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Where would you rank John Williams in the classical world, technique-wise?

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We all know John Williams is one of (if not the) best film-score composer of all time. We also know that because of this, we cannot really compare him with classical composers; film composing is just something different. However because he does write for a symphony orchestra, we can compare composing techniques and styles. My question then becomes: where would you rank him among the well known classical composers?

 

For example, in my opinion, both in creating melodies as well as in colourful orchestration, he really is (almost?) on par with the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Let me give an example. If you compare Luke and Leia (from ROTJ) with In a Pine Forest (from the Nutcracker ballet, composed by Tchaikovsky), I think one cannot immediately say one of the pieces is better than the other as a composition, even without the film/ballet. What are your opinions? Curious to find out! 

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I think we can only compare John Williams with other 20th-century classical composers. Unfortunately, I am not an expert nor an amateur of this period....

 

Elgar, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Philip Glass, Gershwin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, John Rutter, Karl Jenkins, Eric Whitacre, etc.

 

John Williams is definitely part of those. I would simply say that for the moment, his movie works totally eclipse his concert ones. Indeed, John Williams is first and foremost well-known by the public and respected by his peers for his movie scores.

 

But since few years, some well known conductors integrated his movies works to their concerts (ex. Simon Rattle conducting Star Wars)... and much more than that, a new generation of conductors now want to introduce JW concert works to their public (ex. Gustavo Dudamel and Stéphane Denève).

 

Well, there is hope!

 

 

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29 minutes ago, Richard said:

I hate to sound disingenuous towards JW, but he knows that he will be remembered for his film scores (especially two of 'em) and not for his classical (sic) compositions.

In that regard, he is an "also ran".

 

 

 

Doesn't mean they're bad, tho'! :)

Obviously, he will be most remembered for his film (and maybe Olympic) music, but let's not undersell his concert works.  A few of those concertos (bassoon, harp, tuba, cello) have a good shot of being played 50 years from now.  Compared to other "serious" composers of his generation, that will still place him in the top five.  

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He is a competent composer.  Not sure how to rank/quantify it beyond that in terms of his film music.  

 

Looking at his concert music or scores that are more personally representative tells us more.  Based on these, I think he fits comfortably in with the top tier of contemporary composers - not that this is such a large group - but the overall view of him may be less kind.  Bespin mentioned Karl Jenkins, whose work and image is often scathingly criticized by "serious" people.  I'm not a fan of him personally, but my point is that those with an overly elite view may lump someone like Williams into that same "lite" category.  It may take many years for the merits of his craft and harmonic innovations to be appreciated widely.  

 

 

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59 minutes ago, Tom said:

Obviously, he will be most remembered for his film (and maybe Olympic) music, but let's not undersell his concert works.  A few of those concertos (bassoon, harp, tuba, cello) have a good shot of being played 50 years from now.  Compared to other "serious" composers of his generation, that will still place him in the top five.  

 

 

I hear what you are saying, but he has his fame, and enormous film-score talent working against him.

Put it this way; will Leonard Bernstein be remembered for "The Chichester Psalms"? No, he'll be remembered for one thing...

Ironically, it is, perhaps, his classical works that reveal the "real" JW. I'll wager that, for obvious reasons, his "Violin Concerto" will probably remain his most personal work. I will agree that his non-film work deserves more recognition than it has, currently, but think what it's up against...

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5 hours ago, TownerFan said:

Luckily for everyone, we've already entered into an era where John Williams' music is being considered among some of the most interesting, beautiful and engaging written in the second half of the 20th century. It doesn't matter very much anymore that it's music written originally for films, unless you're a snob or have a personal agenda against any kind of applied music. The intrinsic quality of Williams' music makes it stand very well by itself so that it can be performed, listened to and enjoyed as pure music. This aspect is being understood first from a generation of listeners who happened to discover the sound of the symphony orchestra thanks to Williams' music, but also from a generation of music professionals (musicians, performers, conductors, composers) who truly loves Williams' music and consider it on the same level of the great classical symphonic repertoire. You can now program a concert with a Richard Strauss piece, a Prokofiev suite and then, say, the Suite from Star Wars without feeling that Williams' piece is anything inferior because it's film music. Good music is good music, no matter its origin. So I strongly believe Williams is already on the same level of other great 20th century composers like Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and a whole lot of others, and his music will be performed and enjoyed for many years to come by a lot of people. The same could be also said of other great composers who wrote mostly (if not exclusively) for film like Korngold, Herrmann, Rozsa, Newman, Waxman and Goldsmith among others.

