Across the Stars: The Music of John Williams

Written for the Philadelphia Orchestra for John Williams’s 90th birthday benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. Not to be reprinted without permission.

In the late 1970s, John Williams restored the preeminence of symphonic film music, which had declined with the growing popularity of rock and pop soundtracks in the 1960s. Working with directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he played an essential role in the blending of New Hollywood auteurism with nostalgia for Golden Age cinema—resulting in the blockbusters JawsStar Wars, and Indiana Jones. His music is poignant and varied, rooted in his background as a jazz pianist, built on an encyclopedic knowledge of classical techniques, and wrapped in the orchestrational style of late Romanticism and Modernism.

Williams has also written a substantial body of concert works, as well as pieces for public events, including the Olympics and President Obama’s first inauguration. Tonight’s concert opens with the fanfare Sound the Bells (1993), inspired by Japanese temple bells, and written for the wedding of Crown Prince (now Emperor) Naruhito and Masako Owada. The program continues with Williams’s Violin Concerto No. 2, written for Anne-Sophie Mutter, and after intermission, we hear selections from both famous and lesser-known film scores.

Violin Concerto No. 2

Since 1969, Williams has written a series of concertos, including works for tuba, cello, bassoon, harp, oboe, and a Violin Concerto No. 1 (1976). He recently composed his Violin Concerto No. 2
for Anne-Sophie Mutter, and they premiered it with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in July 2021. The two had previously collaborated on a pair of Deutsche Grammophon film-music albums, and she asked him for a short original piece. Williams wrote a few bars of solo music, and soon it developed into a larger concerto project. Listeners who know his film scores will recognize Williams’s sense of drama, atmosphere, and ear-catching textures within a more abstract, expansive, and introspective composition.

In a program note for the Boston Symphony premiere, Williams wrote:

I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the violin itself—an instrument that is the unsurpassed product of the luthier’s art. . . . We’d recently collaborated on an album of film music for which she recorded the theme from the film Cinderella Liberty, demonstrating a surprising and remarkable feeling for jazz. So, after a short introduction, I opened the Prologue of this concerto with a quasi-improvisation, suggesting her very evident affinity for this idiom. There is also much faster music in this movement, which while writing, I recalled her flair for an infectious rhythmic swagger that is particularly her own.

In the beginning of the next section or movement, a quiet murmur is created by a gentle motion that I think of as being circular, hence the subtitle Rounds. At one point you will hear harmonies reminiscent of Debussy, but I ask you to reflect on another Claude. . . in this case Thornhill, a very early hero of mine who, it can be justly said, was the musical godfather of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration. It is also in this movement that a leitmotif or theme appears, later restated in the Epilogue.

Dactyls, a borrowed word from the Greeks, which we use to describe a three-syllable effect in poetry, as well as the digit with its three bones, may serve to describe the next movement. It is our third movement, in a three meter, and features a short cadenza for violin, harp, and timpani. . . yet another triad. The violin provides an aggressive virtuosity that produces a rough, waltz-like energy that is both bawdy and impertinent.

The final movement is approached attacca [without pause] by the violin and harp, where the two instruments reverse their relative balances in a kind of “sound dissolve.” In this way, they transport us to the Epilogue. It is in this final movement that the motif introduced in Rounds returns in the form of a duet for violin and harp, closing the piece with a gentle resolution in A major that might suggest both healing and renewal.

Select Film Music

How many musical ways are there to fly? Williams’s themes from Superman and E.T. the Extraterrestrial are classic examples, and he came up with yet another for Flight to Neverland from Hook (1991). In the film, Julia Roberts’s Tinkerbell whisks Robin Williams’s middle-aged Peter Pan back to the fantastical island. Expanded to about five minutes for the concert hall, it is one of Williams’s most popular orchestral pieces.

The score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) unfolds in a large-scale musical structure that develops from indistinct clusters of sound into scintillating Impressionism, finally culminating in an indelible five-note theme. That theme is also a plot point, as it is used by visiting extraterrestrials to attempt contact with humans. In Spielberg’s inspired climax, scientists use the tones (in solfège: Re-Mi-Do-Do-Sol) to communicate with the aliens, and their mothership turns into an intergalactic pipe organ. It’s not so implausible—the musical scale derives from the over- tone series, which is grounded in universal laws of physics and mathematics. These excerpts condense more than two hours of soundtrack into about eight minutes.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) was another collaboration with Spielberg. The film, based on Hergé’s Belgian comic book series, tells the story of the boy reporter Tintin, his dog Snowy, and Captain Haddock as they set off on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship commanded by Haddock’s ancestor Sir Francis. They are hotly pursued by Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine, the descendant of Sir Francis’s pirate nemesis, Red Rachman. The Duel scores a fight between Francis and Red. Williams received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score for the film.

Nice to Be Around from Cinderella Liberty (1973) represents Williams’s early-career work in jazz and popular styles, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. The first verse, with lyrics by Paul Williams (no relation), goes in part:

Hello with affection from a sentimental fool.
To a little girl who’s broken every rule.
One who brings me up when all the others seem to let me down.
One who’s nice to be around.

This version for violin keeps the smoky sadness of the original tune, floating it over a subdued orchestral accompaniment.

Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) is the series’ signature musical cue, most often heard in the bell-toned celesta (here given to solo violin). The line arches in a lilting triple meter—but an unexpected chromatic turn sets it off-kilter (the notes sound right, but not quite right), establishing a magical world in just 16 measures.

Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), scores the triumphant medal ceremony that concludes the film. It incorporates The Force Theme (also known as Binary Sunset or Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Theme in slower versions), before leading into the iconic Star Wars fanfare.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.