‘Williams Reflects on Angela’s Ashes’ (2000)

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page D15, January 28th, 2000
John Williams was about to head off to the dentist’s, but he sounded cheerful anyway Tuesday afternoon when he called in from California to chat for a while about his score for the film “Angela’s Ashes.” The soundtrack album appears on a current CD for Sony Classical. The CD has the advantage of clocking in at 59 minutes, while the film lasts 2 1/2 rain-soaked, heavy-duty hours. One of the “Evening at Pops” programs planned for taping next spring is an “Angela’s Ashes” segment, with Williams conducting, author Frank McCourt appearing as narrator, and Yo-Yo Ma taking over the prominent solo cello part.
Williams’s music for McCourt’s story of grinding Irish poverty does not rely on references to folk or commercial Irish music. Nevetheless, Williams makes allusions to the feel of traditional Irish music in the intervals of the melodies and in certain aspects of the harmony, and the presence of the harp in the scoring also evokes Ireland. In addition to the harp, Williams also highlights the piano, oboe, and cello. The orchestration is strongly string-oriented, and the main themes suggest the melancholy, steadfast character of Vaughan Williams’s beloved “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” The music supplies warmth to a chilling tale, continuity to an episodic narrative; a pizzicato interlude even adds to the mordant humor of the moment when McCourt’s father and brothers join him in trying to stomp the fleas out of a mattress. At the end, as McCourt’s boat sails past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor, the music surges and swells, and a mournful harmonic progression we have heard throughout the film turns triumphant.
“I thought that using a sort of Irish vernacular music might narrow the piece down,” Williams says. “Another way of going was to take a more universal approach, a more emotional approach, if you like, with the orchestra expressing the broad, human aspect of the experience. There was no need, I felt, for the music to emphasize the specifically Irish or Catholic aspect of the story.”
Williams had never worked with director Alan Parker, who wrote a testimonial to Williams for the CD booklet.
“Before I finished filming `Angela’s Ashes,’ I received a message that John Williams had agreed to do the score,” Parker wrote. “For a filmmaker, of course, this is akin to winning the lottery, and once I had a first cut of the film together, I nervously showed it to him. I have to say that however knowledgeable one is of maestro Williams’s massive talent, it is still an extraordinary experience to watch him work. His sensitivity, wisdom, graciousness, and total, effortless control of the task of scoring for film is awe-inspiring. If I sound too gushing, I make no apoloiges; the man is brilliant.”
In conversation, Williams returns the compliment. “I enjoyed him very much. He’s a blue-collar Englishman, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. He’s an unpretentious, workmanlike chap.”
For this film, Williams broke one of his usual rules: He read McCourt’s
book. Usually he tries not to do this, because he wants to come to a film with no preconceptions. “I like Frank McCourt’s book very much, and I spoke to him about the film after he’d seen it. So often when an author writes something, or when a reader reads something, the subsequent film never matches the original mental picture. But McCourt said he genuinely loved the film, and felt that it represented his mother and his siblings in a way that seemed true and real. I don’t think the movie makes any departure from Frank McCourt. What I love is the Irish lilt that lifts the story away from the bleakest tragedy – that line near the end, for example, when he says, `There are three things an Irishman is allowed to love: God, children, and a horse that wins.’ Color and humor like that help define a land in which the two great institutions are the church and the pub, both of them offering solace but not solutions. The Irish are good at writing, at poetry – and at acting. Alan Parker found such wonderful people for all the little parts in the film – the teachers, priests, functionaries, and bureaucrats. And I thought Emily [Watson] was extraordinary as the mother.”
Williams produced the CD himself; the disc exists in two versions. In English-speaking countries, actor Andrew Bennett speaks a connecting narration, as he does in the film; in the rest of the world, the record appears without the narration. “There’s a broad foreign market for soundtrack recordings, and people felt the narration would be a problem there.” Williams is full of praise for the solo instrumentalists on the album and says he has drawn Seiji Ozawa’s attention to the special qualities of oboist John Ellis. But he also makes an almost-shy confession. The film opens with a solo piano line. On the album, Randy Kerber is credited for the playing, which is sensitive throughout, but some of the sensitivity comes from Williams. “I did some of the playing myself – that was my little effort for this thing. I started off the picture with the piano by itself, playing a single line – I thought the simplicity, the directness of the voice, would be useful and good.”
The film also includes some “source music” – Nat Gonella & His Georgians contribute “The Dipsy Doodle” from 1938, and McCourt and his family listen to Billie Holiday singing “Pennies From Heaven” on the radio. “Alan Parker started out using a reprise of `Pennies From Heaven’ at the end of the film,” Williams recalls, “but finally opted for a more opulent, orchestral ending. The orchestra creates the final resolution.”
Another bit of “source music” heard in the film (although it doesn’t appear on the CD) is “Bi mir bist du schoen,” the Yiddish theater song that became a big hit for the Andrews Sisters in 1937. “When I heard it on the temporary soundtrack, I wondered what it was doing there in the middle of Ireland,” Williams admits. “But then Parker told me a cute story – everybody knew that song back then. As a kid growing up in Great Britain, he knew the song, although he didn’t have any idea of its Yiddish origins. He and his little friends thought the title had something to do with `Mr. Shane’!”
Williams is very pleased with plans to showcase “Angela’s Ashes” on “Evening at Pops.” “I’ve talked with Frank McCourt on the telephone, and he’s agreed to come and visit us and to read some of his text, instead of the actor who does it on the CD. I’ll expand on some of the music, probably the piano part, and particularly the cello solos, because Yo-Yo Ma will come to join us. It should make for a very nice evening in Symphony Hall, and also for television.”
Williams is an artist who works in a business, so he was careful to ask how audiences in Boston are responding to “Angela’s Ashes” and what kind of box office it’s doing.
“I think this film is going to do best in the cities and among people with literary interests, and especially among people who love the book, who are not going to be disappointed. Maybe it is not a broad, general family picture that is going to be tremendously possible, but I believe it is a film that will find its own audience.”