With the legendary film composer John Williams celebrating his 90th birthday this month, conductor Michael Bell talks to Nick Davies about the man who’s provided the soundtrack to many of our lives.
From the two thrusting musical notes that made us all too scared to go into the water, to the brass-led fanfare promising adventures in a galaxy far, far away; from the childlike celesta accompanying the first steps in a boy wizard’s odyssey, to the soaring strings that lift a boy, an alien and their bike into the sky and past a harvest moon… Few pieces of music conjure up images and a sense of the visceral quite like the film scores of John Williams, who this month turned 90 years old.
Conductor Michael Bell knows his music perhaps better than anyone in Wales, having performed his scores countless times with the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra, which he founded in 1982. His enthusiasm when discussing Williams’ work is infectious: “When you hear a John Williams score, you immediately know it’s him because of a certain sound he creates. But he creates so many different sounds: Star Wars is different to Schindler’s List; Saving Private Ryan is different to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But you just know it’s John Williams.”
Providing even a sprinkling of Williams’ back catalogue is like taking a stroll through any Generation-Xer’s childhood: Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, the Indiana Jones series, E.T., Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List. His Harry Potter themes are a gift to the millennials. While he has benefitted from those films’ box office success (he has scored nine of the 25 highest-grossing titles of all time in the U.S., adjusted for inflation), it is extraordinary how recognisable and resonant his music remains. The melodies are as memorable as the movies. “Audiences respond to his music because he writes such wonderful themes, beautifully orchestrated,” Bell explains. “It works well on screen and stands up so well in concert because it’s good music and compares to work by more established classical composers.”
For a composer so synonymous with the Hollywood Sound, it’s surprising that Williams never considered himself a film buff. “I was never that into the movies. Never,” he once said. “Even as a youngster. I became interested in movie music only because of the studio orchestras in Hollywood.” The young Williams had trained as a classical pianist at the Juilliard School in New York with aspirations of becoming a concert performer, supplementing his income by playing in the city’s jazz clubs. But Los Angeles – and the Hollywood studios – offered him a more stable working life, and so he moved west and became an orchestrator and pianist for legendary composers like Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Leonard Bernstein (it’s Williams playing piano on the original West Side Story soundtrack).
Just as Williams was ready to strike out as a film composer in his own right at the turn of the sixties, the fashion in movie music switched from orchestral to pop and jazz. The more raffishly styled Johnny Williams drew on his experience in the jazz clubs, beginning his scoring career with titles as groovily evocative as Daddy-O, Bachelor Flat and Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (He would later utilise the same jazz palette for Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.) Meanwhile, television themes such as Lost in Space and Land of the Giants hinted at orchestral sci-fi capers to come, albeit with a strong whiff of sixties swing.
There were fleeting glimpses of the bigger symphonic sound with a sweeping Western score for The Rare Breed, and then gloriously Americana soundtracks for The Reivers and The Cowboys. It was these films that drew the attention of an emerging filmmaker called Steven Spielberg, looking for a composer for his first cinematic feature. Williams recalls their first meeting in 1973 and Spielberg humming tunes from those films to him, the composer looking at the director blankly, embarrassed to admit he didn’t recall them. “So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves,” Williams would later admit.
The meeting marked the beginning of a five-decade professional collaboration and friendship, perhaps the most enduring creative partnership in American film history. After a low-key start with the cynical, bluesy The Sugarland Express, their next two films would provide the perfect marriage of sound and image. Williams’ throbbing score for Jaws is an exercise in suspenseful simplicity, inciting a primal reaction within the viewer, strings and brass mimicking our heartbeat, while Close Encounters of the Third Kind utilises music – the famous five-note call from the alien spaceship – in a way that has rarely been emulated, the composer’s work an intrinsic part of the story. The great American composer Aaron Copland talked of a film score warming the screen like a candle, but these two soundtracks unapologetically blasted it with flames. Michael Bell recalls first noticing Williams’ work when he saw Close Encounters in the cinema: “I remember staying through the credits right to the end as the music was so wonderful and I wanted to know who composed it, who played it, who arranged it. It was just a brilliant, evocative score.”
Spielberg recommended Williams to his friend George Lucas who wanted a neoromantic musical style to accompany his new movie, Star Wars. Lucas had sampled work by Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Holst and Korngold in his rough cut, eager for a familiar, more traditional symphonic sound to accompany the weird and wonderful worlds on screen (eschewing the presumption in 1977 that a sci-fi movie required a suitably robotic synthesised score). John Williams utilised the London Symphony Orchestra, and the call to adventure in the opening title crawl plus a melodious mix of Wagnerian leitmotifs, in which every key character is given their own theme, transcended anything seen or heard before. Note how a musical motif for a concept as nebulous as the Force imbues it with a power and mysticism that’s difficult to present on screen, and how that same theme plays each time the Jedi and their skills are mentioned – in its own way it’s as impactful as those two notes representing a killer shark. Williams is an expert at providing the musical hook to something that can’t always be articulated visually.
