"I once said to Fred Astaire, 'Isn't it wonderful what the Gershwin brothers did for you at RKO?' " John Williams recalls. Astaire answered. "Yes. But Irving Berlin did more."
Williams has more American cultural reminiscences than you can shake a baton at. At 87 years old, he was born before Elvis Presley, and he's worked with everyone from Astaire to Alfred Hitchcock to Yo-Yo Ma to, of course, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg and Lucas gave the composer the canvases that made him a household name: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Schindler's List — films that produced some of the most recognizable, beloved melodies of the 20th century.
The Star Wars universe alone has given us dozens of earworms, and one super fan of that music is star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
"I grew up at the Black Forest, where Germany, Switzerland, and France meet," Mutter explains. "It was gorgeous surroundings, but really not much to do other than playing the instrument, playing some soccer, and going into the meadows and the forest. But, we also had the cinema! ... And there John kind of arrived in his music, in 1978 — Star Wars. That was the first time I became aware of this genius." (Note: Star Wars was released in the U.S. in 1977.)
Mutter met Williams at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a few years ago, and politely begged him to write a piece for her.
"She said, 'Write 10 bars — 10 measures of music. That's all you have to do. Just a little portrait,' " the composer remembers. "The summer ended, and Christmas came, and a box of Christmas cookies arrived from Germany from Anne-Sophie. I thought, Oh my God, I have to make 10 bars of something for this lady. She's many things, but one thing she is not is a woman you can say no to. And the 10 bars became 140 bars or so, in a piece that I call 'Markings' — read 'scribblings.' "
Sometime later, over dinner, Mutter suggested doing a whole album of new arrangements of Williams' famous movie themes for solo violin and orchestra. The result is Across the Stars, out Aug. 30, on Deutsche Grammophon, which features hits including "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter and "Yoda's Theme" from The Empire Strikes Back, as well as deeper cuts such as themes from Cinderella Liberty (1973) and Dracula (1979).
Also at that dinner was André Previn, Mutter's ex-husband and Williams' lifelong friend who introduced them in the first place.
"André would say to me, 'Don't worry! She can play anything. Write whatever you want to write for her; You write it and she will play it,'" Williams recalls. "And then I say to Anne-Sophie, 'Maybe it's too hard.' And you say, 'No, it's not too hard.'"
"But it is!" Mutter laughs.
"I had the same thing with Yo-Yo [Ma], and also Itzhak [Perlman]," he says, "That you write something for them — and Yo-Yo especially — I said, 'Please tell me if it's too hard. Other cellists would not play it.' 'No, no, no, I want to play it. Leave it alone.'"
"Yeah," Mutter nods, "Let me suffer!"
Previn, who died earlier this year, got his start in the music department at MGM — which is now Sony Pictures Studios. That's where I spoke with Williams and Mutter. They sat side by side on a couch in a quiet room after a recording session for Across the Stars.
Back in those days, "Johnny" Williams was a jazz piano fiend, and his dad, Johnny Sr., was a session drummer who played on film and TV scores at CBS.
"I would go have my piano study on Saturday morning, and then go down to CBS Studio where he was playing," Williams says. "I'd sit in the back of the orchestra. And I was playing the piano, but I could hear a French horn over here, and something else over there. And I marveled about how the flutist was sitting there for seems like five minutes and she didn't play a note, and then suddenly she played. I was fascinated with the orchestra — never dreaming I would write music for an orchestra."
Before he ever did, though, John Williams was an arranger. He formed a band in high school that would play sorority dances and eventually big-time nightclubs like the Cocoanut Grove — and he did his own charts and arrangements of pop tunes of the day done in the style of classical composers.
"I can remember the very first time I had a little piano piece, playing at home, and the kid across the street's parents bought him a trumpet," he says. "He came over to play with me and I began to play the song, and he played — and it was terrible. My father explained to me, 'Well, a trumpet is in B-flat. It has to be written up a tone.' (Some instruments are tuned to different keys.) So, he gave me some manuscript paper, and I went up a tone, and we played together. This was like, 'Eureka!' you know? What a magical thing to be able to do."
"When I was like a teenager, maybe 14, 15, I was kind of a nerdy kid that would go into the books and look and say, 'How is this orchestration? Why is it there?,'" Williams remembers.
Williams' first Academy Award nomination was for arranging— adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968 from tunes written by none other than Previn. The first Oscar he ever won was also for arranging in 1971 for the score for Fiddler on the Roof. This unique skill, of taking an existing piece of music and redesigning it for a specific ensemble or occasion, is a distinct art.
"Some people can arrange so beautifully," he says. "If you take the American songbook, which probably goes from 1910 to 1950, those songs had to be orchestrated and arranged to get to be Bing Crosby, to get to be Frank Sinatra."
