‘John Williams: Making Movie-Music History’ (1994)


By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page B1, March 20th, 1994
Late last spring, John Williams sat in a screening room, overwhelmed with emotion. He had just seen the first rough cut of Steven Spielberg’s ”Schindler’s List.”
“For this film, you need a better composer than I am,” Williams said to the director.
“You’re right,” Spielberg shot back. “But they’re all dead.”
Williams did write the score for “Schindler’s List,” and worked with Spielberg on selecting the period and genre music that also appears on the soundtrack. For his work Williams has received his 32d nomination for an Academy Award; he has won the Oscar four times, and will find out tomorrow night whether a fifth award is his.
Speaking last week from his studio-office at Spielberg’s Amblin Productions complex in Los Angeles, Williams said, “I felt writing this film was a particularly daunting challenge; nothing could be good enough to meet a story like this. What I was most conscious of was a desire not to melodramatize; it is much more difficult to be restrained in your expression of intensity of feeling than it is to go out and hit hard. I felt this story required music that was gentle and loving. The orchestra of Richard Strauss, which was the orchestra of the period, would have been the wrong noise for a film like this. The main theme, I felt, should be something like a Hebraic lullaby heard at your mother’s knee — not an actual lullaby, but something original, created for the film.”
The theme is not heard until the film is well under way; it comes in to accompany the unforgettable image of a bridge thronged with Jews who have been rounded up from all over the country and brought into Krakow. It is heard at infrequent intervals throughout the film, until near the end; the last time we hear it, it comes on the piano, which is played with great sensitivity by Williams himself, though the credits don’t say so.
Williams did not begin his work by reading the novel or by trying to listen to any music from the period, or any music in the style he planned to use. “I am not an avid reader of scripts and books before I get to see any film,” Williams admits. “Scripts and books give me preconceptions, which I don’t need. I also never listen to music when I am composing; I don’t go to concerts at all. I find it a painful distraction to have to listen to music by other people while I am trying to organize things in my own mind. In this particular case, the work of familiarizing myself with the idiom of theatrical Jewish music was something I had already done; I spent so much time on the film of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ back in 1971 that the idiom has been part of my vocabulary ever since.”
Williams did work closely with Spielberg through the preproduction period of planning for the film. “We sit and try things and talk about the film.
From the outset we knew there would be less music in this film than in our usual action film. The choice was to use music sparingly, which fits in with the choice to keep everything in black and white, lean and very simple; the photography would be very simple, straight on, flat, with no tracking shots, no dolly shots, nothing tricky. So there couldn’t be anything like that in the music either.”
Williams and music-staff workers collected a substantial amount of period music that would appear in the background — a Strauss waltz, a song from Franz Lehar’s operetta “Giuditta,” Elgar’s “La Capricieuse,” a passage
from Bach that Nazis knowingly identify as Mozart. “When we had collected all this, and much more, Steve came over to my bungalow, where I’m speaking from right now, and I played the tunes over for him on the piano, and he chose the numbers he wanted for the particular scenes. Then I went into the studio and recorded some of the pieces with a little period orchestra.”
There are also several period recordings heard in the film. Billie Holiday sings “God Bless the Child”; during the scene in which labor-camp inmates are being checked for physical fitness, German officers put a record on the loudspeakers, a sentimental ditty called “Gute Nacht Mutter”; it is in the film because this is the record the Nazis actually used while they were making the prisoners run around naked to prove their fitness. The song is performed by Wilhelm Strienz, who in 1938 had participated in the first complete recording of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” with Sir Thomas Beecham; with chilling irony, the voice of the humane, all-wise Sarastro resonates throughout the prison camp.
The score also contains a prominent role for solo violin, which is played on the soundtrack by Itzhak Perlman. Williams had already planned to write something for violin, and hoped to enlist Perlman, before he had seen the film. He was taking his cue from a line in the development of the script that Spielberg subsequently decided to drop. At one point a Jewish violinist briefly glimpsed entertaining in the German Officer’s Club was to become a more prominent character than he did in the end; he was to speak of his disgust at having to entertain the invaders.
Williams wrote the music for Perlman before the film was shot, and made a preliminary recording with another violinist. Spielberg used the recording to shoot some scenes to; the music generated the rhythm of the film, reversing the usual process. After the film was released, Williams extended and arranged the music he had written for Perlman into a three-movement, 15-minute piece with piano or orchestral accompaniment. Perlman has put the piano version onto his recital programs; there are rumors that he will play the orchestral version with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa next season.
Williams composed the score in the summer house he was renting on Prospect Hill in Stockbridge, near Tanglewood. “I had planned a little vacation with my family last summer, but then Steven called me and told me everything had been moved up six weeks; I would need to start right away. My music editor, Kenn Wannberg, flew in and moved into the house I was renting, and Steven sent up all the gear I would need. He also came up himself from time to time, and I would play things over on the piano for him while we looked at the material. It all worked out so well that we want to try working this way again. I have to say that being in the Berkshires helped a lot with this particular score; it was a reflective, ruminative sort of period for me, and the glorious atmosphere there contributed a lot to the process of writing the music, I think.”
There is one powerful episode for chorus, when the bodies of slain Jews have been disinterred and burned, an Immolation Scene. Susan Dangle from WGBH, who had worked on Williams’ “Evening at Pops” programs, put him in touch with Rabbi Bernard Mehlman from Temple Israel; Williams asked Rabbi Mehlman for a selection of appropriate texts from the Hebrew liturgy. “He very generously made a collection for me, with translations; I chose one of them
because I loved the thought it expressed: ‘With our lives, we give life.’ From this kind of horror, this kind of sacrifice, life can come. I set the words for chorus, and we recorded that in Toronto and in California.”
The orchestral music and the sections involving Perlman were recorded during one very busy day in Symphony Hall last fall. “We recorded 25 minutes’ worth of music in one day, which is very remarkable, because it takes longer to record film music than it does to record a symphonic score, because of the demands on synchronization. We did have a bowing rehearsal the night before with the concertmaster, Malcolm Lowe, and the string principals, and that helped — and this orchestra is so fabulous that there weren’t any problems. I think having an artist of Perlman’s level involved, and the members of the Boston Symphony, contributed something very important to the spirit and tone of the film. During the recording, Itzhak and I could see the film, although the orchestra could not, so I invited everyone to come up and watch during the playbacks. Words couldn’t describe how everyone was moved by what they were seeing, and of course that affected the kind of performance they brought to the music.”
The next Williams/Spielberg collaboration will be on the film of “The Bridges of Madison County”; Williams expects to be writing it by the end of the year. Meanwhile, he is keeping himself busy composing a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma. The premiere is scheduled for Tanglewood in the summer of 1995, but there is some speculation that it will be moved up to this summer. “Yo-Yo is going to come by later this week and we’ll talk about it; the problem is that the piece is months away from completion and it needs to be weeks away!”
Williams discusses his Oscar prospects in his usual low-key way. “I’ve won it four times. The first time was for the music direction for ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and the other three times were for original scores — ‘Jaws,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘E.T.’ I’ve never heard of anyone winning five Academy Awards in music, so it would be a great surprise if I were to win again, although I would certainly be pleased to be surprised in that way. Still, I like to tell people that I’ve lost 27 times now!”