#WilliamsWeek – Day 5: Happy Birthday, John Williams!

It’s day 5 of the #WilliamsWeek. Today is John Williams’ 87th birthday! We send our best wishes to the Maestro and tribute his incredible legacy through one final very inspiring quote and one the most heartfelt and profound works of his long and distinguished career. Happy Birthday, Maestro Williams. And thank you for sharing your artistry with the whole world. Here’s to many more years of unforgettable music!

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John Williams at Boston’s Symphony Hall, May 2010 (Photo by Fabrizio Bertellino)

When I was about 40-years old, I lost somebody very, very, very close to me unexpectedly. And before that point in my life, I didn’t know what I was doing. But after that point, in my writing, in my approach to music, in everything I was doing, I felt […] clear, but what it is I was trying to do, and how I could do with whatever small gift I may have been given? It was a huge emotional turning point in my life, let’s leave it there, but one that resonates with me still, and taught me about who I was, what I was doing and what it meant. This is a deeply emotional thing. In a way, that was the greatest gift ever given to me, if I can put it that way, by anyone. […] It was certainly a pivotal moment in my thinking, in the living of my life and approaching the blank page absolutely. I immediately knew where to go with this emotionally.

(Quote from “Behind the Score: The Art of the Film Composer“, event held at the LACMA’s Bing Theater, July 2014)

The work chosen for today’s tribute is intimately linked to the quote above: the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, composed by John Williams in the mid-1970s and dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Barbara Ruick Williams, who passed away tragically in 1974. It’s one of the composer’s earliest major works for the concert hall and probably one of the most profound and emotionally charged pieces ever penned by Williams. The tragic circumstances that spun inspiration for this composition are part of Williams’ personal life and he has always been understandably very private about it. In 2012, he opened up to BBC Radio 3 journalist Donald McLeod and spoke about how writing the concerto helped him to cope with the mournful event:

“When my wife passed away, [my children] were teenagers, and the question of going on was just a basic, simple necessity. One needed to keep working, keep going, keep supporting and helping the children, and offering the kind of strength and support they needed at that time. And secondly – the solace that’s found in music, in solitude or in public. When Barbara passed, I didn’t work commercially, but I continued to write. I found great comfort in my work, certain in the knowledge that she wanted me to continue. Her father was a violinist […] and she was always egging me on to write a violin concerto, and I thought, well, now I have the time, and even gained the patience, to try and write one. […] Pieces like this can be very personal and be related to parts of our lives that are more private. What better instrument than the violin to enjoy this process with?”

The composer wrote the Violin Concerto between 1974 and 1976. Violinist Isaac Stern – who was a close friend of Williams back then – helped him and offered his own support throughout the writing process. It’s written in a very broad Neo-romantic style, even though it’s atonal in nature and structured in a similar idiom to the great violin concertos of the 20th century. Williams himself acknowledged the great works in the repertoire by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartòk, Barber, Shostakovich, Britten and Berg as inevitable reference points for any contemporary composer facing the challenge of writing a new violin concerto. The piece is not funereal, but it’s charged with a great deal of emotional resonance in which the listener can feel a very deep, personal story being told. The second movement – the heart-wrenching elegy “Slowly (in peaceful contemplation)” – is one of Williams’ most profound and touching pieces of music. As we spoke recently with great violinist Gil Shaham (who performed this Concerto several times through the years), one can be reminded of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto “To the memory of an angel”, another work born out of a tragic event (in that case, the sudden death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, and a dear friend of Berg). This connection was recently explored by musicologist Tom Schneller in a large and thorough essay contained in the book “John Williams: Music for Films, Television and the Concert Stage” (a collection of essays on Williams’ music edited and curated by Emilio Audissino). Williams’ Violin Concerto is a great work of inspiration and certainly a major addition to the repertoire of this instrument by an American composer. But above anything else, it’s a work that speaks about his own vision about music and also about life in a very direct, engaging and moving language. It’s a testament about how tragedy, sorrow and loss, if faced with courage, can bring us closer to the experience of transcendence, giving a new meaning in life and how to find light out of darkness.

The Concerto was premiered in 1981 in St. Louis, with Mark Peskanov as soloist and Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The piece was recorded  right after the premiere, with Peskanov and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Slatkin, for an album released by Varèse Sarabande Records (featuring also Williams’ Flute Concerto from 1969). Several years later, in 1998, Williams revised the work quite extensively and performed it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood with Gil Shaham as the soloist. The great violinist became one of the greatest champions of the piece and performed it again several times over the years with Williams himself on the podium, but also with other conductors. The piece was recorded in 2001 by Williams and Shaham for an album released on prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammophon, which is the recording featured beneath here.

John Williams’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra continues to be performed around the world to this day and will certainly be one of the composer’s most lasting pieces of his immense legacy.