Across the Stars, Inside the Music: Interview with Anne-Sophie Mutter

The internationally acclaimed violinist talks with The Legacy of John Williams about her collaboration with the composer and their stunning recording project Across The Stars, featuring all-new arrangements of Williams’ iconic film themes rewritten especially for her.

by Maurizio Caschetto

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John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter; Photo © Phrashant Gupta, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon

Some artistic partnerships can be easily summarized as a match made in heaven. This is certainly the case for the collaborations between composer John Williams and several great musicians and performers over the course of his 60+ years career, including some of the most talented and famous names of the classical world: Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, opera singer Jessye Norman, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, just to name a few. Internationally acclaimed German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter joins an impressive list of solo musicians who had the privilege of being picked by Maestro Williams to perform music written specifically for them. The uber-talented violinist certainly needs no introduction. At the very young age of 15, she was already performing under the baton of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, and since then had a luminous career performing with the greatest orchestras and the most distinguished conductors around the globe’s most important venues, but also performing in solo recitals and chamber groups, including her own ensemble named I Virtuosi. Mutter is considered among the greatest interpreters of both the great traditional repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and the Baroque masterworks of Bach and Vivaldi. Over the course of her career, she cultivated a very deep involvement in performing new music written specifically for her by some of her contemporaries, including Krzystof Penderecki, Witold Lutosławski, Wolfgang Rihm, and André Previn.

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Photo © 2019 The Japan Art Association / The Sankei Shimbun

Her genuine love for the music of John Williams started at a very young age, after being struck by the brilliant symphonic score of Star Wars. And since then, in her imagination started to form a dream which would become true four decades later: having a piece written for her by John Williams—Markings, for violin, strings and harp, debuted in Tanglewood in 2017, with Mutter performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons. But that wasn’t mean to become the peak of the collaboration with John Williams, quite the contrary it marked the beginning of a beautiful musical friendship. Right after the premiere, the violinist kept asking the composer to write something else for her and suggested the idea of having a couple of violin arrangements of a few of his Star Wars themes. From that moment on, the collaboration grew into an impressive collection of more than 15 new arrangements of Williams’ film themes rewritten for Anne-Sophie Mutter, including not only pieces from the Star Wars series (including “Princess Leia’s Theme”, “Yoda’s Theme”, and “Rey’s Theme”), but also from Sabrina, Memoirs of a Geisha, Far and Away, The Adventures of Tintin, and a couple of lesser-known gems from Dracula and Cinderella Liberty. The composer responded with genuine enthusiasm and inspiration at the challenge, looking back at some of his most gorgeous lyrical pieces and rethinking them as sort of suites, or “mini-concertos” for violin, each one illuminating a different side of Mutter’s incredible versatility as a performer, both as a virtuoso and as sensitive, profound vessel of lyricism. Williams plays with form and structure of classic violin showcases such as capriccio (“Hedwig’s Theme”, “Donnybrook Fair”) and romanza (“Across the Stars”, “Luke and Leia”), but also going into serious symphonic development (“Night Journeys” from Dracula), and even taking a heartfelt jazz detour (“Nice to be Around” from Cinderella Liberty). In some ways, the whole approach brings back memories of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto from 1945, where the distinguished Austrian composer reworked themes and motifs from some of his film scores into a fully-developed work for the concert hall, casting a new light to those already beautiful lyrical subjects. As Williams said, the themes and the pieces become “a very different emotional experience” when we hear them in this new form.

This remarkable collection (including two selections from his Academy Award-winning score for Schindler’s List and the world premiere recording of Markings) was recorded in March 2019 in Los Angeles, with Anne-Sophie Mutter joining some of the finest musicians of the Los Angeles area on the Scoring Stage at Sony Studios under the baton of Williams himself. The album, titled Across the Stars, was released by classical label Deutsche Grammophon last August and immediately became a huge seller in the classical charts. Williams and Mutter presented most of these pieces in a special concert at Tanglewood in July 2019. Then, the violinist brought her Stradivari in front of a huge crowd for the first time in her career in an open-air concert held at the Königsplatz in Munich, Germany, where she performed the same program together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Newman, summing up successfully the whole venture. In this interview, Anne-Sophie talks about the genesis of her collaboration with John Williams, her enthusiasm of working alongside him, and her thoughts on the legacy of the composer.

