Exclusive interview: John Williams on composing for film, his concert work – and the Vienna Philharmonic

John Williams may be the most celebrated film composer alive, but there’s more to him than Star Wars. He tells Michael Beek about starting out, his concert works and his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic

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I write every day – it’s a good habit,’ begins John Williams who, even at 88, maintains a strict regime when it comes to work. ‘I always say that music, for musicians at least, is our oxygen and we need that to keep functioning.’

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The air must be very good for Williams; with a career spanning some 64 years, and with five Academy Awards and over 100 feature film scores to his credit, he’d be forgiven for wanting to take it easy.

Despite what has been a legendary career on film, not to mention being one of American music’s most familiar figures, he’s as down to earth as they come. That he telephones me himself from his home in Los Angeles is indicative of the kind of man Williams is; warm, softly spoken and eminently humble. For him, music is a way of life.

We speak just days after he received the news that he has been honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s highest honour, the Gold Medal. He joins an esteemed group of artists, many of whom he himself holds in the highest regard, from his late friend Leonard Bernstein (the only other American winner) and the likes of Brahms, Britten and Shostakovich. Williams is understandably delighted, but muses on it with quiet pride.

‘I am so honoured and privileged; I’m just sorry that I won’t be able to come over, but it is thrilling,’ he tells me. ‘I’ve been a lover of British music for all my life, in kind of reverse order in a certain sense. I really began with affection for Walton, which so many of my younger colleagues also loved – especially some of the jazz musicians. Then of course there’s Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. So I think I understand a little bit of the feel of British music history, and the great importance of this award. It’s something indescribable for me and I’m very proud.’

The RPS honour bookends an obviously unusual year – like so many musicians, Williams has seen numerous concerts cancelled. Thankfully, one did take place before the world changed: the composer’s remarkable debut conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (one of the best orchestras in the world) back in January. It was an invitation he says he couldn’t resist. ‘I had a magnificent time there; the orchestra is so fabulous and it was a compliment to allow me to conduct them at all,’ he reflects. He admits he didn’t know quite what to expect from the occasion, but was thrilled with the results. ‘The repertoire we played was obviously my own film music, which is such a deviation from what they usually do; but they were enormously friendly and warm, and clearly brilliant in their playing. I was particularly interested in how the brass section would respond, because a lot of this music is done for purposes in film and some of it can be excessively brassy and difficult. But it was as brilliant as you can imagine. They perfectly captured the stylistic essence of what it was.’

He got a particular kick out of being asked for even more music by the brass section, a story he clearly enjoys telling. ‘At the intermission of one of the rehearsals, the players came and said to me “Maestro, can we play The Imperial March (from Star Wars)?” And I said, “well certainly we can; if you have the music, I’d be happy to conduct it.” “Oh we have the music,” they said, “we know it!” I told them I thought I’d already given them too much work for a two-hour concert, and they said “well you have, but we want to play The Imperial March for you; it’s the new Radetzky!” I’ve never heard it played so brilliantly, I must say. All the brilliant orchestras I’ve played it with have never been quite like this; it had a kind of force and power that was an expression of their own spirit and history. It was really quite thrilling.’

The affection of the orchestra for their conductor on the night was obvious – the whole concert was filmed and released on Blu-ray by the record label Deutsche Grammophon – so too the warmth from the audience in the Musikverein. Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, a guest soloist, recalls the event with glee. ‘John was in heaven, the orchestra was in heaven, and so was the audience. There was such joy, such appreciation and a feeling of camerarderie in music. Together with my debut with Karajan this was the greatest musical moment in my life.’

Mutter and Williams have formed quite a special partnership of late, having worked together on an album project (2019’s Across the Stars). It’s a collaboration the composer says has been ‘a particular treat’ and it followed his short work for the violinist, 2017’s Markings. The album saw Williams reimagine some of his film themes for violin and it was his life-long friend the late André Previn – to whom Mutter was once married – who ultimately persuaded Williams to put his themes back on the piano. One in particular was a favourite of Previn’s, that written for the 1973 film Cinderella Liberty, but the composer says he took some convincing.

‘It’s kind of a jazzy piece with a lot of repeated notes, not exactly a violin kind of thing. But André said “No, write it for Anne-Sophie, she can play anything!” And she did it so beautifully, with what I would take as a middle-American, even Southern, kind of texture and feeling. It put all my fears aside.’

Including the piece on the album, and in the Vienna concert, also gave Williams what he says was the ‘marvellous’ opportunity to share some lesser-known film works with his audience, beyond those they might expect – or even demand. That he didn’t throw in the likes of his main theme from Jaws – instead including the nautical ‘Out to Sea’ and the dramatic ‘Shark Cage Fugue’ – shows he could trust them to go where he wanted to take them.

One place he didn’t take them was into his growing catalogue of concert works; beyond the ceremonial, occasion-led pieces he has become known for (including several for the Olympics), Williams has composed many concertos, a symphony and a number of chamber works. It’s an aspect of his work that serves as a much-needed diversion from his day job.

‘My work away from film has always been a kind of amusement for me,’ he muses, ‘a way of enjoying a break from the strictures and demands of film music, and to simply write something that might feel personal. I actually never expected any of
it to be performed, to tell you the truth; I feel very unpretentious about it all.’

