Legacy Conversations: Eric Whitacre

Grammy Award-winning composer and conductor talks about his love for the music of John Williams and how it impacted his own life as a musician

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The music of John Williams has inspired at least two generations of composers who have now successful careers not just in film, but also in the contemporary classical world. Grammy Award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is part of this peculiar group. One of the most popular and frequently-performed composers in the world, Whitacre is known primarily for his work in choral music, but he is actually a true multi-faceted artist who became a beacon and an inspiration for a multitude of singers, musicians, composers and lovers of music across the globe. He is currently Visiting Composer at Pembroke College at Cambridge University and recently completed his second term as Artist in Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Photo © Marc Royce

Born in Nevada in 1970, Eric joined a marching band at school and also played in a techno-pop group. His musical passions widened during his student years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, inspired initially by the life-changing experience of singing Mozart’s Requiem. Eric subsequently studied composition with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the Juilliard School in New York, graduating as Master of Music in 1997. His early output for choir and symphonic wind ensemble was well received by critics in the United States and eagerly taken up by performers, with his pieces soon becoming some of the most requested and performed by singers worldwide. The inner beauty of Eric’s luminous compositions like “Lux Aurumque,” “Sleep,” and “Cloudburst” immediately struck a chord both with performers and listeners.

As many of his compositions show, Eric’s musical imagination is varied and colorful, exploring the endless possibilities of unexpected harmonic combinations, often in conjunction with meaningful lyrics based on poetry, while remaining firmly grounded on a strong and powerful expressive language. Whitacre’s imaginative symphonic compositions (including works like “Equus” and “Deep Field”) also reflect a “cinematic” inspiration, a quality that is nowadays not rare to be found among contemporary composers writing for the concert hall. “I often feel that I am writing film scores without the film,” says Eric during this conversation. Among his musical inspirations, Eric cites the film scores by John Williams as a major component of his upbringing. As it happened to many of his generation, the encounter with the music of Star Wars was a life-changing moment:

I don’t know how many times I saw it in theater, but it was enough that I asked for Christmas that year for the soundtrack album of Star Wars. I got it on cassette tape and I listened to it until the tape broke.

Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre conducting at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, (Photo © 2019 Los Angeles Master Chorale)

The path of Eric Whitacre is similar to the ones that we’ve heard on The Legacy of John Williams from Peter Boyer, Kevin Puts, Marcus Paus, but also to many other composers of the same generation (Jennifer Higdon, Guillaime Connesson, Andrew Norman) who often mentioned John Williams as an inspiration thanks to the power of his music for such films as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and other works that made a lasting impact in those years. Williams’ own musical imagination ignited the love for symphonic music for an entire generation, among whom there were many who went on to have successful careers in the field of classical music. It’s indeed the composer’s mastery at using the orchestra that still impresses Whitacre:

More than any living composer I know, classical or otherwise, [John Williams] truly understands the orchestra. He knows how to write for it and how to make it sing like no other.

Eric Whitacre

But while Eric Whitacre’s music doesn’t sound like John Williams, it’s very clear that the joy, the excitement and the sheer enthusiasm of his writing is deeply in touch with a true Williams-esque spirit, as a piece like “Equus” shows:

His compositions have been widely recorded and his debut album, Light and Gold, went straight to the top of the charts, earning him a Grammy Award for Best Choral Album. His second album, Water Night, went on No.1 position in the iTunes and Billboard classical charts on the day of its release and includes several world premiere recordings performed by the Eric Whitacre Singers and the London Symphony Orchestra.

As a guest conductor, Eric performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras and choirs in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and Buckingham Palace. Insatiably curious and a lover of all types of music, Eric has worked with Hollywood composers Hans Zimmer, John Powell and Jeff Beal as well as British pop icons Laura Mvula, Imogen Heap and Annie Lennox. Major classical commissions have been written for the BBC Proms, Minnesota Orchestra, Rundfunkchor Berlin, The Tallis Scholars, Chanticleer, Cincinnati Pops, Kantorei, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, National Children’s Chorus of America and The King’s Singers. Recent compositions include a long-form work, The Sacred Veil – a profound meditation on love, life and loss with text by American poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, premiered by the Los Angeles Master Chorale – and a new orchestral work, Prelude in C, commissioned by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Hailed by music critics as “a modern composer who is both popular and original,” Eric’s unique position in the music world is firmly established thanks also to his ambition in crossing genres and bring people together. His large-scale composition for symphony orchestra and chorus, Deep Field, was inspired by the achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope and became the foundation for a collaboration with NASA, the Space Telescope Science Institute and 59 Productions.  The film was premiered at Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, Florida), has been seen at arts and science festivals across the world. For this piece, Eric admits that he drew inspiration from the score of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of his own favorite John Williams’ works:

Eric Whitacre is considered the pioneer of the Virtual Choir, a project he first created in 2010 as an experiment in social media and digital technology to bring people together through the power of singing. The first edition featured 185 singers from 12 countries. Ten years later, Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently – written for the Virtual Choir during the global pandemic that shook the world – featured 17,562 singers from 129 countries.

Eric is also a passionate educator and public speaker. He has appeared giving keynote addresses and mainstage talks for international companies and world organizations, including Google and the UNICEF. He is also devoted to teaching, and in 2022 launched the Eric Whitacre’s Virtual School, a series of online masterclasses called “The Beautiful Mess” in which he offers practical and artistic insight gained throughout his career and drawn from his own approach to composition.

Photo © Marc Royce

In this conversation, Eric Whitacre talks about his love for the music of John Williams and how it helped shape his own creative musical journey since childhood, explaining why it continues to be for him an object of sincere admiration and also reflecting on his own approach to musicmaking and what it means to be a composer today.

Special thanks to Meg Davies and Fern Wilson (Music Productions) for their invaluable help and collaboration; and a heartwarming thank you to Eric Whitacre for his endless kindness and generosity.

Official Website: https://ericwhitacre.com/

Eric Whitacre’s Virtual School, The Beautiful Mess: https://virtualschool.ericwhitacre.com/

Official YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/@EricWhitacre