The John Williams of It All

When asked to think about modern classical music, we often recall film scores as opposed to string quartets. In some ways, this is a great thing. We are exposed to music of all varieties on a constant basis. But when we think of film composers, I doubt many of us could name more than two or three. Quick poll: who is your favorite modern film composer?

How many of you said John Williams? (Some of you may have said Danny Elfman…)

danny elfman

Of course you did. He’s only responsible for every awesome thing that’s been written in the last thirty years, right? Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T., Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter- these are just a few of the credits on his astounding resume. And I can tell you, without a doubt, that his themes are some of the most memorable moments in music history. Like this one:

Or how about this one:

Seriously, this body of work amazing, right? Well… yes and no. I do think that John Williams has an amazing output of work, and I think that his themes are beyond reproach… for the most part. However, there is something about John Williams’ music that has been nagging at me that I feel must be addressed. Let’s listen to the Harry Potter theme, one of my personal favorites.

This is Hedwig’s theme. With just the right amount of mystical extended tonality, those unexpected accidentals (slightly too high or too low sounding notes) really give the piece a sense of bobbing through the air. It’s just a beautiful composition. But then I decided to look up my old friend Tchaikovsky, and what did I hear?

Wow, those two videos sound very similar at the beginning, don’t they? Add a couple of 16th notes in between the longer notes or Swan lake, and you’ve got yourself a movie theme. And speaking of Harry Potter, there is this awesome moment:

At about the 1:00 minute mark, things get really good. The chess match begins, and the music suddenly takes on an ominous, war-like tone. So what’s the problem? Well, I guess Gustav Holst is the problem.

At first the similarities are more subtle. Similar instrumentation, but that could be an accident, right? Well, at 4:15 Holst’s Mars picks up the pace and hits an amazing fever pitch, which sounds very much like the intense music of the chess match at 3:30. Of course, there are differences. Holst’s only uses one note for his melody while Williams’ utilizes a bit more of the scale, but the rhythmic similarity is pretty uncanny. Once again, Williams succeeds in fooling us by adding a few 16th notes. In fact, if you listen closely, underneath the rhythmic theme playing, the ACTUAL opening theme from Mars plays underneath it.

Minority Report is one of my favorite sci-fi movies, and John Williams’ haunting score is a perfect backdrop for this heartbreaking story about redemption.

Upon further inspection, we find that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony might not be an exact twin but certainly an older sibling- a wiser, more pensive soul.

There are dozens and dozens of similarities between John Williams’ work and other classical composers. (Many of them are Star Wars, but I decided to talk about a few of the less documented ones.)

So, this is where we arrive at the dilemma. Does borrowing ideas from other composers make John Williams any less of a genius? If we listen to film scores that are inspired by famous classical pieces, could we possibly develop an ear and taste for it? Could listening to John Williams make us like audiences like Tchaikovsky more, even if they don’t know why? Frankly,I like him less because of these inspirations, and here’s why. However, that exact same video could be used to defend John Williams’ compositions.

It’s not that I hate John Williams or his music. It’s just that there are so many other incredible composers out there who don’t get nearly as much credit.

Many people assume John Williams wrote the score for The Lord of the Rings, but it was, in fact, Howard Shore, the same composer as The Fly. Talk about versatility! Or we could give a hand to composer Michael Giacchino, who has done so much good work. Seriously. So much. Yet, nobody seems to know his name.

I’d like to take just a moment to talk about one of my favorite film composers, and he’s likely to be of whom you’ve never heard. His name is Joe Hisaishi, and his music is some of the most glorious, subtle work in all of cinema.

Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Fantasia…insky

So, first of all, this is NOT Stravinsky. That’s right. I tricked you. THIS is Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky. (I will give you a cookie if you can pronounce it correctly.) I posted this video to make a point. Most of us have, at some point, watched the Disney classic Fantasia. Some lucky ducks (like this girl) grew up on it, watching it over and over again. I have found over the years that this particular piece made quite an impression on many a young child. Some still claim to have nightmares from this sequence. The reason I posted this video on a post about Stravinsky is simple: I am NOT one of those people. Night on Bald Mountain never bothered me one bit. I thought the music was interesting, and the were visuals fun and stimulating. As a young child, I knew this was all fantasy and reveled in how well the music matched the dancing images onscreen. The Rite of Spring sequence, however, still haunts me.

Not sure which one the Rite of Spring is? That’s probably because the images have absolutely nothing to do with spring. No, the animators went with dinosaurs murdering each other instead. Why? Well, let’s take a look.

This is a short excerpt from the Rite of Spring in Fantasia. Remember it now? The music accompanies the images perfectly, but one must admit that for a sequence entitled Rite of Spring, there is not much to do with spring, but a whole lot to do with giant, ancient, angry lizards. “But Bethany,” you say, “dinosaurs are AWESOME!” Yes, they are. They totally are. And dinosaurs violently beating the hell out of each other is something I would usually enjoy (because I like gratuitous violence as much as the next person, often more so). So what is the problem?

