Thursday, 17 December 2009

John Williams and Star Wars

Been busy with the day job and haven't had much time to play anything lately. I've decided that while I'm slaving over a hot keyboard, I'm going to listen my way though the whole of my music collection. It'll take quite some while!

The most recent stuff I've been listening to has been Star Wars soundtracks.

I know a lot of people get very sniffy about film music, they think it's not real music, that it is merely derivative. Well maybe it is derivative at times, but the best of it (and John Williams does write some of the best) is extremely good.

For the most part the instruments used are straightforward romantic symphony orchestra stuff, an orchestral line-up which would have peen perfectly familiar to Mahler or Stravinsky or Richard Strauss. He doesn't often go in for electronic instruments or other effects.

Williams clearly knows his classical music repertoire and composition techniques. In listening through the soundtracks, I have heard Wagnerian leitmotifs, Mahlerian orchestration techniques using harp and celeste for a "magical" effect, marches obviously inspired by Elgar, passages which are definitely a homage to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, bits which could easily have been a Tchaikovsky finale, battle scenes that sound reminiscent of Shostakovich, references to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a couple of choral passages that remind me of Rachmaninov's Vespers, references to Neptune from Holst's The Planets, even a passage or two which sound as if they could have been taken from Ligeti. (You may not think you know any Ligeti. But if you have ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you have heard passages from at least 2 of his pieces which were used in that film.)

And of course Williams writes some stonking good horn tunes - romantic tunes for solo horn, and heroic ones that sound as if they are being played in unison by a section of 8 or 12 horns. And he is also clearly familiar with the technique of creating composite tone colours by combining several different instruments in different octaves on to a tune.

Marvellous stuff. It is possible to hear all these references but still recognise the whole as being authentically original Williams. It has brought a smile to my face from hearing all those good tunes, and especially each time I recognise another classical reference. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he has deliberately slipped in an occasional direct quote from another piece as a sort of musical joke just to see if anybody will notice.

People have asked me whether it spoils my enjoyment of music that I find myself analysing it while listening to it. The answer is not at all. The fact that I know something about music doesn't any any way impair my enjoyment of a good tune. I wince at a bad or unmusical performance, but in that respect the only difference between me and somebody who doesn't have musical training is that I'm in a position to put into words why I'm wincing. I'm able to appreciate the performance even more because I understand something of the effort and artistry that has gone into it - both from the composer and the performers. And recognising references and quotations in pieces adds to the enjoyment of music - it is like unexpectedly meeting an old friend!

EDIT: Doh! After this post was up for a month, I realised that I had said "Lutoslawski" when I meant "Ligeti". It is 2 of Ligeti's pieces which are in 2001. I've gone back and changed it.


  1. A former director of our community band retired to this area after playing trombone in the Pittsburgh Orchestra under Andre Previn and other famous conductors. He'd met John Williams several times and said he was a really nice guy on top of everything else. Unassuming and easy to work with.

    "stonking" ??? A bit of Brit speech I'd not before encountered.

  2. I just came across this and I love every word of this. I am in the 8th grade and I play French horn in Texas. I love John Williams and how he incorporated the French horn. Most composers just put us off to the side as the melodic line. John Williams on the other hand, embraces our sound. That's why his music is so memorable, not many people even know what a French horn sounds like. It gives his music a tone that isn't common. Just wanted to add this more as a side note. Less of a general comment.