#WilliamsWeek 2020: Happy Birthday, John Williams!

It’s the final day of the #WilliamsWeek. Today is John Williams’ 88th 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!

John Williams conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, January 2020 (Photo © Dieter Nagl / Wiener Philharmoniker)

Keep writing? As long as I can. You know that’s a very good question about anything we do. I think we always will want to do it as long as we are healthy, as long as the ability to do it is there. And in any kind of writing, I thought the mood that you’re in is very good. Even in your work, we all will do better work when we feel good. There’s a little difference between a bad day and a good day […]. I feel very, very lucky. I’ve been working I don’t know how many years, 65 years, 60, a long time. And my wife occasionally will say to me, “Do something useless. Go write some music or go to the piano and play something.”

Also, I don’t think anybody retires from music. It sounds corny, but it is a part of your breathing not only for musicians, but everybody. An octave on a Stradivarius is one thing. An octave on a little wooden flute in the New Guinea Jungle is the same thing. It is universal.

I don’t think you leave music. You might end up your very last day in life singing the first song your mother taught you. Music, I always say that it’s three things: It’s the composer, and it’s an orchestra or a singer, and the listener. And what music is, is the stuff in-between, the spirit [of] the three participants who lean on each other.

It is the power that music can transport between or connect between people, a nexus of some kind. Why do people in China or Japan and Asia love Beethoven? I tell you as a composer, it’s very interesting: You take the first page of a Beethoven symphony, after the introduction, and give me 12 bars and then try to write the next page. You can’t do it. No matter how much skill you have and how much training, you can’t quite go there in his brain. The ordering is a divine gift. Music is a nexus. It’s a conduit. It’s a connection. But the connection is the thing that will, if we can ever evolve to the point if we can still mutate, if we can still change and through learning, get better, we can master the basic things of governance and cooperation between nations.

(Quote taken from John Williams on Spielberg, “Star Wars,” and the power of music, Tracy Smith, CBS News Sunday Morning, 2019)

The piece chosen to celebrate John Williams’s 88th birthday is Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. It is a concert work originally written for cello and piano in 1997, born out of quite tragic circumstances. The piece was subsequently arranged by Williams for cello and orchestra on the occasion of a 2002 recording featuring the composer with acclaimed international cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As the composer recollects:

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine, a brilliant young violinist, lost her two young children in tragic circumstances. For the memorial service for little Alexandra and Daniel, a group of composers colleagues and I contributed a small piece to mark this occasion, which was not only heart-rending, but also suffused with a great deal of love.

A short time before this event, Yo-Yo Ma appeared as a soloist on my soundtrack recording of Seven Years in Tibet. The score included a short melodic fragment which I thought might be expanded, so I shaped it in the form of the present “Elegy”, always with the cello in mind. The original version of the piece was for piano and cello […] I decided to orchestrate [it] and Yo-Yo kindly agreed to record it.

Given this history, the making of this particular recording was, at least for me, a a joyful and healing experience, especially since my violinist friend was playing in our orchestra at the time.

I’m also happy to report that this lovely young woman is recovering from the unrecoverable, has started another gorgeous family and is playing as brilliantly as ever. Bless her.

More than using it as a vehicle for his own personal satisfaction, John Williams often wrote pieces for the concert hall with a specific person in mind, or as a gift for friend musicians. This is probably one of the most beautiful examples of the incredible generosity and kindness ever expressed by Williams, but also another testament of his sincere approach to music as a vehicle of human emotions to be shared. The piece has a ruminative quality and the thematic subject is presented softly at first, giving the cellist ample time to make it his own, chisel it with grace and only later give it to the full orchestra in one of Williams’s most heart-wrenching musical catharsis in his oeuvre. While an elegy in character, the piece contains a serene character, offering healing and closure. The music acts as a bridge from composer to performer and finally to the listener, traveling from one to the other and back again. As cellist Yo-Yo Ma told to journalist Tim Greiving:

Everything has a construction behind it. But as an architect of music, he’s always serving people and the landscape. Right? So in a piece of constructed music without a story, there’s always a story behind it. It could be subconscious, it could be conscious, it could be fragments. I think it’s a lie when anybody says, “Oh, I wrote this piece—it’s just notes.” That’s impossible, because there’s a reason why someone likes a fourth, or likes a certain chord progression, or whatever. In fact, that’s why you can identify, forensically, who a composer is, because you recognize the M.O. Right? Sometimes it’s a fascination with an instrument […] Let’s put it this way: he’s always writing for people. […] So when he writes a piece for either an instrument or a film, he’s writing for specific people. And he’s writing from his knowledge and experience. That’s a tip of the iceberg. Okay, this one doesn’t have visuals. But, you know, you might be the person providing the visuals. The point is, there’s always going to be a background story, a moment of inspiration, a spark that leads to an exploration, right? But it’s not explicit. Unless, of course, it’s like the death of these children, and then suddenly he has to write this piece. And it’s both joyous, devastatingly beautiful, and devastatingly filled with the grief of life lost. So sometimes pieces can have many different sides to it, and in fact that’s what makes music so wonderful, is that you have as many interpretations as there are people.

The recording here is from the 2002 album Yo-Yo Ma Plays John Williams, featuring the cellist and the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by the composer.