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Anne-Sophie Mutter and John Williams; Photo © Prashant Gupta, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon

Let’s start from the very beginning. In the liner notes of Across the Stars, you write about your first encounter with the music of John Williams while being a teenager growing up in the Black Forest in Germany. You went to see Star Wars and suddenly realized the power of that music and its composer, and started to follow his career and music. So, what was specifically that struck your imagination and curiosity in John’s music? And how it evolved over the years from that moment on?

The first Star Wars movie came out in Europe in 1978. In the States was a little earlier, I think. At that moment, both John Williams and George Lucas thought it was going to be just one film, then people will move on and that’s it. What I found amazing was how much John took care and time to develop all these leitmotifs—Leia’s theme, Luke’s theme, and all the others. There is so much musical substance and character given to these leitmotifs that I think the music is one of the true reasons why the film actually became so iconic. Of course there are the visual effects, and the story, but [the music] is a central part of the ongoing legacy of Star Wars. All these characters have such a deep, strong, and diverse profile, acoustically and musically, that all this adds considerably to the appeal of the film. I was struck by the main theme obviously because although it might remind ourselves of Richard Strauss, Bruckner, or Mahler, it’s clearly a unique voice. It has its roots in the great tradition of the so called classical music, but John Williams really makes it his own. I realized this is music totally independent of the film, it is as strong with the pictures as it is without. This is something John always does, not just with Star Wars—you can listen and grab the storytelling behind the movie because the music is a unique separate entity. It is meant for the film, but it has a wonderful life of its own. So, this is what struck me in John’s music. And it’s actually true of other film composers, like Bernard Herrmann, who used to work with Alfred Hitchcock, and also someone as iconic as [Miklós] Rózsa and [Erich] Korngold, who visited both the classical and the film world. For me, John Williams is really the godfather of the film-music genre. He is a classically trained composer who wanted to become a pianist first. He’s totally at home in the symphonic world of Brahms, Schumann, Mozart, Haydn, but he could turn that into a kind of program music for film. And that is a unique quality, because it’s not music that remains in the backdrop, something not really helping the movie.

It seems he’s always very careful about following both the film’s needs, but at the same time being mindful about the actual reasons of the music.

Think of Jaws—he told me the story about when he first played the theme for Steven Spielberg, who was totally stunned, but then John explained him that, with that theme, you have that kind of accelerando [sings the shark motif], and it’s fantasically frightening because you can literally hear the shark coming closer. Jaws would be nothing without the music. Or think about Superman—in the last film version of Superman they didn’t use John’s music. I was there sitting, and the film was okay, and I was waiting for the iconic theme to really transport Superman up in the sky, but it never came. So the film was lacking the heroism and the poetry of John’s music. This goes through his scores like a red thread. And when he’s not writing for film, but for the concert hall instead, his music is extremely contemporary, very often atonal. If you analyze “Hedwig’s Theme”, it’s almost twelve-tone music! This man is a total genius, he’s so intellectual and he has such a grasp of music history and theory. We’re always emotionally, totally and utterly, connected to the story because of his music. And it has a great appeal because it doesn’t fade away over time, it never becomes demodé. It’s timeless, like Michelangelo’s David. He’s really the master.

To me, he has been able to put together the great symphonic European tradition you mentioned with a very specific American character, in the spirit of Copland and Bernstein. This is certainly unique in many ways.

Yes. Also the sense of rhythm of American music.

The album is clearly a labour of love from your part. You have been and still are genuinely enthusiastic about the whole experience of working closely with John Williams and having him writing these new pieces especially for you. The album feels like a true emotional journey for both of you and him. How the idea was injected first in your mind, and how it became the recording we now have?