 

I completely agree both with your opinion about John Williams compared to other "classical" composers and with the perception that this is starting to be noticed also by music professionals who are not strictly connected with movies. The signs are very encouraging. The fact that a first-class conductor like Gustavo Dudamel has developed such a friendly relationship with Williams, has conducted a full concert of his music, and has conducted the recording of the end credits from "The Force Awakens" is fantastic in itself. Then, so many other "classical" conductors have included pieces by Williams in their performances (mostly from Star Wars, as far as I know): Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, Franz Welser-Möst... and I am really, really happy to see that Simone Pedroni is becoming a champion of Williams' music in Italy. But I know some very good musicians who still resist the idea of considering Williams as a "real" composer (probably because they have never listened to a complete score of his with some attention). 

 

 

22 hours ago, TheWhiteRider said:

He is a competent composer.  Not sure how to rank/quantify it beyond that in terms of his film music.  

 

Looking at his concert music or scores that are more personally representative tells us more.  Based on these, I think he fits comfortably in with the top tier of contemporary composers - not that this is such a large group - but the overall view of him may be less kind.  Bespin mentioned Karl Jenkins, whose work and image is often scathingly criticized by "serious" people.  I'm not a fan of him personally, but my point is that those with an overly elite view may lump someone like Williams into that same "lite" category.  It may take many years for the merits of his craft and harmonic innovations to be appreciated widely.  

 

 

 

Here I have a different view. I think his film music is most representative about him, and if he will be remembered and loved mostly for that, it will be the right thing. His "concert music" has several merits (mostly about harmony and orchestration, for which he has an outstanding gift), but I would not rank that at the same level as that of, say, Ligeti, Berio or Messiaen, or, to mention a more similar situation, as Korngold's Symphony or Violin Concerto. I would say this mostly for reasons of musical form. I will always be convinced that the place where Williams expresses himself most deeply and where he gives his best is film music and the point, as TownerFan already mentioned, is that his film music is so good that it can be enjoyed and ranked as pure music. Based on his film music, I would rank him among the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century (I would not think so based only on his concert music).

 

 

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8 minutes ago, Score said:

I will always be convinced that the place where Williams expresses himself most deeply and where he gives his best is film music and the point, as TownerFan already mentioned, is that his film music is so good that it can be enjoyed and ranked as pure music.

 

But would you concede that some of his film scores show a deeper personal expression than others, which are more governed by parody and pastiche?

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1 minute ago, Sharkus Malarkus said:

 

But would you concede that some of his film scores show a deeper personal expression than others, which are more governed by parody and pastiche?

 

I believe that all his music is personal to him, because he composed it all. What we might think of as an innocuous score, might be very personal to JW. I'm prepared to think that "Earthquake", and "TTI" are very personal scores for JW, as these were the scores he composed immediately after Barbara Ruick died.

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3 minutes ago, Sharkus Malarkus said:

 

But would you concede that some of his film scores show a deeper personal expression than others, which are more governed by parody and pastiche?

 

Yes, absolutely! I would never put Schindler's List or E.T. in the same league as Family Plot or the few pieces that I know from Heartbeeps. So, to be more precise (maybe): in my opinion, his great film scores (and fortunately, there are MANY!!) are more important than his concert music (maybe with the exception of the Violin Concerto), which is more important than his minor film scores.

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29 minutes ago, Marcus said:

From a technical point of view, Williams is second to none. The only living composer I can think of whose chops rival his, would perhaps be Rodion Shchedrin.

 

You need to justify the thinking behind this.  

