- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Delight or surprise?

Renowned conductor and movie music composer John Williams isn’t sure which feeling hit him first when he learned that he was to become one of the 2004 Kennedy Center honorees.

“It was really unexpected,” he says.

He admits to thinking, “maybe I’m still too young for an award like this.” But he is also pleased that the country may be at last recognizing the genuine importance and impact that movie music composers have had on 20th century American culture.

Arguably, they created — and continue to develop — a significant new musical art form even as traditional composers of serious music began their long descent into postmodernist banality and atonality.

Many of the original composers of Hollywood film music, including now-acknowledged greats such as Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza, had fled to America to ply their trade while escaping the titanic social upheavals that threatened to overwhelm them and their families in Europe between the world wars.

But unlike these gritty European pioneers who were steeped in an earlier musical tradition, John Williams is a homegrown contemporary musical hero. And the recognition he’s received over the past 30 years eclipses them all.

In the course of his successful career, Mr. Williams has copped five Oscars, 17 Grammys, three Golden Globes, two TV Emmys, and a host of other U.S. and international awards. Around the globe, few have failed to encounter his stirring, heroic music, ranging from the exciting martial strains of his “Star Wars” scores to the brass flourishes that signal the beginning of Olympic festivities every four years.

Hailing originally from New York, where he was born in 1932, John Williams relocated along with his family to Los Angeles in 1948. Musically gifted, he studied music at UCLA and also explored composition in private lessons with yet another European expat film composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. After a stint in the Air Force, Mr. Williams returned to New York, continuing his study of music at Juilliard and working as a jazz pianist to generate some income.

Returning to Los Angeles, he began to make connections in the film music community, collaborating with already well-established composers such as Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. He eventually began penning TV music. Offers from movie studios evolved naturally from these experiences.

Since breaking into film, Mr. Williams’ famous scores and themes have become legendary. In addition to the music to “Star Wars,” Mr. Williams’ best-loved music includes scores for “Jaws,” “Superman,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” the Harry Potter movies and the Indiana Jones films. He has been involved with more than 80 films to date.

Less well-known are Mr. Williams’ periodic forays into traditional classical music territory. While his 13-year stint as conductor of the Boston Pops was highly visible to the public, his compositions are also an increasingly regular feature on the traditional concert circuit. He’s composed a symphony, a cello concerto first performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony in 1994, a trumpet concerto premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1996 and a bassoon concerto that was first performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Mr. Williams is highly aware that much of classical symphonic tradition has been preserved by the art of movie music, and is disappointed that more symphony orchestras, particularly in America, haven’t picked up on this obvious truth.

“When it comes to composers like Korngold or Gershwin, symphony orchestras are still a little narrow-minded about what they admit into the concert hall,” he says. “I consider movie music as a legitimate art form like a symphony or an opera.”

Asked what his toughest film score to write was, Mr. Williams has a ready answer: “The one I’m working on now.” In this case, that score happens to be the music he’s composing for the third in the series of “Star Wars” prequels, set to debut next year.

Warming to the subject, Mr. Williams notes that film composers today have greater challenges, in a way, than their colleagues of yesteryear. One of these is the sheer increase in the quantity of music required to complete a film score.

“Korngold and the others composed music to much shorter films,” he says. “Contemporary films are now usually one and one-half hours at a minimum, frequently as many astwo or three.” But composers today don’t get the luxury of more time to complete these scores of greater length, he says.

Intriguingly, Mr. Williams likens the difficulty of writing movie music to the challenges faced by daily newspaper journalists. “The curse of film music is like the curse of journalism,” he says. “Like an article on deadline, you have to write and orchestrate the music very fast as the film is shooting, often recording it while the ink on the score is still wet.”

Also like journalism, movie music gets wrapped up quickly, allowing little if any time for revision and refinement. “Like you guys in the news business,” he says, “we just have to get it done. Later on, we sometimes look back and think we might have written it better if we’d had more time.”

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