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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

John Williams - The Magpie Maestro

By Norman Lebrecht / November 20, 2002

John Williams has cornered the film-score market. But his patchwork soundtracks that borrow from the classics are an offence to the ear.

The second Harry Potter film sets 20 easy questions for ardent concertgoers. As the London Symphony Orchestra's sound-track swells over opening titles, a half-phrase from Mahler's Second Symphony melds into a Ravellian sub-theme, twists back into Mahler and off into a Prokofiev-like horn chorus. The orchestration is textbook Rimsky-Korsakov and the roll-call of composers referenced runs on through Debussy ('Knockturn Alley'), Smetana ('Colin') and Holst ('Moaning Myrtle').

Playing spot-the-composer can be fun during a dull performance of, say, Tippett's Third Symphony. But a two and three-quarter hour barrage of classical shrapnel from gigantic cinema speakers leaves both ears numbed and the mind aching with frustration at the wanton reprocessing of symphonic treasures. Worse, a movie about young sorcerers is devoid of musical magic, the pastiche of flagrant derivations failing to endow J K Rowling's imaginary world with any element of the numinous.

The patchwork music for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is credited to John Williams, who also composed its predecessor. Williams has, for three decades, been Hollywood's composer of choice. Hitting the jackpot with Jaws and Star Wars, he added a gloss of culture (known as 'class') to harum-scarum adventure movies. Some maintain he single-handedly saved the orchestral soundtrack from extinction by synthesisers. In the middle of his 70th birthday year, Williams is busy as ever with several movies on the go, the next being Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio).

He also has an opera under commission for Placido Domingo; his next orchestral work will open Los Angeles' new Walt Disney Hall next year. His concertos are exquisitely performed by the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma, elevating Williams to the fringes of the classical parnassus. He is, beyond question, the most famous living orchestral composer.

Posterity, however, is not so slickly secured. The word in Hollywood is that Williams is on the wane. He has not won an Oscar since Schindler's List in 1993 and the clothes that he stole from so many classical composers have been fashionably recut by a wave of Williams clones led by the British-educated James Horner (Titanic), the Canadian Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings) and the German Hans Zimmer (Lion King).

They, with a greater or lesser degree of invention, apply Williams' methodology with impressive commercial efficiency. Horner, who extended his range to embrace some forms of ethnic music, sold 28 million CDs of his Titanic score. Zimmer, a former avant-gardist, makes ingenious use of electronics. But their musical material is seldom striking, let alone original. What John Williams did to the modern movie score was to reduce it to a string of cliches and strip it of musical character.

Cast your minds back to halcyon antecedents. In 1934, a Viennese composer called Erich Wolfgang Korngold landed in Hollywood not as a refugee but as a highly-paid consultant to the director Max Reinhardt. Korngold had written an opera, Die Tote Stadt (Dead City), that was Vienna's biggest inter-war hit. He now devised a genre of film music that was both evocative and exhilarating, setting the screen for Errol Flynn swashbucklers (The Sea Hawk) and tender romances. His themes would run for 30 minutes continuously and while traces of Strauss and Mahler are often audible, the music has an unmistakable signature. Korngold, once heard, is not readily forgotten.

His Hollywood followers, emigrants all, included Max Steiner (Casablanca), Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard), Dmitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Mikos Rozsa (Spellbound). Each had his own sound, each added melodic and harmonic novelty. Some are remembered merely for an effect - Bernard Herrmann, for instance, for the mass-stringed chills he applied to Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers. Others, like Nino Rota, co-created with Federico Fellini the essential ambience of cinematic legend. Late in life, Rota plundered his own score to 8 1/2 for a theme that became The Godfather's; he also write 12 operas.

Just how much a composer brings to a movie is heard in Hiroshima mon Amour (1959), where Alain Resnais' somnolent pace and flimsy plot are sustained by Georges Delerue's compelling soundtrack. Delerue, who died in 1992, wrote 294 film scores but never collected the million-dollar fee that is the Williams benchmark.

A movie does not need to be a masterpiece to benefit from a good composer. Several Ealing comedies - Passport to Pimlico, The Lavender Hill Mob - were scored by Georges Auric, one of the group of Les Six who hung around Erik Satie in 1920s Montmartre debating the concept of background music. Close your eyes and shut your ears to the Ealing dialogue: Auric's music takes the sit-com of suburban London and into a fantasy realm where the outlandish is instantly credible. Auric, all told, wrote 119 film scores, including Moulin Rouge. He also found time to head the Paris Opera for six turbulent years.

Movie music in the Korngold tradition made no distinction between composers of consequence and those of mere facility. What it required, above all else, was character and colour. In the years when Britain had a film industry worthy of its name, it also had composers like Malcolm Arnold (Bridge on the River Kwai), Richard Addinsell (Dangerous Moonlight) and Benjamin Frankel (Batle of the Bulge) who gave the output an indigenous undertone and, often as not, an original sonority.

Now fast forward to the new James Bond film, Die Another Day, where credit is given to Monty Norman for the Bond theme and to a disc-jockey, Paul Oakenfold, for its remix. No mention is made of a soundtrack composer, presumably because none was involved. More's the pity, since there are still musicians producing fine work for the screen - Gabriel Yared, Jocelyn Pook, Wojciech Kilar, to name three of the best. But theirs is an uphill battle against the Williams method of plastering movies with bits of what we know, rather than revealing an unseen dimension.

There is no denying the success of John Williams, any more than one can ignore that of Bill Gates. We may have to live with it, but there is no law yet that says we must like it.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001