Why John Williams Is More Than a Film Composer

Classical Music Features   Why John Williams Is More Than a Film Composer
 
Symphonies across the country present the musical genius of the five-time Oscar winner’s scores—beyond Star Wars and Harry Potter.
John Williams
John Williams

His music imbues many famous blockbusters with excitement, whimsy, drama, and terror. Some of his music is instantly recognizable, even hummable: the themes from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List, and Jaws, come readily to mind. Other times, his music works subliminally, almost unrecognized, in the fabric of a movie soundtrack.

Characters from Star Wars at St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Sci-Fi Superheroes concert in 2017.
Characters from Star Wars at St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Sci-Fi Superheroes concert in 2017. Rachel Sennett

We are, of course, talking about John Williams, whose career—spanning from the early 1960s to present day—has made him one of the most successful film composers in Hollywood history. And his music is not only admired by directors and multiplex audiences, but also by professional classical musicians, who find his craft on par with the great composers of the past.

In recent years, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra audiences have heard Williams’s music in film-with-live-orchestra presentations including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and two Harry Potter movies. But sometimes the orchestra also plays Williams in purely symphonic concerts, just as they might play Beethoven, Wagner, or Richard Strauss. SLSO music director David Robertson continues this tradition with Music of John Williams, December 21–23.

“When John Williams concerts are done, there’s usually a screen up and multimedia things are added to the concert,” Robertson says. “Since I did our first all-John Williams concert, quite a long time ago, I said no [to that], and I’ve worked out a number of programs with John himself, which we put together with great care, and there are no sort of extra-musical aspects.”

Williams has a long history with major orchestras, as both a composer and conductor. He recorded the original Star Wars soundtracks with the London Symphony Orchestra, rather than with a Hollywood studio orchestra, and he served as the Boston Pops Orchestra’s principal conductor between 1980 and 1993. On the podium in Boston, Williams pioneered concert performances of his own film scores. This soon spread to other orchestras with other conductors across the country, including the SLSO, which borrowed sheet music from the Boston Pops for some of Robertson’s earliest Williams concerts.

More recently, Robertson and the SLSO have put together their own programs with unique mixes of Williams’ music.

Eric Gaston, the SLSO’s director of artistic administration, is one of the key people who helps decide program selections. “There is an attraction to the eclecticism of John Williams’ style,” he says, “and our aim has always been to strike a satisfying balance with some of the old favorites that everyone knows, while also exploring some of his less familiar, but no less compelling, scores.”

This week’s concerts will include selections from Memoirs of a Geisha, Angela’s Ashes, and The Witches of Eastwick, all played for the first time in St. Louis. “We love being able to share some of these lesser-known selections, alongside those massive and thrilling moments from the likes of Star Wars and Superman,” Gaston says. “Every once in a while, I encounter a movie that I’m pleasantly surprised to find John Williams had scored, which is a testament to his versatility and the variety of expression at his disposal.”

Robertson also marvels at the vast breadth of Williams’s catalog. “The repertoire is enormous—he has written so many great scores. It’s astounding, when you go to his house, there they are—he has leather-bound volumes with his manuscripts, where he’s come up with the most perfectly musical adaptions of what the film needs to be as emotionally powerful as they’ve become.”

Even more remarkably, the music stands on its own, rewarding deep listening from audiences, and withstanding the scrutiny of renowned conductors. “When you study it not just as something that might be in a popular concert, but you give it serious study, you see the subtle things he’s doing,” Robertson explains.

The melodies, harmonies, and orchestration work together to conjure a dramatic moment or emotional quality—all with a pleasing complexity.

“Unless I point it out, you won’t be aware of it. That’s the kind of sleight-of-hand we associate with the greatest composers of all time. John can do this with the greatest virtuosity very few others can match,” says Robertson.

Of course, the conductor welcomes fans who want to bring not only their ears, but also a costume, to Powell Hall. “I’m absolutely happy to let people who want to dress up as Wookies into the hall,” he says. “Come dressed as Indiana Jones, that’s great.”

But when the concert begins, it’s about the music. “I think the quality of John’s writing, and the beautiful presentation of it with orchestrations of the most fabulous detail, means it’s an extraordinary musical experience all by itself,” Robertson says.

This will be Robertson’s last Music of John Williams concert before his tenure as the SLSO’s music director ends in the spring. So come as you are, or dressed as your favorite character, to enjoy this music in its purest form, one more time under Robertson’s baton.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer, writer, and publications consultant to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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