It all started when I met him a few years years ago. I basically asked him to write something—anything actually, even just a few bars on a napkin, whatever! (laughs) He’s really one of my great musical heroes since I was a child, so meeting him was really exciting, and very humbling too. He’s such a soft-spoken, kind, generous person. After a while, I sent him a box of gingerbread cookies as a Christmas gift, and he eventually did write a piece for me called Markings. The piece is on the Deluxe Edition of the album and it’s also going to be released on a vinyl special edition which I’m very excited about—I think the violin sounds so much better on vinyl! So, he wrote Markings and we premiered the piece at Tanglewood in 2017. I also did the theme from Schindler’s List as an encore and we were all very happy. Then I very straightforward asked him if he would consider writing just one or two of his Star Wars themes for the violin, like “Princess Leia” or “Luke and Leia”, just for me. He seemed to be, you know, not against it, so he promised me he would do “Across the Stars” and maybe “Princess Leia’s Theme”. Then over the course of the following months he identified other tunes which would be possible to rewrite, not just rearrange, for the violin. Time went by and we exchanged letters and emails with our ideas. André Previn was a true driving force in this project. I remember looking at one score’s writing, I think it was “Princess Leia”, and it was in a register on the violin which was beautiful, but I felt it should be in a more soprano-like register, it would be even more beautiful and compelling. But I really didn’t know how to tell that to John, so I called André and told him ‘André, please, you have to help me, you have to call John and explain him!’. So Andrè called John and then of course he rewrote it, but André was often the messenger between us. He was also the one responsible for the selections of Cinderella Liberty and Dracula. He always kept telling John, and John remembers that very fondly, ‘Write something difficult and virtuosic for her! She can play anything!’. Of course that is not true, I cannot play everything, I successfully pretended all my life that I could! (laughs)

Very successfully, I’d say!

(laughs) So, John wrote all those fabulous cadenzas, for example in “The Duel” from Tintin, and also in “Hedwig’s Theme”, and The Witches of Eastwick, which is not on the recording.

Yes, I noticed you performed that live, but it’s nowhere to be found on the album.

We did it in July in our concert in Tanglewood and then in Munich, but when we recorded in April it wasn’t ready yet. It just adds to the diversity, not only of this album, but generally of John’s life. I find it really very moving that he would write for a relatively small film like The Book Thief, for example, because he loved the book he read. It’s such a beautiful piece. So, he’s a very passionate man, he does it because he loves music. He doesn’t do it because of fame, or to win one more Oscar, you know. He does it because he wants to paint stories with his music, and he wonderfully does so.

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John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter during the recording of ‘Across the Stars’; Photo © Phrashant Gupta, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon

It seems to me that John purposefully gave all the pieces a specific violinistic character and structure. We have German-like Romanza pieces (Luke and Leia, Across the Stars), virtuosic Paganini-styled capricci (Hedwig’s Theme, Tintin, Far and Away), very serious, impassioned mini-concertos (Dracula, Remembrances), and impromptus (Rey’s Theme, Sayuri’s Theme). In Dracula, for example, there is a sort of short development section in the middle that truly sounds like a glimpse into a potential violin concerto waiting to be written. Did you and John want to give the whole album a classical structure in this sense, not just the single pieces?

The way John Williams decided the order in the two concerts I played, the first one in Tanglewood where he conducted the second half and also the concert in Germany last September conducted by David Newman, he arranged it in a way that each group of three pieces is actually like a mini-concerto in itself. He would have a slower piece, and then he would build up and then it would end with a so called fast movement which sounds like something virtuosic. So, each set of three pieces was really meant to be as a unity of form, but at the same time each one has a great diversity. And the same is true for the recording. We had a big philosophical issue with the “Theme from Schindler’s List” obviously, because, as I do in concert, I never put it in the main program, I always do it as an encore. It reflects on such a tragic chapter of human history, particularly sadly of German history, that you just cannot go on with life and play something else after it. On the Deluxe Edition you might have noticed that there’s Markings after the theme from Schindler’s List, which is a totally different aesthetic world, so John felt it would be permitted. Then we close with “Prayer for Peace” from Munich, which is another philosophical note, so to speak. It’s just amazing how much diverse John’s music is. You touched the topic of violinistic character of these pieces and this is absolutely true. It’s amazing how much John knows about every instrument. He told me that when he was a young man starting to work as a composer for television shows, he would work on shows that would cover many different cultures and musical styles of the world. So he had to write music in French style, or Japanese style, or write in the style of shtetl, Polish-style klezmer music. He told me he used to go up to the orchestra musicians, to the horn players, or the harp player, and ask them ‘How does this work? If I write this, how that would be possible for you to play?’. So over the period of many years as a young composer, he collected an incredible understanding and knowledge, not only of different cultures and styles of composing, but particularly of the instruments. Some of the best days of my life were actually the three days I spent with John Williams in his studio bungalow in Los Angeles, which is very close to the office of Steven Spielberg. I also had the honour to do the interview with John in Spielberg’s screening room, which was totally incredible—he also stopped by during the rehearsal to say hello, and I was totally star-struck! During those three days, John Williams took the time to tell me all about the pieces, helping me to find them, and really express the many different stylistic worlds in which they’re written. I was just blown away at the passion, the details, the love and the understanding he has of phrasing and even bowing. You know, Maurizio, he knows so much about violin playing to the point he would stress over the lenghth the note. After I played the piece, we would discuss bowings and he would always be right, he would always have the right solution, and that is totally amazing.