He rattles off a list of great arrangers: Conrad Salinger, Nathan Van Cleave, Eddie Powell, Herbert Spencer.
"When I went to the Boston Pops at the end of the '70s without Sid Ramin, who was famous for doing all of Leonard Bernstein's theater work, there was nobody left who really understood Cole Porter, and how to get the grace and sophistication and harmonic particularity of that music into a setting," he says. "Listen to 'Begin the Beguine' with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. It's a ten-minute piece of art."
"The orchestration was done completely by Edward Powell. 'Begin the Beguine' is a great piece, but this is an extended masterpiece," Williams says.
Williams' side career as an arranger brought film music into the concert hall to an unprecedented degree. When he was appointed conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1980, he started writing and performing new concert arrangements of his film themes. This was initially, he says, out of necessity.
"In the early years, the publisher would send around printed copies of things, probably gotten from the studio, that were such a mess," he says. "Missing bars, and so on. I finally said, 'If these things are going to go around to orchestras, to either rent them or buy them, or children's schools or whatever, they have to be organized so that it's correct."
The classical world has always kept film music and its composers at arm's length, or treated it with outright disdain. Williams has done more than anyone else to legitimize the art form in those hallowed halls, both through the sheer quality of his writing and his ability to adapt film music to fit the classical format.
"Approximately every cue in a motion picture ending is morendo, rallentando, you know? 'To disappear,'" he laughs. "You may have 16 wonderful bars to play in the film, but then we cut away and we do something else. Most of [these concert versions of themes] are extended, so they will have modulations, and they will have some sense of development. They're all pretty much short — none of them are Mahler symphonies — but still require some developmental tissue and endings."
Mutter premiered these new arrangements at Tanglewood in July, and will perform them again at the Königsplatz in Munich on Sept. 14. She says, unfortunately, there's still a snobbishness in her field towards movie music.
"I have never understood why, particularly in German-speaking countries, there's such a harsh division between these different genres of serious music," she says. "I don't see much of a difference between a program piece like [Richard Strauss'] Alpine Symphony or Don Quixote — a piece which is generally a storyline — and music you would write for a film. I would like to see more of an embrace of these different styles of music on the concert stage. I find it, as a violinist, very exciting and also very challenging to play these many different themes. And I very much look forward to championing this kind of repertoire."
Previn was famously embarrassed by his time in Hollywood, and left that world behind for a career as a "serious" composer and conductor in Europe beginning in the 1960s. He repeatedly told his old friend, "John, stop it with Star Wars!" as he recounted in a 2017 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"I think he [had] lived too long in Germany," Mutter says. "German-speaking parts of the world are less relaxed about embracing all kinds of different styles of music. And I think, therefore, he always felt the need not to look back on the Hollywood years so favorably. It was probably also, born out of reflex. When [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold came back, after his exile in California, to Vienna, his career as a composer was basically over — because it was a total no-go in Europe to have been a Hollywood composer. Which is really sad and tragic. I think André was that generation, and he tried very hard to erase his past in Hollywood. But he was a genius composer, in both fields, so there was no reason."
Williams brought up Previn's score for the 1962 war film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. "There's a violin theme in there — oh my God," he says. "Oh, it's heavenly."
Williams has given this whole subject a lot of thought. "We have to look at film music as something very, very young, in its nascent time," he says. "It's only 80 years since we started to put music to film. We had nothing but European incidental music from opera to do — Richard Strauss, or whatever it would be. There was no Hollywood style. We had to find some music to put on the adventure film."
"What I feel convinced about is, if we could come back in 50 years, when younger composers who will come along and use some electronics, some this or that, some orchestra-spatial thing — as the reception of film, and the cinemas themselves become more user-friendly in terms of sonic impression and spatial effects and so on — that some of the greatest music will be written for film."
"I'm a little concerned that the younger generation of composers," Williams says.
Mutter chimes in with a laugh: "That things are getting a little small-chested."
"Well, it depends on how they're getting educated," Williams responds. "But I think there will be great ones — I want to believe that."
Williams says there's a dystopian view of the practice as well.
"You can say, 'Oh my God, nobody can write a scale in Hollywood anymore — they're all no good,'" he says. "That also could happen. Civilization is, you know, wafer thin, to quote Churchill. It's one generation, and it's gone. So when people pass away, they take with them all of their knowledge and all of their experiences."
But music, he says, is part of our humanity: "With all of our other foibles, we cannot abandon music — anymore than we can abandon speech."
"Particularly the music of John Williams!" Mutter says emphatically to which Williams, scrunching his eyes, lets out a self-effacing growl.
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