter
stressing inspiration over celebration. As quoted in the liner notes, Williams
puts it this way: "We wanted to look at the good things and bad things and frame
them in such a way as to take heed, and take heart at the same time." Fittingly,
"American Journey's" working title was "Unfinished Journey." Perhaps we Americans
aren't so smug after all.
The second half of this CD consists largely of smaller commissioned works Williams
has written over the past 15 years or so, many during his tenure with the Boston
Pops. All, I assume, have been recorded previously, though that may not be the
case, and the liner notes are moot on this matter. I especially liked the softly
lyrical 'Song for World Peace,' and 'Celebrate Discovery,' which opens with
an ennobling call from the French horns (and which sounds rather like I imagine
the march from '1941' might have, if that film hadn't been a comedy.) 'Summon
the Heroes,' perhaps Williams' best known Olympic work, is included as a "bonus"
track - whatever that means - and the 'Mission Theme,' well known to U.S. viewers
of NBC News (NBC is a television sponsor of the Olympics) is also here for good
measure. 'Sound the Bells' was written in 1993 to celebrate a wedding within
the Japanese royal family. Some critics have questioned Williams' use of a conventional,
Western orchestral style for the work, rather than attempting a more appropriate
Japanese mode. But as the liner notes point out, Williams' intent was to convey
a distinctly American greeting (after all, why else would you hire him?)
Also offered are 'Jubilee 350,' 'Hymn to New England' (in a recording Williams
made with the Utah Symphony the same day as 'Call of the Champions') and 'For
New York,' the last a fun piece I'd never heard before. It was written originally
as a 70th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein and consists of variations on
his 'On the Town' and 'West Side Story.' Besides honoring Bernstein, its presence
here also has something of a post 9-11 purpose, serving as (to quote Williams
again) "a warm tip of the hat to New York City itself."
Ahh, that John Williams -- always making us Americans feel good.
Ian Lace adds:-
John has said it all. There is much to admire here in this
celebratory music whether you are American or not. Williamsís Olympics music
has become a tradition and his new Winter 2002 hymn, Call of the Champions,
with its overlapping fanfares and evocative figures of thrilling snowy competition,
lifts both the heart and the spirit. The other pieces appeal straight to the
emotions too and whilst we over here on this side of the Atlantic might not
find them quite so involving we can appreciate certainly appreciate their quality.