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16 minutes ago, Richard said:

 

I believe that all his music is personal to him, because he composed it all. What we might think of as an innocuous score, might be very personal to JW. I'm prepared to think that "Earthquake", and "TTI" are very personal scores for JW, as these were the scores he composed immediately after Barbara Ruick died.

 

There's personal by means of association with life-changing events, and there's personal in terms of projects and musical idioms that are closer to his heart. It's the later I'm focusing on here. I know from someone who's close to his brother Don, that John gets tired of writing fanfares and prefers more esoteric material, but in end of the day, work is work.

 

10 minutes ago, TheWhiteRider said:

You need to justify the thinking behind this.  

 

I'm embarrassed to admit I've never heard of Rodion Shchedrin.

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41 minutes ago, Sharkus Malarkus said:

I know from someone who's close to his brother Don, that John gets tired of writing fanfares and prefers more esoteric material, but in end of the day, work is work.

 

 

It's strange to think, that, even at the age of 84, JW is still working for the man.

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1 hour ago, TheWhiteRider said:

 

You need to justify the thinking behind this.  

 

No he doesnt! Not on JWfan should anyone ever have to justify why he believes Williams is the best!

 

Shame on you!

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I'm not that aware of 'classical elitists' but in the last 20 years, the lines got completely blurred in regards to what is considered 'classical' (for many, 'Star Wars', 'Potter', 'Indy' etc. are, it's played by standard symphony orchestras and it's very popular, more so than many works by Prokoviev and so on).

 

 

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1 hour ago, publicist said:

 

Williams himself is as guilty of limiting the view on his works by programming the same stuff over and over again. It's a question of economics for sure, but i would prefer a more challenging selection in his concerts/recordings. He broadened his repertoire but all those marvellous pieces that don't fit the big neo-romantic bill would probably go down just as well. Goldsmith was even worse in that regard. 

 

Sadly true. He seems to underestimate the ability of his audience to enjoy anything different from the standard tricks. He could easily make full concerts of great music that he has written without including a single cliché fanfare, just by taking some cues as they are from his film scores, without additional "popularization". If he started to do that, I guess the attitude of the few remaining "elitists" would be gone forever. But no, despite the immense art that he puts in his work, he somehow thinks that for the movie music concerts he needs to re-arrange the cues so that you build up to an operatic finale in the time of three minutes, which triggers the big applause. 

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Williams had his "out" with TFA and he didn't take it. I think the man genuinely does enjoy writing (among other things) Star Wars music - albeit colored by whatever interests and stylistic tendencies he has at the time.

 

I see/hear somewhat more intellectual, interesting, innovative work in the oeuvres of other composers. But none of them affect me quite the way Williams' work does on the whole. He's uniquely skilled at achieving a balance between depth and accessibility, or at least the type of balance I enjoy.

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I find him a bit difficult to rank in the contemporary music scene, but I have to say that I don't find most of Williams's concert music compelling even if it is professionally crafted, a few of his pieces are exceptions that prove the rule. I wouldn't rank Williams in the top of contemporary composers based on his concert work alone that's for sure. Near the top yes, the craftmanship alone puts him there, but not in the top. Glass, Reich, Adams, Adés, Golijov etc have all composed superior concert works - without a question, and then I am not even the biggest fan of them.

 

I prefer Williams's ouvre as a whole over almost all contemporary, living composers though, but the best of them are obviously more intellectual, diverse, interesting and innovative etc than Williams. There are only a few living names I would mention over Williams as a whole, but if we only look at pure concert music, then it is more than just a few as I said, then I would take quite a few more over Williams, perhaps somewhere around two dozen or so names ahead of Williams, some of them I already mentioned.

 

Unless Williams steps up and write some truly compelling concert work, it won't change I am afraid. 

 

Ultimately, I think Williams will be regarded as a brilliant populist film composer, one of the best ever, who also wrote some concert music. The latter will be more of a curiosity though, and none of his concert pieces will become a part of the repertoire.

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2 hours ago, TGP said:

The most common critique I see levied against his concert music is about the soundness of its form.  I admit that it's sometimes difficult to deny the validity of those critiques.