The problem is the music itself. As a child, I found the music to be literally frightening. The jarring, repetitive rhythms; the confusing melodies; the tangled, garbled, incomprehensible harmonies- it was just too much. In fact, while the images of dinosaurs fighting and then slowly going extinct are probably the most disturbing, I was just as horrified by the shots of the lava bursting forth from a volcano. To this day, I find the sequence almost impossible to sit through because I associate it with confusion and fear.

Well, my musical tastes have changed a lot over the years, and I enjoy listening to a wide array of music, including wonderful composers like Stravinsky, Berg, and even Shoenberg on occasion. The Rite of Spring, however, still gives me the heebie jeebies. So what is it about this piece in particular. Why does one of the most celebrated pieces of classical music haunt me so intently? Before we go into further discussion on this, here is the whole piece so that you can hear it for yourself.

Did you know that this piece is actually a BALLET? Can you imagine? We are used to seeing ballets like The Nutcracker or maybe Swan Lake. Ballets are supposed to have lovely dancers making gorgeous lines with their bodies to beautiful music. Well, not in Russia in the 1910’s. Like all composers during this time, Stravinsky was searching for his own unique voice. His pieces differ greatly from one to the next. During his lifetime, Stravinsky made the leap from mostly tonal to almost complete atonality and back again, reverting to the style of Mozart and other classical composers. The Rite of Spring falls smack dab in the middle of his experimentation with atonality.

What exactly is atonality? Well, we know what tonal means, right? That’s music with a “home base.” So atonality is the opposite. The music does not follow specific patterns that our ears are used to hearing, and try as we might (and, trust me, your ears will try), we cannot find a solid Do to cling to. Unlike other composers of the time, Stravinsky wasn’t composing atonal music for the sake of creating atonal music (*cough cough* Webern *cough*). With this particular piece, he was trying to capture something primal, and of course, primal music did not follow the diatonic scale to which we are all accustomed.

Interestingly, while a majority of this piece operates in utter dissonance (unpleasant sound), separating the different lines of music actually reveals that there may be some kind of tonality after all, at least in some sections. For instance, from 3:30 to 4:30, you can hear various melodies float in and out of the texture. The piccolos play in a completely different key from the bassoons, who play in a completely different key from the horns. It’s like they are all performing their own little songs and don’t realize that they are supposed to be playing together. This is completely on purpose, and it is called polytonality. So, if tonal means there is a home base, then polytonal means that there are lots of home bases. Listen again; see if you can separate the parts. Some of those tunes are actually quite pretty. The texture, the dissonance with the other parts, that’s what makes it sound strange.

Well, that and the rhythm. Seriously! What is with that jolting, jerking rhythm? Considering this is a ballet, it must have to do with the story. The Rite of Spring is not exactly plot-driven but more episodic, if you will, like moving vignettes. It covers different pagan rites of spring, beginning with the relatively harmless and joyful and culminating a young girl’s sacrifice by dancing herself to death. Fun stuff! Considering the nature of the story and the characters involved, I understand the need for highly percussive and syncopated (against the beat) rhythm. It transports us and hopefully reaches to a place deep inside of us, a primal place where we still ache for blood sacrifices.

The Rite of Spring famously did just that. Paired with the innovative choreography of famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the Rite of Spring was practically a scandal. In fairness, a lot of that blame does fall on Nijinsky. You see, in ballet, the dancers’ feet are supposed to look like this:

Turned Out

This position of the feet is called “turned out,” and it’s very important for some reason. (I’m a singer, not a dancer. I can’t know EVERYTHING.) Nijinsky, following the theme of the primitive, decided that turned out feet were just too pretty for this particular ballet. He had his dancers turn their feet IN.

Take THAT Bob Fosse!

Feet out= good. Feet in= bad. Period. So it was in ballet until a fateful day in Paris in 1913, a day that lives in infamy for musicians and dancers alike. That was the day The Rite of Spring premiered.

[The audience] began, very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make cat-calls and offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel this for some time. (White)

Whoa! All of this over one dumb little ballet? Surely people could conduct themselves with some kind of dignity during a performance of one of the most influential works in all of music, right? I mean, it’s not like there was a riot…

One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. The old Comtesse de Pourtales [stood] up in her box with her face aflame and her tiara awry [and she cried out], as she brandished her fan, “This is the first time in sixty years that anyone has dared to make fun of me!” Nijinsky, with Stravinsky behind him, stood on a chair in the wings, beating out the rhythm with his fists and ‘shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.’ (White)

The audience began yelling so loudly that the dancers could not hear the music. The noise of fighting brought everything to a tumultuous roar. Police arrived and began to eject rioters from the theater. Doctors were called in to care for injured men and women. At some point, the orchestra is believed to have stopped playing entirely. But the dancers danced on.

So I guess I am not alone in finding this music difficult, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t riot over it. A ballet attempting to access the primal seemed to accomplish its goal more than anyone could predict. Instead of watching the primitives dance on stage, the wealthy onlookers became primitives themselves. It’s hard to deny the power of music that can transform humans into animals.

The Rite of Spring doesn’t turn me into an animal. I become a five year old again, frightened of the unknown and hiding under blankets.

White, Eric Walter (1966). Stravinsky the Composer and his Works (Original edition). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.