This morning, I came across an article entitled "Conversations with John Williams," by author Jack Sullivan, whose book Hitchcock's Music I mentioned in my post on "Hitchcock and the Art of the Score." The article is published in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, which means you'll need a subscription in order to read it. For those who don't have a subscription, here's a little bit about the essay.
Sullivan tells us that John Williams, "Hollywood's premier composer," echoes the arguments of "[h]is predecessors Erich Korngold and [Bernard] Herrmann," who believed "that film music helped keep classical alive..." Williams "is convinced this phenomenon is now truer than ever."
"Purists will not like that," he admits, and he himself is emotionally torn. "As musicians, we don't like to think we need visual aids to project music. It should be able to engage us aurally and intellectually without a visual distraction. I'm painfully aware of that problem, but as you and I have discussed before, we are visual addicts, stimulated by computer or movie screens. People have their eyes glued to something all the time. For that generation, it's hard to listen to Beethoven and be completely engaged in a way that we would prefer them to be. But I think to ignore that fact is to ignore a reality that is with us; the audiovisual coupling as expressed in film music is something that is really with us to stay because of the way we live."
Sullivan reminds us of what I'd call the "snob factor" among some classical music buffs, concerning film score composing:
The classical intelligentsia once openly ridiculed film composing, using it as an instant metaphor for anything shallow or sentimental and scoffing at concert composers who wrote for the movies on the side. Stravinsky panned Rachmaninoff's symphonic works as "grandiose film music." Otto Klemperer, upon hearing that Korngold was writing for Hollywood, sneered that Korngold "had always composed for Warner Brothers, he just didn't realize it." Current critics tend to be more accepting of the field, but they practice a curious doublethink, one that is often unconscious. "Sounds like movie music" is still a common way to dismiss a new concert work, even among reviewers ostensibly friendly to the genre. ...
The stakes are high, for film music is uniquely situated to disseminate symphonic culture at the moment many commentators worry about that culture's impending collapse. In Williams's view, our multinational age presents an opportunity for classical music to reposition itself and for young composers to find an audience. "For better or worse, the audience for film music, even in an unconscious way, is multinational and enormous. If there is such a thing as global music, it's probably coming from film, where it's less attached to one particular vernacular. As a unified art form, a successful film, if it has a score that people will embrace, really can, in the atmosphere we live in today, reach across those boundaries. Film music can therefore be very important even to the history and development of the art form of music itself."
Sullivan makes important points, I think, about the significance of film scores. "Common sense should tell us that the divide between film music and classical is artificial, as silly as the schism between symphony and opera." Williams is among those composers who have kept symphonic music alive, the kind of music that features a "grand, Romantic, sweeping style..." That style was sure on display the first time I saw Williams conduct the New York Philharmonic, back in February 2004, and again in April 2005 (in an appearance at Lincoln Center that featured special guest violinist Itzhak Perlman), and yet again in May 2006.
I like the fact that Sullivan focuses on Williams's vast talent as both a composer and arranger ("he orchestrates his own scores, every note and instrument, down to the last string harmonic or harp glissando, working with pencil and paper"). Williams was deeply influenced by composers as varied as Haydn (his favorite), Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók, as well as Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The latter influence really shows, I think, in Williams's score for "Catch Me if You Can," pieces of which were performed brilliantly at the May 2006 Avery Fisher Hall concert I attended.
In any event, having argued for the musical integrity of film scores many times in the past (see here, for example), I really enjoyed this Williams interview, and, as I said the other day, I'm looking forward to reading Sullivan's book when I have the time.