Was it a back and forth kind of collaboration in this sense? Did you give him notes, or suggestions, about some of the pieces?

Not from a compositional point of view because, you know, he’s a genius and he was always ahead of any issues. I read the pieces, played them and we went through them, read and repeat. Sometimes he might not be totally content with something he wrote, and he would rewrite it, and although for me it was totally fine already, he was always right. These rewritten passages always showed me there was a thinking process involving the composer’s brain. So my suggestions were very few. I think my role in this was to get under the skin of the piece and its voice, its emotional content and message, trying to bring that life to what the composer had been envisioning. I try to be that every time I play music which is going to be played for the first time. And these rewritten pieces, although we know the theme, are world premieres, in a way.

It’s almost an understatement to say these pieces really come alive through your interpretation and playing. I’m thinking especially about your reading of “Remembrances” from Schindler’s List. It’s such a magnificent, beautiful performance.

That’s a great piece. As he says in the interview on the bonus DVD on the Deluxe Edition, John actually thought that it would actually become the main theme from Schindler’s List. I know he really loved that theme, and there are many reasons why. I mean, the “Theme from Schindler’s List” is incredibly mournful and beautiful as well, but “Remembrances” really should be up there in popularity. It’s incredibly profound and memorable, summing up the film altogether. You hear three or four bars and you can feel the atmosphere of the film.

Yes, it’s not just about the tragedy and the sorrow of the events depicted, there’s also a glimmer of hope in the melody, and the way he develops it.

Yes. Oskar Schindler saved a lot of people and at the end of the film he says ‘I could have done more, I could have saved more’. Of course we could always do more, but what he did was really heroic, so that glimmer is really a hope for all mankind. Although, having said that, it’s really frightening to see the state of the world today politically, with the rise of far-right movements in many countries, particularly in Germany. It’s very, very bad.

You mentioned the great André Previn. We all miss him very much. He was a dear friend of John, they knew each other since they were youngsters moving their first steps in Hollywood. They even had the same composition teacher, the Italian emigré Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. André was the first to push John to write music for the concert hall already back in the 1960s, and premiered a lot of his concert works with the LSO and the Houston Symphony, including a very rarely heard Symphony. They always had an affinity both human and artistic. André sometimes scolded John in a friendly way, saying to write less for the movies and focus more on concert music.

I think John has been André’s closest and dearest and longest friend. It’s just wonderful to see that friendship at the beginning of John’s career, when André was already conducting a lot. He would always call John saying ‘Why don’t you come here conducting your music? Why don’t you write a piece for me?’. But it was both ways. I can tell you André took a lot of inspiration from John’s writing, obviously also from John’s classical writing. Look at how regularly John writes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with whom he always had a particularly close relationship, so basically he has written pieces for every instrument. Even recently last year Yo-Yo Ma premiered a new piece with the BSO, but John wrote for so many instruments, you just name it. So I’m really looking forward to hopefully one day perform a new violin concerto by John Williams. That would be the greatest moment in my life.

That would be fantastic. Now that he’s finishing with Star Wars, perhaps he will have more time to write for the concert hall.

Yes, exactly. What was incredible to witness even from afar, it’s how much time he spends in writing the music, and how involved he is. The new Star Wars is over two hours of music, I think. Can you imagine how many bars of music he has to write? And we’re talking about the size of a full orchestra score for 100, 120 players. He was still working on it at the beginning of October, it’s amazing.

It seems his pencil never stops!

