My favorite film of 1977 was not â€œStar Warsâ€ but â€œClose Encounters of the Third Kind,â€ Steven Spielbergâ€™s U.F.O fantasia. Notwithstanding the fact that I was nine years old, I considered â€œStar Warsâ€ a little childish. Also, the trash-compactor scene scared me. â€œClose Encounters,â€ on the other hand, drew me back to the theatreâ€”the late, great K-B Cinema, in Washington, D.C.â€”five or six times. I irritated friends by insisting that it was better than â€œStar Wars,â€ and followed the box-office grosses in the forlorn hope that my favorite would surpass its rival.
â€œClose Encountersâ€ still strikes me as an amazing creationâ€”a one-off fusion of blockbuster spectacle with the disheveled realism of nineteen-seventies filmmaking. It has a wildness, a madness that is missing from Spielbergâ€™s subsequent movies. The Disneyesque fireworks of the finale canâ€™t hide the fact that the hero of the tale is abandoning his family in the grip of a monomaniacal obsession. Looking back, though, Iâ€™m sure that what really held me spellbound was the score, which, like that of â€œStar Wars,â€ was written by John Williams. I was a full-on classical-music nerd, playing the piano and trying to write my own compositions. Iâ€™d dabbled in Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler, but knew nothing of twentieth-century music. â€œClose Encountersâ€ offered, at the start, a seething mass of dissonant clusters, which abruptly coalesce into a bright, clipped C-major chord, somehow just as spooky as what came before. The â€œStar Warsâ€ music had a familiar ring, but this kind of free, frenzied painting with sound was new to me, and has fascinated me ever since.
Now eighty-three years old, Williams remains a vital presence. â€œStar Wars: The Force Awakens,â€ his latest effort, is doing fairly good business, and he is at work on Spielbergâ€™s next picture. He has scored all of the â€œStar Warsâ€ movies, all of the Indiana Jones movies, several Harry Potters, â€œJaws,â€ â€œE.T.,â€ â€œSuperman,â€ â€œJurassic Park,â€ and almost a hundred others. BoxOfficeMojo.com calculates that since 1975 Williamsâ€™s films have grossed around twenty billion dollars worldwideâ€”and that leaves out the first seventeen years of his career. He has received forty-nine Oscar nominations, with a fiftieth almost certain for 2016. Perhaps his most crucial contribution is the role he has played in preserving the art of orchestral film music, which, in the early seventies, was losing ground to pop-song soundtracks. â€œStar Wars,â€ exuberantly blasted out by the London Symphony, made the orchestra seem essential again.
Williamsâ€™s wider influence on musical culture canâ€™t be quantified, but itâ€™s surely vast. The brilliant young composer Andrew Norman took up writing music after watching â€œStar Warsâ€ on video, as William Robin notes in a Times profile. The conductor David Robertson, a disciple of Pierre Boulez and an unabashed Williams fan, told me that some current London Symphony players first became interested in their instruments after encountering â€œStar Wars.â€ Robertson, who regularly stages all-Williams concerts with the St. Louis Symphony, observed that professional musicians enjoy playing the scores because they are full of the kinds of intricacies and motivic connections that enliven the classic repertory. â€œHeâ€™s a man singularly fluent in the language of music,â€ Robertson said. â€œHeâ€™s very unassuming, very humble, but when he talks about music he can be the most interesting professor youâ€™ve ever heard. Heâ€™s a deep listener, and that explains his ability to respond to film so acutely.â€
It has long been fashionable to dismiss Williams as a mere pasticheur, who assembles scores from classical spare parts. Some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist. A widely viewed YouTube video pairs the â€œStar Warsâ€ main title with Erich Wolfgang Korngoldâ€™s music for â€œKings Row,â€ a 1942 picture starring Ronald Reagan. Indeed, both share a fundamental pattern: a triplet figure, a rising fifth, a stepwise three-note descent. Also Korngoldesque are the glinting dissonances that affirm rather than undermine the diatonic harmony, as if putting floodlights on the chords.
To accuse Williams of plagiarism, however, brings to mind the famous retort made by Brahms when it was pointed out that the big tune in the finale of his First Symphony resembled Beethovenâ€™s Ode to Joy: â€œAny ass can hear that.â€ Williams takes material from Korngold and uses it to forge something new. After the initial rising statement, the melodies go in quite different directions: Korngoldâ€™s winds downward to the tonic note, while Williamsâ€™s insists on the triplet rhythm and leaps up a minor seventh. I used to think that the latter gesture was taken from a passage in Brucknerâ€™s Fourth Symphony, but the theme canâ€™t have been stolen from two places simultaneously.
