#WilliamsWeek – Day 2

It’s day 2 of the #WilliamsWeek, a five-days celebration of composer John Williams on the occasion of his 87th birthday coming February 8. We continue to cherish the work of the Maestro through inspiring quotes taken from interviews of the past and a piece of music from his extensive body of work for films and the concert hall.

JW-office_1997
John Williams in his studio, ca. 1997

Of course, a composer needs to be alone, and he needs to be in a quiet place. And I have a magnificent Steinway that’s been part of my life for so many years. The process begins with me writing a passage and rejecting it, writing another passage and liking some part of it and trying to keep that. It becomes a process in my mind, like sculpting, you keep cutting on something and, eventually, it reveals itself to you. The most difficult part of scoring films isn’t actually doing the scenes but creating the material for the film and its themes. Even if they’re a simple tune like ‘Indiana Jones’, I find those very hard to uncover! Sometimes, it takes weeks of changing things and moving them around, and a few simple notes, to eventually guide it into a state of inevitability, where the ear doesn’t have any argument any longer about the path we’ve taken melodically.

(Quote taken from John Williams looks forward to scoring new ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’, Ruben V. Nepales, Inquirer.net, 2013)

The piece chosen for today’s tribute is the “Suite for Narrator and Orchestra from The Reivers“, a concert adaptation from the original score composed by John Williams for the 1969 film directed by Mark Rydell and starring Steve McQueen. The film was based on the novel written by American author William Faulkner and published in 1962. It tells the coming-of-age story of young boy Lucius and his adventures with friends Boon and Ned. Set in 1905, it’s a picaresque story with a lighthearted tone that paints vivid images of the rollicking Southern atmosphere at the beginning of the 20th century. The film captures faithfully the spirit of the novel, thanks in no small part to John Williams’ melodious and cheerful score. Inspired by classic American folk tunes such as the music and songs of Stephen Foster, the score is filled with lyrical themes and authentic folk-like orchestrations, with fiddle, harmonica and banjo often at the forefront. It’s a work deeply rooted in American folk music tradition, but it also sports some of Williams’ trademark gestures and his unrivaled talent for writing memorable themes. The score is widely considered as Williams’ first major stepping stone as a film composer and, after years billed as “Johnny Williams”, became also his first credit as “John Williams”; more importantly, The Reivers earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score (he was previously nominated in 1967 for Best Adaptation Score category for Valley of the Dolls). Williams himself always showed a good deal of affection for this score: the long, elaborate concert suite he prepared is probably one of the best examples of revisting material written for a film and expanding it for concert presentation. The narration is based on Faulkner’s original novel (adapted by the film’s screenwriters Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr.); the composer reworked most of the original score’s material, but also wrote brand-new material to accompany the narrator, such as the jaunting tuba solo describing the Wynton Flyer (the car stolen by Boon and Lucius at the beginning of the film) and the galloping, exciting scherzo depicting Lucius’ final horse race to win back the car. The suite is a wonderful encapsulation of the score’s main ideas and a beautiful concert work in itself that shows John Williams’ authentic inspiration when dealing with American-inspired subjects. The suite premiered during Williams’ first concert as Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1980, with actor Burgess Meredith as the narrator. It was recorded by Williams and the Pops in 1990 (alongside suites of music by Aaron Copland and Williams’ own suite from Born on the Fourth of July) for the Sony Classical album Music for Stage and Screen.

 

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