A salute to the brilliant John Williams, with 12 of his tracks that don’t always get the love they deserve.
An unimpeachable cinematic legend, there must be few walking the face of the Earth unable to hum something that John Williams has composed. His gift for melody is arguably unsurpassed by any composer over the past century, and yet there always remains the hint of a sneer from classical cognoscenti if asked to appreciate his body of work: as if the breadth of the man’s knowledge, and genius in then being able to channel inspiration from classical greats into the exact moment a film calls for them is somehow a lesser skill. His peers know better – nobody alive has more Oscar nominations, whilst his music resounds decades on, children who have never seen a frame of Jaws all still know what those two notes mean.
If there is an artist whose work has had a greater affect on me during my lifetime, I cannot think of them. My school’s music department had an early CD player and one of their few discs was Williams conducting the Boston Pops. The Head of Music grew so frustrated in my unshakable resolution to listen to nothing else that the CD in question mysteriously vanished, but by then I was hooked, scouring local record shops for decades to come.
In the week that the man the London Symphony Orchestra calls, ‘The Guv’nor’ turned 90 (whilst he characteristically works away on his fifth Indiana Jones score, indifferent to any fuss made of him), what follows is not a list of definitive hits, but rather 12 tracks from his incredible repertoire that tend not to get the appreciation that they arguably deserve.
The Lost World
The score to Jurassic Park is imbued with wonder and adventure, but its sequel turns away from cherished melodies to open with ominous timpani, a grumpy sounding bassoon and constantly shifting time signatures. If the film itself has an uncertainty of tone, the main theme represents the fun, nasty side of Spielberg’s escapades, with an adventurous central theme where a cymbal clash can leap out at any moment, like a raptor in the long grass.
Steadily building to a percussive, triumphant climax, this is a thrilling track that always resists the easy option.
Plowing (War Horse)
It almost feels like a bet: put together a scene of a horse ploughing a Dartmoor field and make it cinematic. For Spielberg/Williams, however, this is what gets them out of bed.
After a prideful patriarch is goaded into risking his family’s future on a thoroughbred in place of a workhorse, the Naracott family finds themselves dependent on one single day’s farming, performed in front of the whole town. Williams envelops the listener in the woodwind, whilst the strings pulse ominously in the background as the crucial day ticks away. The emotive swirls tie the listener to each triumph and impediment, eventually opening out into joyful pride borne from simple honesty, courage and hard graft.
Beautiful storytelling: walk on Joey.
The Jedi Steps & Finale (The Force Awakens)
After a (familiar) adventure, our new hero finds the subject of her quest: an enigmatic Luke Skywalker atop a porg-infested peak. The score accompanying Rey’s climactic reach out towards the future is gloriously mysterious, tentative and even ominous, including undertones of Williams’ themes from the dark side. The familiar end credits that follow remain triumphant, developing the film’s new themes as per usual but, at the very last there is a small but exciting hint of what is to come. In the final bars, Williams repeats Rey’s theme again (itself a brilliantly clever inversion of the central Force leitmotif) but now on the instrument that usually carries Luke’s (the horn) only to then end on Luke’s familiar main theme now played on Rey’s celesta.
Casual genius from the composer, succinctly entwining their destinies thereafter.
Out to Sea (Jaws)
The Jaws soundtrack is a hell of a lot more than two notes, and this piece brings together music from the film’s second half, where Brody, Quint and Hooper take the fight to the beastie. The first half of the track is a celebratory naval procession, but once the timpani resound the listener is locked within an increasingly furious battle to the death.
Those famous adjacent semitones are never heard, but pulse inaudibly behind every syncopation as fate draws dreadfully closer. The baseline finally collapses into a thrilling finale, befitting both one of Williams’ crowning achievements and a true cinematic great.
The Face of Pan (Hook)
There are a variety of opinions on Hook, not least by those that made it, but this unassuming gem of a track resounds perhaps because it is free of the excess that can be found elsewhere in the film. Abandoned and alone, only the littlest of the Lost Boys manages to see past Peter’s adult excesses, discovering him hiding behind his own smile. In the film, Spielberg allows the orchestra to eclipse the entire soundtrack, flooding us simultaneously with the warmth and sadness found in the adult form of the boy who was never supposed to grow up.
The Tale of Viktor Navorski (The Terminal)
The film is, for this writer, an overlooked masterpiece and the score is one of its main cornerstones. Whilst superficially the film can be read as a piece celebrating the lure of the west, the titular hero only triumphs despite the indifference and cruelty he (and his fellow immigrants) encounter. Anchoring the film is this small, unyielding, tuneful Slavic dance that could easily double as the first movement of a clarinet concerto.
Warning- one listen to this and it’ll be in your head for days! ‘Johnny’ Williams, as he was when he started out, cut his teeth composing for TV show Wagon Train, but it wouldn’t be till 1972 that he wrote for his own western. He barely revisited the genre since and perhaps he poured it all into this magnificent piece. His jazz background suffuses the joyous main theme, fitted around a glorious oboe-based solo whose heroic cadences have the listener dreaming of starry Arizona skies.
The Map Room: Dawn (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
There are countless instances of a director realising that they can back off and let Williams do their lifting, transforming the film momentarily into a silent movie. Lucas did it with every Star Wars’ episode’s final scene and, whilst the definitive version of this is probably E.T. (where, despite the stakes being a boy saying goodbye to his friend, Williams scores it as the single most massive event in human history), this moment from the first Indiana Jones film is somewhat overlooked.
Over three spine-tingling minutes, the ominous seeds for the final scenes of the film are sewn as shifting shadows point Indy towards the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Despite the imminent threat, Williams’ cadences patiently build a sense of wonder to suitably biblical proportions and an ultimate release of spectacular, miraculous majesty.
This is cinema.
A quietly forgotten TV movie from 1970 hides this gentle, confident theme that too few have heard. Williams soft spot for romanticism and fondness for syncopated triplets flow through this piano-led piece that makes an interesting comparison to a the very different romance that he would score years later in “Across the Stars”.
Another case of the composer instinctively understanding everything that his director was after, even if, in this instance, the final result was not what audiences were after. This gleefully silly march has satirical shades of Shostakovich as it incrementally escalates towards its demented finale.
Dance of the Witches (The Witches of Eastwick)
Such a curious film when looked upon with contemporary eyes, an array of talent running deeply throughout it. Doffing his cap to Berlioz and Holst, the DNA of what would become Harry Potter is detectable in this macabre, mischievous jig. Although, for the definitive version, seek out the delicious arrangement that Williams laid out for virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in his recent collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by the man himself.
Prelude & Main Title (Superman)
Underrated?! Look I’m cheating here, but I need to talk about those opening 90 seconds. An opening of a curtain, the click of a cinereel, the sight of a comicbook, the voice of a child, the sight of the Daily Planet from the old serials: all are accompanied by muted trumpets & woodwind building a sense of youthful wonder and excitement until the strings hold their note into the blackness of space and……bom-badom.
It is still the greatest opening to any blockbuster: excitement distilled into its purest musical form. The work of a true master.
Happy 90th birthday, Maestro.
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