Yes, I think no one is really aware about the amount of time and dedication he has to put in this. When they cut or change something in the editing, he has to adjust the music and rearrange it in a way that you don’t hear the cuts. It’s mind-boggling to know what goes into such a production, even just from the composer’s side, who in this case is also conducting the score. Do you know what goes inside the writing of the score? How much rewriting is necessary when John goes to the cutting room? If the climax is at three minutes and eighteen seconds, instead of four minutes and twenty, he has to rewrite it, make it longer, or shorter. Another thing I noticed, when he was standing next to me conducting, is that his sense of timing is amazing. Once he has found the perfect tempo for a piece, you can put your metronome, or a stopwatch, or any device, and it will always be in that space of time. Of course what happens in that space of time is generally spontaneous, but his sense of timing is just impeccable. Sometimes with conductors the problem is that you agree on a tempo which really seems to work for the piece, but then you start playing and suddenly the conductor goes half the tempo, or twice as fast, so it’s not always easy to agree on the right timing! (laughs)

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John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter recording ‘Across the Stars’ at Sony Scoring Stage in Los Angeles; Photo © Phrashant Gupta; courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon

You said that one of the things that pushed you in pursuing this project was having new violin pieces by John Williams that can be picked up by future generations of violinists. The music of John Williams inspired generations of people to become musicians. It’s much more than being associated to successful films. What do you think his legacy will be in this sense?

Generally, I think the legacy of great film music in the last 50-60 years primarily is that it’s the popular contemporary music of our time. So I do think that the influence on the listener and maybe the willingness to cross the bridges and start to play an instrument it’s very much enhanced and inspired by film music because it’s a much more popular music, and in a way it’s more subliminal. I’m almost desperately looking for new venues to perform classical music because I can sense, and I witnessed it as a performer, that although the traditional concert hall is a very important sacrosanct place, we need different venues. And for these other venues, for example an open-air concert, we might need a different repertoire. We have to reach out to an audience that doesn’t know the existence of classical music. In this sense John Williams is a classical composer who is also writing film scores, and I do think that his influence and inspiration on the young generation of musicians is huge. Just think about all the kids who grew up with Hedwig’s Theme. In my concert in Munich, there were a lot of young people coming just to hear Harry Potter, but of course there were all the other themes that might appeal to them. I will never forget this 8-years old boy in Tanglewood—he came backstage, he looked at Mr. Williams and he looked at me and said ‘Wow! The violin is the coolest instrument ever!’ (laughs). Of course I agreed with him! But it was so lovely to see. So these newly written pieces for the violin John wrote will definitely inspire new generations of musicians. A lot of John’s music has inspired French horn players, but now it’s going to inspire also string players, who will fall in love with “Sayuri’s Theme”, or “The Chairman’s Waltz” from Memoirs of a Geisha. They know music from the cinema, and it’s a different kind of emotional connection, even before one learn to play an instrument. So that is another legacy of John—he inspires an audience to do it themselves who otherwise might not be that connected to music.

I think he infused a lot of symphonic joy in young people. His music is part of the lives of so many of us, and it accompanied every moment so that the music reminds us also about who we are.

Yes, and isn’t that wonderful? You can hear Puccini, you can hear Beethoven, you can hear John Williams, and they all have a big part in our lives, and in our memories linked to their music. It’s wonderful to share this with a large audience. I cannot wait to do it again. I’m planning a tour in 2022 and I want to bring John Williams’s music again in open-air venues. That will be a dream come true.

Yes, it’s wonderful to see how much John Williams’s music has been crucial in all of this. He’s finally going to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein. How amazing is that?

Yes, and I will be there as well. That’s the coolest thing ever!

Oh, really? Do you mean you’re going to perform with him?

Yes, I will be his guest artist. That’s so amazing, isn’t it? I mean, this is John Williams’ European debut! Other than in London, he has never conducted in the Old World. Everything will be filmed and recorded, it’s going to be spectacular.

I dare to say it’s going to be historical. Thank you so much for the time you dedicated talking with me, Anne-Sophie. It’s wonderful to talk with you!

Thank you, Maurizio!

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Original illustration by Gianmaria Caschetto © 2019

Thanks to Elisabeth Keck for the great help and support; and a very heartfelt thank you to Anne-Sophie Mutter for her time and generosity.

Visit Anne-Sophie’s official website to get updates about her upcoming concerts, recordings and projects: https://www.anne-sophie-mutter.de