#WilliamsWeek 2020: Day 2

It’s day 2 of the #WilliamsWeek, a celebration of composer John Williams on the occasion of his 88th 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.

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Photo © Thomas Bango

“As musicians, we don’t like to think we need visual aids to project music. It should be able to engage us aurally and intellectually without a visual distraction. I’m painfully aware of that problem, but as you and I have discussed before, we are visual addicts, stimulated by computer or movie screens. People have their eyes glued to something all the time. For that generation, it’s hard to listen to Beethoven and be completely engaged in a way that we would prefer them to be. But I think to ignore that fact is to ignore a reality that is with us; the audiovisual coupling as expressed in film music is something that is really with us to stay because of the way we live.

For better or worse, the audience for film music, even in an unconscious way, is multinational and enormous. If there is such a thing as global music, it’s probably coming from film, where it’s less attached to one particular vernacular. As a unified art form, a successful film, if it has a score that people will embrace, really can, in the atmosphere we live in today, reach across those boundaries. Film music can therefore be very important even to the history and development of the art form of music itself.

I think young people will come along, recognize the irrevocability of the linkage between the visual and aural, and approach as musicians the opportunity to write for film very seriously.”

(Quote from Conversations with John Williams, by Jack Sullivan, The Chronicle Review, 2007)

The piece chose today for our week-long celebration is again from one of John Williams’s projects with Steven Spielberg: it’s the original end title suite for the film War Horse (2011), titled “The Homecoming” on the soundtrack album. The film is one of the more recent collaborations between the director and the composer; it was based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpugo, which was adapted on a very successful stageplay by Nick Stafford in 2007. The film tells the story of a Thoroughbred horse named Joey, raised by a young English farmer boy from Devonshire named Albert Narracott and then sold to the British Army to become a war horse. During his incredible journey, Joey will encounter several individuals who will all be affected by this extraordinary animal, all while experience the tragedy, the horror, and also the humanity during World War I happening around him, before being finally reunited with his former master at the end of the conflict.

Spielberg tells this story of a boy and his horse with his trademark sense of epic humanity, trying to find a balance between the simple E.T.-like children nature of the book and the raw drama implied by the historical backdrop as found in some of his previous films like Empire of the Sun (1987). It’s a sincere film, perhaps also inspired by some of the previous children films starring animals such as Black Stallion and Black Beauty, but rich at the same time with a beautiful sense of historical accuracy, where also the natural landscape is a character as much as the humans. All executed with spectacular mastery of the filmmaking craft.

John Williams accompanies the film with a rich lyrical score, full of tuneful melodies, shining orchestrations and a deep sentimental character, in the truest sense of the term. The film offered him another opportunity to write music inspired by the style of some of his favourite English composers such as Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius, a vernacular he explored four decades earlier in the score for the TV production of Jane Eyre (1971). The scenery of the film gave the composer ample opportunity to write dense pastoral music for strings and woodwinds, with a special soloist role for flute (performed in the film recording by legendary Los Angeles-based flute player Louise DiTullio). The various set-pieces of the film also offered the chance to write a score divided into three different acts, thus giving the music a wonderful storybook feeling.

“This was a very rich opportunity musically because it is both about humans and animals and it takes place in three different countries. It starts out in a more intimate way, on the farm with the bonding of Joey and Albert. Then, the eruption of war changes the scale, and the music does a 180-degree turn. From this bucolic, gentle, even sentimental music, you move into the music of battle surges and gripping struggles. It’s a musical journey full of dimension and emotional content, and I tried also to create an atmosphere reflective of that period, which was lyrical, poetic and tragic.”

The piece written to accompany the end credits is one of John Williams’ characteristic concert-like recapitulations of the film’s principal thematic ideas, presented and developed in symphonic fashion—after an introductory motif for woodwinds, the piece starts with a dance-like folk tune in triple meter representing a galloping horse, which Williams develops up into a soaring orchestration; then, music representing the English countryside takes center stage, with solo flute over beautiful thick, sonorous harmonies in the strings, after which we’re presented the beautiful theme for Joey and Albert bonding together. From now on, Williams morphs and molds his material with the mastery of the true symphonic composer, developing it until he finally offers the score’s most heart-wrenching theme, representing the reunion between Joey and Albert—this is certainly one of John Williams’s most soulful and heartfelt lyrical themes in his oeuvre.

After the film’s release, the composer returned to the score’s material to carve out a concert suite titled “Dartmoor, 1912”, based mostly on the film’s opening scene and the material developed in the end credits. On the frontispice of the Signature Edition score published on Hal Leonard, the composer wrote:

The counties of Devon and Dorset in the west country of England are among the most beautiful places on earth, and in the first two decades of the 20th century, the great modem masters of the English pastoral style wrote musical paeans to this, their beloved countryside.

Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth, the Australian Percy Grainger, among others, all contributed to a rich literature that I’ve loved and admired for a long time. In a very real sense, “Dartmoor, 1912” was written as an homage to these great men.

Despite the film is probably less remembered than others more financially successful in the Spielberg/Williams canon, the music of War Horse is another testament of the composer’s ability to take inspiration from the source material and going even beyond the filmic nature of the piece, delivering a magnificent reimagination of one of the musical styles closest to his heart.