#WilliamsWeek 2020: Day 3

It’s day 3 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.


“Well, I take the occasional Sunday off. Mind you, there are good days and bad days. A lot of it is rubbish! But it’s the process. It’s picking up the pencil, writing it, having it played, moving on.

It’s an influence that would be hard to quantify, but I think methodology is intimately connected to result. The pencil and paper are still very good tools, as is the piano. It’s something you do with your hands, so there’s an aspect of craftsmanship involved, even penmanship. And largely because I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had the time to go back and re-tool, and learn new methods I might have greatly benefited from.

There must surely be bars, here and there, but it’s my personality never to be completely sure that what I’ve done is the best. There’s enough dissatisfaction gnawing at me all the time that I want to try to keep pushing forward.

After 60 years of doing this, it’s like breathing for me, or daily meals. My wife is often chiding me – why don’t you give yourself a break for a month or two, you might write better if you got away from it! But my vacation from the Hollywood work has been to sit down here at Tanglewood and write an overture for someone, a concerto for a friend. I think the best way it has ever been put was by Rachmaninov, who said ‘music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.’ As long as we’re fortunate enough to tinker around with music, I believe it is deserving of our interest until we draw our last breath.”

(Quote from John Williams, the music master, Clemency Burton-Hill, Financial Times, 2012)

The selection for today’s #WilliamsWeek celebration is the concert adaptation of two pieces from the film score of The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a supernatural comedy directed by Australian filmmaker George Miller inspired by the 1984 novel written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American author John Updike.

The film tells the story of three young women named Sukie, Alex and Jane (respectively Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher and Susan Sarandon) living in a sleepy small New England village called Eastwick and the sudden arrival of a mysterious man called Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), who settles in town and starts seducing the three women through his charme and passionate character. The three women soon become his sexually charged “witches” under a demonic spell, much to the shock of the whole villagers. As the story goes, Daryl is revealed as a devil-like creature in disguise, starting to cause panic among the fervent religious inhabitants of the town of Eastwick. Sukie, Alex and Jane then reluctantly choose to fight Daryl back until he can be defeated.

While Updike’s novel acts as a social satire of American protestant Puritanism (particularly in the way society always diminished the role and independence of women), the film adaptation plays more like a dark comedy spiced up with elements of fantasy, dazzling visual effects (by Industrial Light & Magic) and some adult-oriented humor. It’s a fun movie, essentially dependent on the quartet playing the main characters, all particularly brilliant, especially the true devilish performance of Jack Nicholson as Daryl/Devil. But the score by John Williams is what elevates the film to a whole different level, possibly going even beyond any of the film’s artistic merits.

Williams takes a cue from the film’s setting and its inner motifs to produce a fantastically fun and inventive piece of work, rich of unique orchestral colours, infectious thematic ideas, and a broad, almost over-the-top character in which the composer seems to have an unlimited sense of fun. Like the main character portrayed by Nicholson, the music plays and laughs, sometimes even hysterically, but its darker, devilish character is always creeping in. Williams develops his musical material during the film through intelligent spotting and his usual ability in letting the thematic ideas emerge gradually. For example, the theme associated with Daryl is introduced as soon as the character arrives in town, but it won’t be until the final act that it will become his appropriately demonic dance, during the wild car ride back at the mansion before the final confrontation with the three witches. But the score is full of many other brilliant moments, such as the delightful romp for piano and orchestra that accompanies a supernatural tennis game.

The score garnered a well deserved Academy Award nomination and Williams returned to it after the film’s release to fashion a symphonic suite in two movements that would have been premiered during the 1988 season of the Boston Pops. The first piece is called “The Balloon Sequence” and it was originally written for the dream-like “ballet” scene right after the last of the three ladies finally cease to Daryl’s seduction and they’re all free to enjoy a renewed sense of freedom and joy together with him–after a introduction on piano, Williams presents a soaring melody in the violins, giving a sense of levity and flight as we see the characters running into a ballroom full of pink balloons. Then the horns enter to sing in counterpoint, bringing a wonderful symphonic crescendo as the “courting dance” between the ladies and Daryl goes on. Sadly, the piece was discarded from the film in lieu of the temp track director George Miller used during the editing (the aria “Nessun dorma” from the opera Turandot by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini), but Williams nonetheless presented it on the soundtrack album and later repurposed it for concert performance as heard here. The lush orchestrations and the broad, operatic character recall shades of the composer’s 1979 score for Dracula (interestingly, another demon-like creature).

The suite then presents the “Devil’s Dance” associated with Daryl. Based on the film’s end credits suite, the piece is Williams’s own take on the danse macabre genre that inspired several composers throughout history (from Liszt to Mahler)–it’s a dance in triple time that recalls the Italian-based folk dance called tarantella, but also the “sabbath” as imagined by Hector Berlioz in the final movement his famous “Symphonie fantastique”. The tune is infectious, it twists and turns unexpectedly like a malicious demon both harmonically and melodically, grabbing our full attention since the beginning. Williams puts some delicious and idiosyncratic touches in the orchestration, such as the use of vibraslap, thunder sheets and tambourines, but also in the use of the violin played in their natural “fiddle-like” open-string tuning (another typical musical association with the devil in music history). The piece runs and develops with delicious bombast, reaching a feverish crescendo as if to remind the listener to not take it too seriously, but instead just surrender to pure, unadulterated fun. It’s another example of Williams’s incredible skill in writing fully-fledged, perfectly autonomous musical set-pieces while serving the film’s needs.

The two-movement suite is presented here is a beautiful recording from the 1988 album Salute to Hollywood, with the Boston Pops conducted by John Williams. The “Devil’s Dance” has been frequently performed by the composer in many concerts since then (and also more recently by other conductors) and it remains one of the most unabashedly fun compositions of his repertoire that probably will survive much longer than the memory of the film for which it was written.

Listen to the episode of Jeff Commings’s podcast The Baton about Williams’s The Witches of Eastwick, co-hosted by The Legacy of John Williams’s regular contributor Gianmaria Caschetto: