A reflection on the historical and cultural significance of John Williams’s performances with the Wiener Philharmoniker in January 2020, now released internationally by the Deutsche Grammophon label
In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross, composer John Williams addressed directly, probably for the first time, one of the often-discussed motifs (pardon the pun) among many of his admirers, i.e. the supposed influence of Richard Wagner’s music on his work for the Star Wars film series, especially the usage of leitmotives and the boldness of the orchestral language. With his characteristic humbleness, Williams said, “People say they hear Wagner in ‘Star Wars,’ and I can only think, It’s not because I put it there. Now, of course, I know that Wagner had a great influence on Korngold and all the early Hollywood composers. Wagner lives with us here—you can’t escape it. I have been in the big river swimming with all of them.”
In just a few words, Williams acknowledged the immense musical heritage that starts with the European masters and arrives to him by the way of early Hollywood composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner and others. It’s an important reflection because it reveals the stature of John Williams as a man and artist in tune with his epoch, but very much aware of the great past he so admires. And while he isn’t a particular fan of Wagner and his music (“If Mr. Hanslick were alive, I think I’d be sitting on the side of Brahms in the debate”, he told in the same interview, quoting music critic Eduard Hanslick, who notoriously campaigned for Brahms against Wagner in late 19th century), Williams is aware that a wide range of musical influences are inescapable for any composer. Even more than that, he knows that any greatness a composer might achieve, it’s important to acknowledge the legacy of the great masters and keep carrying that torch of excellence.
It’s with this self-effacing, humble attitude that John Williams accepted the invitation to step on the podium of the Golden Saal at the Musikverein in Vienna and conduct the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in two concerts held in January 18 and 19, 2020. Those long-awaited performances were captured on video and audio for a spectacular deluxe album that is now being released worlwide on Blu-ray, CD and vinyl by the Deutsche Grammophon label, so it seems the right moment to reflect on the historical and cultural significance of this event, for the profound ripple effect it causes on the perception of John Williams’s music among historians, musicologists and also the audience who enjoys it since decades. It’s especially this last element that gave the event a unique and special character, as Maestro Williams appeared on stage to begin a very joyous night of music—the thunderous applause and subsequent standing ovation he received before the orchestra played a single note is something that will remain in the annals of the Musikverein for many years to come. But framing this spontaneous explosion of affection as worshipping at the altar of stardom and popularity is a mistake, as it would take away a lot from what Williams’s music means for the people who listen to it, but also for the players who perform it: it influenced at least two generations of listeners and musicians, making them falling in love with orchestral music and pushing a lot of them to achieve successful careers in music. As the first notes of the majestical “Flight to Neverland” concert suite from Hook (Steven Spielberg, 1991) started to fill the Golden Saal, it was clear that the audience was in for a rare treat: hearing one of Europe’s oldest musical institutions performing for the first time ever a full concert of music written for film conducted by its composer, performed it with grace, dignity, and real emotional understanding. This wasn’t a captatio benevolentiae operation on Vienna Philharmonic’s part, but a sincere tribute to the art of the composer who, through his work for films, probably did more than anyone else in keeping symphonic music alive and popular among a very large audience throughout the last four decades.
It’s well known that the Wiener Philharmoniker doesn’t usually perform music by living contemporary composers, even less written for an ancillary medium such as film. The Wiener are notorious for being the watchful guardians of a rich musical tradition that has in Vienna its main pillars, as all the great composers of European art music of the last three centuries passed throughout this city and their musical institutions. From Haydn and Mozart, to Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, and finally to Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, the city of Vienna has always been considered the cradle of much of said tradition, but also the temple in which countless admirers and music lovers professed their utmost respect and veneration to it. If Berlin was the city where experimentation and new languages were explored and pushed to the forefront, Vienna always remained strongly attached to the core of its vast musical tradition.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, much of Vienna’s musical life was still lived between the Staatsoper and the Musikverein, where great composers such as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg were performing their works, but also young talents such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner were working their way into the same musical world. Those two then-young talents couldn’t then imagine that much of their future successes wouldn’t be achieved in the beloved Austrian capital, but instead much far, far away, under the Californian sun, in the city of Los Angeles. As John Williams himself acknowledges in the conversation with Anne-Sophie Mutter featured in the bonus section of the Blu-ray release, the great Viennese tradition traveled to United States together with those composers when they landed on the American soil (most of them with a one-way ticket, as they were fleeing from the Nazi regime who was spreading throughout Central Europe at the beginning of 1930s). A lot of them, including Franz Waxman, Ernst Toch, Friedrich Hollaender, Adolph Deutsch, found themselves working for the film industry and applying their knowledge of the European art music from the late 19th century (mostly opera, theatre and program music) to the newly-born craft of movie music. A lot of what they did from the early 1930s onward was basically putting a new life into what was seen as demodé in their native countries, or generally considered out of touch with the true needs of the contemporary artistic expression. Tonal symphonic music, rich in thematic development and orchestrated with flair became the de facto musical badge of Hollywood’s great spectacle. The bold brass fanfares that opens the main title of Gone With The Wind by Max Steiner, or the lush orchestral accompaniment by Herbert Stothart that underscores The Wizard of Oz – both produced and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1939 and directed by Victor Fleming – are two sides of the same coin, the stoic but earnest comeback call of a musical expression that was far from dead and buried, but instead still rich with possibilities. In the following decades, it would cement even stronger thanks to the work of incredibly talented composers – Alfred Newman, Miklós Rózsa, Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Hugo Friedhofer, to name a few – who offered to Hollywood the best of what they had in store, constantly improving and finessing an artform that still had many secrets, and even unanswered aesthetic questions. However, the success achieved in the United States by many European-born composers was seen as a stain for many years by their respective native countries. It took decades to see them finally properly recognized, and that became possible also thanks to the rising of John Williams.
It’s also in this context that the renaissance of the symphonic tradition in film scores brought back in the 1970s, almost single-handedly, by John Williams must be seen and evaluated. The success of Jaws (1975), Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977), and the following golden streak of Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was the consequence of the huge impact of the films themselves, but what isn’t often acknowledged enough is that those cultural phenomenons were made even more relevant thanks to the composer’s invaluable contribution and his ability to revive a great tradition. Williams’s music is the faithful musical translation of those films’ unforgettable stories and characters, but also represents the deep, meaningful sense that lies beneath those tales of wonder, i.e. the timeless, mythological qualities that ring in our collective memories, which Williams’s brilliant symphonic scores make resonate and come alive again. And it’s not just the tradition of the Hollywood’s film music of the Golden Age, but also the great musical literature that inspired a lof of it. Through his music, Williams recollects our mythical (also musical) past and he continues to do so to this day, as the concerts in Vienna clearly demonstrated. But popularity notwithstanding, it was important for Williams, being the artist full of taste and integrity he is, to show that he was bringing that musical tradition he deeply admires back to its original place by the conduit of his own compositions. Williams also has the distinguished privilege to be one of the very few American conductors to ever lead the orchestra—illustrious predecessors include only Leonard Bernstein and a couple of naturalized citizens such as Seiji Ozawa and André Previn (by coincidence, two conductors who championed Williams’s music for many years). It’s another important testament of how much the American music landscape, in which film music plays a large role, has been a catalyst of influences and inspirations that can now be celebrated in the halls of art music.
When John Williams tackled his “Excerpts” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Vienna Philharmonic responded with a full, resplendent sound that wasn’t heard this big and powerful probably since Charles Gerhardt’s historic recording for RCA in 1978 with London’s National Philharmonic. At this moment, Williams and the Wiener Philharmoniker became a unified entity and the concert reached a whole new level, elevating all the pieces to compositions of trascendent beauty and vigour. The orchestra performed with a mixture of dignity and visceral power, always kept in balance by Williams’ no-nonsense conducting style—the Maestro looked particularly imbued with joy and satisfaction that he was able to communicate to every musician in the orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic performed Williams’s music with the same level of commitment, showing a reverence they reserve usually for their most sacred repertoire, like Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss. It’s important to notice that, unlike most American and British orchestras, they do not perform regularly this type of repertoire, so it was fundamental for the composer to create the right sound together with them. The composer recently admitted he was concerned that some of the orchestra’s traditional 19th century techniques they keep using (such as rotary valve trumpets) could change the sound of some pieces too much, but, as he confessed after the performance, the end result went well beyond his most optimistic expectations. The orchestra delivered a performance that will probably remain a benchmark in how film music can be elevated to the status of pure art music, as evidenced in the selections from Jaws and Jurassic Park, performed brilliantly by the Wiener Philharmoniker.
The selections featuring Anne-Sophie Mutter on solo violin were a testament of how much important is to create a sense of kinship between the musicians, but also how much virtuosity in these type of concerts must always rhyme with joy—as the violinist told to The Legacy of Williams last year, Williams conceived these successful arrangements as capricci and divertimenti for soloist and orchestra, and their mutual fun was all the more evident throughout their performances. The most dazzling excerpts, such as the Sarasate-like adaptation of the “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick, or the Paganini-esque “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter will surely become part of the virtuoso showcase of any great violinists; but it was perhaps the more lyrical, wistful character of pieces such as the theme from Sabrina and the rarely heard “Nice to Be Around” from Cinderella Liberty that cast a real magic spell on the entire audience through the incredible musicianship of soloist and orchestra.
The program was conceived as a journey through some of Williams’s most famous compositions, but it was all the more special that some lesser-known pieces found their way into the concert, such as the lovely pastoral suite “Dartmoor, 1912” from War Horse (2011), featuring an exquisite solo by principal flute Walter Auer, or the passionate melancholy of “Luke and Leia”, with a stunning horn solo delivered by Ronald Janezic. In those moments, one can truly admire the beauty of Williams’s lyrical writing and his absolute mastery of orchestration.
No John Williams concert could be complete without some obligatory selections from the Star Wars films, but hearing the now-ubiquitous “Main Title” fanfare resounding through the golden walls of the Musikverein as performed by the Wiener Philharmoniker gave the piece a whole new meaning. The audience was transfixed and swept away by the sheer enthusiasm of the orchestra and suddenly the whole place became as if it was haunted by the presence of Strauss, Mahler, Korngold and Steiner, nodding and smiling with pride at their natural American heir. And when the last notes of the iconic “Imperial March” filled the hall, it was the most exhilarating and joyous finale one could imagine, as the enthusiasm of the audience was created solely by the power of the music itself and its stunning presentation by Williams and the orchestra. It’s a resplendent testament of Williams’s dear concept of the “triumvirate” collaboration essential to the success of any musical performance: composer, musicians and audience get together to become a unified whole.
Some commentators will perhaps continue to ask themselves why such a respected musical institution did get dirty with “commercialism” and other types of narrow-minded critique like that, but luckily those kind of people are less and fewer than ever in their stubborn prejudice. It’s no exaggeration to state that John Williams will sit together in the same pantheon of the greatest composers who ever lived, but even more importantly, his music belongs to the hearts of billions of people, who will continue to listen and cherish it as an immense, beautiful gift.
Thanks to Emilio Audissino and Simone Pedroni for the talks that inspired a lot of these thoughts.
All pictures © 2020 Deutsche Grammophon / Wiener Philharmoniker
CD, Vinyl and Blu-ray Deluxe Edition (featuring 6 additional bonus tracks plus a Dolby Atmos mix) available on the Deutsche Grammophon store: https://store.deutschegrammophon.com/p1/index.html