With Star Wars becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, and his soundtrack album the biggest-selling orchestral album in history, John Williams had revived the symphonic style of the great composers under who he learned his craft. “He’s a culmination of a Hollywood tradition that started with Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood) and Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind),” says Michael Bell.
So, what is his music like to perform? A criticism thrown at Williams’ work in the past is that the accessibility of his instantly recognisable tunes prevents it from being considered on a par with the classical repertoire. Bell disagrees: “It’s brilliantly written. His music is not easy to play and it’s a challenge for the whole orchestra. No-one gets an easy ride, including the conductor!”
“It stands up so well in concert because it’s great music and compares to more established classical music,” Bell continues. Few conductors will have interpreted John Williams’ canon as much as Bell and the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) which celebrates its 40th birthday this year. CPO’s annual Night at the Movies concerts at St David’s Hall and Blackwood Miners’ Institute regularly feature Williams’ scores – 2017’s programme of his work attracted St David’s Hall’s highest audience figures for more than a decade. “CPO first performed the Star Wars suite in 1985,” remembers Bell. “It was the Welsh premiere on a snowy night in Llandaff Cathedral! The sheet music copies were handwritten, and it was so exciting to do. The response from the audience was terrific!”
The breadth of Williams’ work is extraordinary too, with 120 credits to his name, almost half of them nominated for Oscars. “Some of the lesser-known music of his is great to play because it stands up so well even when you don’t know the film. The overture to The Cowboys is a great favourite of ours. And work like 1941 (one of Spielberg’s few missteps) where the film isn’t as well-known, but the music is terrific.”
While Williams remains most famous for those swashbuckling scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman, he has proven himself equally adept working across genres. Listening to his early work with Robert Altman (Images is an avant-garde score part-improvised with Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta), or his intimate score for small ensemble for Stanley & Iris, the gospel-folk of Rosewood, the choral splendour of Empire of the Sun, Amistad and Jurassic Park – his versatility is boundless. Bell agrees: “One piece that the orchestra loves playing is Saving Private Ryan. It’s so moving – it’s absolutely beautiful. We’ve got people in the orchestra who are fanatics about John Williams and keep suggesting [lesser known] pieces of his. The problem though is actually getting the sheet music, as not a lot of it is available other than those well-known scores like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.”
As John Williams celebrates his 90th birthday, he is finally getting the recognition he deserves from the classical establishment. Both the traditionally stuffy Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras have invited him to conduct his work in the past two years. He is still a man in demand, but Williams admits that, now in his tenth decade, he will pull back on composing for the screen. “I don’t particularly want to do films anymore,” he told the New York Times recently. “Six months of life at my age is a long time.” He will concentrate on composing classical concert works with new and long-time collaborators such as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but not before a final cinematic flourish with the fifth Indiana Jones movie and Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans, due out later this year, a poignant and personal ending to their professional partnership (if it is indeed the end).
Williams’ non-film canon is already extensive, adopting a more modernist, tonal approach compared to much of his film music. Among it is his contemplative Five Sacred Trees based on Irish mythology and the writings of Robert Graves, one of a number of Celtic-inspired pieces in Williams’ repertoire. He acknowledged Welsh mythology in his standout choral work from the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, using the words of the poem Cad Goddeu from the Book of Taliesin. On Williams’ instruction, the ancient Welsh was converted very loosely to Sanskrit and then chanted by the choir during the climactic lightsaber battle. Perhaps with a surname like Williams, we can claim America’s composer as our own!
Michael Bell believes John Williams’ music has had a major impact on audiences here in Wales, something he’s seen at Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts: “People will have heard the sounds of his music from a full orchestra, and that’s inspired people to go to other concerts and to listen to other music. When we do our film music nights, the age range of the audience is amazing, and we hope that we can inspire them to dip their toe in the water of other classical music or other film scores.”
Even if John Williams has hinted at retirement from film composing, his legacy will continue in concert halls around the world, including anywhere the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra might play. “We’ve performed his music many, many times,” says Bell, “and yet we never, ever tire of it.”
Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra’s next concert, conducted by Michael Bell, is Tchaikovsky Night (including Marche Slave, Symphony No. 2 ‘Little Russian’, suite from The Sleeping Beauty and the 1812 Overture) at St David’s Hall, Cardiff on Friday 18th March 2022. CPO’s 40th anniversary concert is at St David’s Hall on 24th June 2022. CPO’s Night at the Movies will be in November and December 2022. Details available here.
Nick Davies is an author and critic.