The majority of Williams’s concertos and other concert works have been written since the 1990s, with pretty much all of them written with a particular soloist in mind – his latest work is a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter. He tells me he finds joy and inspiration in writing for specific artists. ‘When I was conductor at the Boston Pops, every year or two I would write a concerto; it was a way of giving a gift to one of my players,’ he says. ‘Even with things like Schindler’s List; the film was a great inspiration, but it was also inspiring for me that Itzhak (Perlman) would be our soloist. Just sitting down and writing and thinking about his sound was a big part of it, in my mind. In Anne-Sophie’s piece I’ve tried to capture certain mannerisms I’ve noticed that she has.’

Williams was principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for some 15 years from 1980; he was succeeded by Keith Lockhart, but remains the ensemble’s laureate conductor. His tenure with the Pops was legendary, benefiting from his popularity as a film composer certainly. It also gave Williams a further creative outlet and, like writing concertos, was a useful change of pace from the day job. He reveals that conducting wasn’t really something he had in mind, until he was called on to fill in for a poorly Arthur Fiedler. The conductor was due to appear with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in 1978; Williams takes up the story.

‘Ernest Fleischmann (executive director of the LA Phil) called and said “John, Mr Fiedler is ill; you have to come and conduct his concerts this weekend.” I think I had one rehearsal – the programme was mostly Gershwin – and I was very reluctant to do it. Ernest kept insisting, telling me I had to come and conduct. Then he wanted to have me there every year; so, really, without Fleischmann I don’t think I would have ever stepped in front of the public to conduct. I certainly never had any intention of doing so.’

When Fiedler died a few years later, Williams was offered his post in Boston and so began a new life on the podium, bringing his own music to live audiences, programming popular concerts and undertaking recordings. It was a period which necessarily meant the composer needed to step into the limelight, an unusual but fulfilling experience for him, as he explains: ‘To get before an audience and make music with a great orchestra was a respite from what I was doing. I enjoyed this double life of being a public man and a very private monk, sitting in a room alone with a piano and sketch pad. The duality became refreshing; it gave me energy. I don’t think of myself as a professional conductor, but I’ve always loved it.’

Composing film music will always be his main focus; indeed he believes it’s probably the only aspect of his writing that has any real value. That is, of course, doing himself a disservice, but that’s the composer’s way. When asked about looking back at his work for the screen, and whether he is particularly happy with or surprised by anything he now hears, Williams is typically modest.

‘There are some individual things that I’ve done – The Imperial March seems to me a perfectly shaped piece that works very well. I could probably name half-a-dozen other little things, but my character and psychology is one of being self-critical and wanting to improve things,’ he tells me. ‘I have to say that I don’t listen to things that I’ve done in the past almost ever; once in a while I might have a reason to, but my reaction is usually “oh that’s pretty good, but it would be better if I had done this or that.” I have a self-critic placed deep within me and I don’t think I can ever really feel perfect satisfaction.’

Still writing with pencil and paper at the piano, Williams’s way of working hasn’t really altered, but what about his approach? Would he score the likes of 1975’s Jaws differently in 2020?

‘Probably I would; it’s hard to say. We evolve and we think we know more than we knew then; but that can be a deception, because we had a different kind of energy then, a different kind of naivety, if you like. I’m at a point in life where I’m very changed; my body is not the same as it was 50 years ago – my health is good by the way – but health, energy, enthusiasm and environment will affect what we do and how many hours we can sit and do it. I don’t think I could do what I did 40 to
50 years ago.’

That said, Star Wars is perhaps something of an exception. Williams completed his ninth score for the film series just last year. For the composer, being able to build on a body of music he began in 1977 has been ‘a privilege’ and it’s a creative feat unmatched by any composer before him. It’s just one of many surprises and joys for Williams in a long career that started in the 1950s when he was a jobbing session musician and arranger in Hollywood, as he recalls. ‘I have been very fortunate; I can’t say I was “mentored” by people like Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman, but in retrospect they befriended me; they would ask me to their homes for dinner and I didn’t think about any of it. I took it all pretty much in my stride. I worked as a pianist for these composers and some of them would begin to ask me to orchestrate things, which I could do, and eventually write scores for television shows.’

It was his father, the jazz drummer Johnny Williams Sr, who brought the family to Los Angeles from New York when Johnny Jr was a teenager. With his father performing in film scoring sessions, it was the most natural thing in the world to take to for the young musician. But composing wasn’t particularly something he planned on, as he continues. ‘I don’t think I can say it was something I always wanted to do; it was just part of an evolution, a series of good luck turns. I can’t say to you that aged 22 I wanted to be a film composer; I didn’t have aspirations that high, frankly. I was interested in piano, I’d studied it, and was a fairly good pianist and a reasonably good sight reader – which helped in the studio work. I was blessed with a kind of luck and, fortunately, I was able to do the work when it came along. But it was not part of a plan or an ambition of mine. I simply put one foot in front of the other.’

Those footsteps have brought Williams accolades, admiration and fans around the world. His work ethic, as strong as ever, means he doesn’t let the grass grow; indeed, the composer has his sights set on a return to Vienna (‘I said I would go if someone will show me an autograph of Haydn’) and the small matter of premiering his Second Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. On the piano he has an overture to finish for the 100th anniversary of the Hollywood Bowl, to be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. But it’s all in a day’s work for John Williams.

John Williams in Vienna’ is out now on DG in all formats, including vinyl and Blu-ray video

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We named John Williams one of the greatest film composers ever