#WilliamsWeek 2020: Day 4

It’s day 4 of the #WilliamsWeek, a celebration of composer John Williams on the occasion of his 88th birthday coming February 8. We continue to tribute the work of the Maestro through inspiring quotes taken from interviews and a piece of music from his extensive body of work for films and the concert hall.

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We have to look at film music as something very, very young, in its nascent time. It’s only 80 years since we started to put music to film. We had nothing but European incidental music from opera to do — Richard Strauss, or whatever it would be. There was no Hollywood style. We had to find some music to put on the adventure film.

What I feel convinced about is, if we could come back in 50 years, when younger composers who will come along and use some electronics, some this or that, some orchestra-spatial thing — as the reception of film, and the cinemas themselves become more user-friendly in terms of sonic impression and spatial effects and so on — that some of the greatest music will be written for film.

You can say, ‘Oh my God, nobody can write a scale in Hollywood anymore — they’re all no good.’ That also could happen. Civilization is, you know, wafer thin, to quote Churchill. It’s one generation, and it’s gone. So when people pass away, they take with them all of their knowledge and all of their experiences. With all of our other foibles, we cannot abandon music — anymore than we can abandon speech.

(Quote from John Williams And Anne-Sophie Mutter, 2 Geniuses For The Price Of One, Tim Greiving, NPR, 2019)

The piece chosen for today’s #WilliamsWeek celebration is a concert suite featuring music from Angela’s Ashes (1999), a film based on the very popular autobiographical memoir by Irish-American Frank McCourt chronicling his childhood and youth as the son of an immigrant Irish family facing the struggle and the sorrow of poverty, forced to return to Ireland from the United States because of the alcoholism of Frank’s father. Despite the tragedy of the events recounted, McCourt’s prose contains color and humor that mitigate the overall sadness of his memories–it’s a beautiful example of the classic Irish lilt. The film was directed by Alan Parker, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Laura Jones, and stars Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle as Frank’s parents. The script retains several direct quotations from McCourt’s book, used as a voice-over over the course of the film, but overall it fails to fully recapture the delicate balance of wit and sorrow as found in McCourt’s writing, leaning too much on the gloomy aspect of the story.

Like he would have done a few years later for Memoirs of a Geisha, John Williams fell in love with the book after reading it and proposed to write the score when he learned a film adaptation was in production. Director Alan Parker immediately accepted the composer’s offer (“For a filmmaker, this is akin to winning the lottery”, said Parker). It’s fair to speculate that the book probably already inspired feelings and musical ideas to Williams, however the composer responded very positively and with great sensitivity to the film, writing a score that contains a great amount of sorrow and melancholy, but placated by a delicate sense of hope. “The music supplies warmth to a chilling tale,” summed up perfectly the Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer. The main thematic idea that permeates the score is one of Williams’s characteristic long melodies, a beautiful chromatic subject that plays almost like a sad lullaby often presented on solo piano. The music aches and sobs, but at the same time offers warmth, solace and humanity. The music suggests an Irish spirit in the use of certain harmonies and intervals, but Williams wisely avoids using traditional Irish music stylings.

“I thought that using a sort of Irish vernacular music might narrow the piece down. Another way of going was to take a more universal approach, a more emotional approach, if you like, with the orchestra expressing the broad, human aspect of the experience. There was no need, I felt, for the music to emphasize the specifically Irish or Catholic aspect of the story.”

The orchestration of the piece is dominated by a string orchestra (sometimes reminiscent of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s opulent string sound), augmented by horns, woodwinds and solo harp. The score has a quasi-chamber character though, with piano, cello, harp and oboe all having major soloist roles and sometimes put also in wistful dialogue with each other. There is even room for light humor, such as the pizzicato-laden cues accompanying the scene when Frank and family try to pound fleas on a mattress. Moments of orchestral predominance are saved only for some selected sequences, like the soaring cue that accompanies the final scene when Frank finally returns to America, where the orchestra brings a beautiful sense of resolution.

The film was a financial and critical disappointment, but Williams’s score was universally lauded and appreciated, garnering an Academy Award nomination in 2000 for Best Original Score and winning the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition. Williams prepared a 20-minute presentation for narrator and orchestra for  the Boston Pops season in 2000 (performed both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood). The composer repurposed the material written for the film in a full-bodied symphonic suite including extended solo parts for piano, cello and harp. Like Prokofiev, Walton and Shostakovich did before him, Williams takes the chance to give his film work a new (and possibly even longer) life into the concert hall.

Author Frank McCourt himself reads passages from his book, with words and music complementing each other seamlessly, with Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Boston Symphony’s Ann-Hobson Pilot on harp and John Williams himself performing the solo piano part and conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. Listened in this unique performance, the music acquires a new dimension, perhaps delivering an even more satisfactory experience than its counterpart as heard in the film. From the sad, but gentle rocking lullaby heard in the opening to the marvellous catharsis of the closing moments, Williams’s sensitive composition brings us into a heartfelt emotional journey.

The audio recording of the live performance held at Tanglewood in August 2000 is available as a digital purchase on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s website:

https://www.bso.org/brands/tanglewood/features/from-the-audio-archives/from-the-audio-archives-day-34.aspx