Although itâ€™s fun to play tune detective, what makes these ideas indelible is the way theyâ€™re fleshed out, in harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. (To save time, Williams uses orchestrators, but his manuscripts arrive with almost all of the instrumentation spelled out.) We can all hum the trumpet line of the â€œStar Warsâ€ main title, but the piece is more complicated than it seems. Thereâ€™s a rhythmic quirk in the basic pattern of a triplet followed by two held notes: the first triplet falls on the fourth beat of the bar, while later ones fall on the first beat, with the second held note foreshortened. There are harmonic quirks, too. The opening fanfare is based on chains of fourths, adorning the initial B-flat-major triad with E-flats and A-flats. Those notes recur in the orchestral swirl around the trumpet theme. In the reprise, a bass line moves in contrary motion, further tweaking the chords above. All this interior activity creates dynamism. The march lunges forward with an irregular gait, rugged and ragged, like the Rebellion we see onscreen.
This is not to deny that Williams has a history of drawing heavily on established models. The Tatooine desert in â€œStar Warsâ€ is a dead ringer for the steppes of Stravinskyâ€™s â€œThe Rite of Spring.â€ The â€œMarsâ€ movement of Holstâ€™s â€œPlanetsâ€ frequently lurks behind menacing situations. Jeremy Orosz, in a recent academic paper, describes these gestures as â€œparaphrasesâ€: rather than quoting outright, Williams â€œuses pre-existing material as a creative template to compose new music at a remarkable pace.â€ Thereâ€™s another reason that â€œStar Warsâ€ contains so many near-citations. At first, George Lucas had planned to fill the soundtrack with classical recordings, as Stanley Kubrick had done in â€œ2001.â€ The temp track included Holst and Korngold. Williams, whom Lucas hired at Spielbergâ€™s suggestion, acknowledged the directorâ€™s favorites while demonstrating the power of a freshly composed score. He seems to be saying: I can mimic anything you want, but you need a living voice.
In that delicate balancing act, Williams may have succeeded all too well. After â€œStar Wars,â€ he became a sound, a brand. The diversity and occasional daring of the composerâ€™s earlier workâ€”Iâ€™m thinking not only of â€œClose Encountersâ€ but also of Robert Altmanâ€™s â€œImagesâ€ and â€œThe Long Goodbyeâ€ and of Brian De Palmaâ€™s â€œThe Furyâ€â€”subsided over time. Williams invariably achieves a level of craftsmanship that no other living Hollywood composer can match; his fundamental skill is equally evident in his sizable catalogue of concert-hall scores. Yet heâ€™s been boxed in by the billions that his music has helped to earn. He has become integral to a populist economy on which thousands of careers depend.
The latest â€œStar Warsâ€ score offers an ingenious interplay of beloved motifs while adding a fair amount of fresh material. A new embodiment of evil, named Snoke, is enshrouded in sepulchral male voices. Kylo Ren, a troubled youth who aspires to be Darth Vader, is given a brassy, jagged figure dominated by a stagey tritone. Rey, a rising heroine, has a minor-key melody that seems related to Williamsâ€™s Force motifâ€”itself a cousin of Wagnerâ€™s Siegfriedâ€”while possessing its own airy, modal character. During a duel in a snowy forest, Kylo Ren, Rey, and the Force intersect in a contrapuntal thicket that blurs distinctions between the opponents. A threnody for strings, rich in aching suspensions, appears twice, first to lament the deaths of millions and later to mark a more personal loss. For the connoisseur, thereâ€™s a â€œScherzo for X-Wings,â€ in which the main title undergoes a bustling BartÃ³kian fugato. One of Williamsâ€™s virtues is that he trains people to listen thematically: even the littlest kids will catch a brief quotation of the Darth Vader march when his mask is displayed onscreen. Interestinglyâ€”possible harmonic spoiler!â€”Vaderâ€™s G-minor / E-flat-minor oscillation also haunts the filmâ€™s final minutes.
Deft as the new score is, it mirrors the dÃ©jÃ vu of the entire â€œStar Warsâ€ experience. When Williams revived the Korngold manner, he was purveying nostalgia for a style that, in its echoes of turn-of-the-century post-Wagnerian opulence, was nostalgic to begin with. In so doing, he was following the filmmaker, who, on the eve of Reaganism, served up old-fashioned good-versus-evil heroics, with a weird whiff of Leni Riefenstahl at the end. Now, as â€œStar Warsâ€ fever grips the nation once again, the nostalgias are being compounded. If, back in 1977, you had told me and my fellow-nine-year-olds that thirty-eight years hence we would be standing in line for another â€œStar Wars,â€ some of us accompanying children that age or older, we would have been baffled, and perhaps a little scared. We might have said, Wonâ€™t the future give us something new?