Earlier this year, composer John Williams, who had just turned 80, was asked to create a celebratory fanfare for Fenway Park, which was turning 100. It was an appropriate merging of monuments, since Williams once famously conducted the hometown Boston Pops.
For all the b-day hullabaloo surrounding the Green Monster'd home of the Red Sox, however, there's argument to be made that Williams is an even greater American icon than the ballpark. After all, as a maker of movie music (not to mention his spirited work for the Olympics and TV newscasts), he is our Babe Ruth: Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., the Indiana Jones and Harry Potter reels, to name a few home runs.
As testament to Williams' far-reaching power, let's play a game: At your next dinner party, mention Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Empire Strikes Back. What you'll initially get in return will not be dialogue but instantly hummable music. For the former, that five-note mothership signal that still gives chills. For the latter, The Imperial March, aka Darth Vader's strutting music, that vaguely Teutonic motif of strings, trumpets and eeevil, Williams' finest moment as a cinematic interpreter.
A modern master of the grand symphonic gesture, Williams matches blockbuster movies with blockbuster music that hangs with you long after the popcorn's been munched and the Slurpees have been slurped. And yet, on A Tribute to John Williams: An 80th Birthday Celebration, a new 15-track compilation of his personal favorites, it's not the "hits" that stuff the track listing (although Star Wars and E.T. are represented with their familiar refrains.) Instead, Williams highlights several less obvious pieces, including the first commercial release of his puckishly conducted Happy Birthday Variations, of which he's just as proud.
Born Feb. 8, 1932, in Queens, New York, Williams grew up to be a sly populist, born of resolutely patriotic soil but with more than a little interstellar magic up his sleeve. He grounded, and gave flight, to directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, matching their ground-breaking whimsy with human elements of delight and fear, wonder and tears.
You know the maestro's crescendoes by heart; on the new collection, you see more of the foreplay, of which he's just as adept. You don't get the classic Jaws theme, those alternative F notes blown on the scariest tuba of all time. But you do hear the devilishly playful Out to Sea / The Shark Cage Fugue, a string-plucked shanty mixed with the jarring sturm und drang of high-seas piratical mischief.
Williams aims not just to give a career retrospective here, but his own back pages, as well. In 1952, he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, where his task was conducting and arranging music for the Air Force Band. He'd later lean on that regimental education for myriad scores, including the greatly overlooked fun of his fife-and-drum march for 1941, Spielberg's over-the-top WWII spoof. Williams would be asked to theme other war flicks for Spielberg, but as the director grew up (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse) Williams was forced to mature with him. Still, it's nice to hear 1941 again, with all its jingoistic hail-Patton winks.
Although Williams is often pugilistic in approach, two of his most transcendent film moments were his themes for Marion Ravenwood (Indy's gal) and Princess Leia (Luke's sis). Alas, those aren't here, but he makes sure his romantic side is represented by his music for Sydney Pollack's 1995 remake of Sabrina. Featuring friend and collaborator Itzhak Perlman on violin, Theme from Sabrina is a modern waltz modeled on the cocktail orchestration of Henry Mancini.
Williams has remained prolific in his golden years. Perhaps as a reminder that he's not done yet, there's a healthy dose of his latest work on the collection. The Adventures of Tintin is forgettable, a hectic self-parody of his far finer work for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which rivals his top, most memorable tunes.
Williams has his detractors, music snobs who complain that he honors his influences a little too closely: Psycho's Bernard Herrmann, The Magnificent Seven's Elmer Bernstein, German composer Wilhelm Wagner. Yes, John Williams "borrows" — just like the Rolling Stones borrowed from Muddy Waters, like the Beatles borrowed from Elvis Presley. Williams took an upper-class art form and delivered it to the masses. Let the elitists hate all they want. The rest of us will turn up the music and travel far, far away. No time to waste. After all, there's a Death Star to conquer.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.