You are correct. This sums it up pretty well I think:

 

"His concert music — Boston Symphony players were the soloists in movements from his concertos for oboe, horn and tuba on Saturday evening — suffers from the same problems: not a lack of surface detail but a persistent vagueness, a structure that is assured and tight in the big moments but loose elsewhere."

 

I agree with that critisism and that is probably the main reason why I struggle to get into most of his concert music.

 

2 hours ago, hornist said:

 really?

I think some of them already are.

Sure, they are played sometimes, but I would argue that that's more because of Williams's fame as a film composer rather than the quality of the pieces themselves. That doesn't mean they are bad, it is still professionally crafted, but it won't become a part of the repertoire in that way the great composers's pieces are, they might get picked up by some players as somewhat esoteric items that are played sometimes because they want to play something by one of the most visable composers of our time like they sometimes are now.

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I don't rank composers but there's nothing other composers contemporary or otherwise do with the orchestra or in their writing that JW couldn't. He has explored a pretty wide range of approaches with his music for orchestra and has written some really compelling pieces for individual instruments. 

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19 hours ago, TGP said:

The most common critique I see levied against his concert music is about the soundness of its form.  I admit that it's sometimes difficult to deny the validity of those critiques.

 

Why is 'soundness' a criticism?

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10 hours ago, publicist said:

 

Why is 'soundness' a criticism?

I don't know if this question was meant for the peanut gallery, but I'm willing to take a stab at it. In my mind, form has a lot of impact on how interesting and involving a musical work is and can affect how I receive a piece emotionally or intellectually. It can reveal a lot about a composer's ability to manipulate his/her material and get mileage out of it, so to speak, and it can show a great deal about pacing and architecture, and how everything fits together. Form affects everything, from how the piece's building blocks (whether it's melodic material, textural, harmonic, or rhythmic devices, etc.) are established, and then how those building blocks get rearranged, elaborated on, varied, combined, and so on. I actually agree with @TGP that it's hard sometimes to argue with that criticism when it's applied to Williams. A good example to me is the first movement of the cello concerto or the corresponding movement of the viola concerto, where Williams lays out his material fairly quickly, gives the soloist a little room to ruminate on it, but Williams places what other composers might use for a climax comes so quickly that there isn't really anywhere else to go. That's not to disparage the orchestral scoring or the melodic material in either case, and Williams gets into and out of the climactic passage material skillfully, but it feels out of place and as far as I'm concerned the rest of the movement is wheel-spinning punctuated by occasional moments of interest. By contrast, the first movement of The Five Sacred Trees is a formal structure that works much better. It's a really artfully constructed build, from the solo bassoon opening through to the various passages for orchestra without soloist and that feature the soloist weaving in and out of the orchestral textures, and the climax of the movement comes naturally and comes at just the right place--it's related to the material that got worked over throughout the movement, and it still allows for the soloist to have a denoument, in literary terms, before the movement comes to a close.

 

This kind of criticism doesn't necessarily apply to his film work, where there are discrete cues that allow material to come and go as necessary and get developed in a different way over a longer time with shorter sections. If that makes any sense. If any of this makes any sense. I admittedly don't have the vocabulary to discuss music in the way I would like, even though I love it and have opinions about it that I can't always put into words well.

 

As an aside, if his longevity is being discussed, I think the bassoon, horn, and harp concertos stand a chance of lasting. I'm not fond of the cello concerto, and although I like the violin concerto I don't know that will take a huge place in the repertoire when violinists have so much else to choose from. I think it would be the same situation if he chose wrote a piano concerto.

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4 hours ago, Seth said:

This kind of criticism doesn't necessarily apply to his film work, where there are discrete cues that allow material to come and go as necessary and get developed in a different way over a longer time with shorter sections. If that makes any sense. If any of this makes any sense.

 

Because here, structure is given by the screenplay. I once theorized that, i.e., Jerry Goldsmith was only comfortable working in a visual medium because he needed the structure and images to really free his creative impulses (which explains the relative lack of work aside motion pictures). 

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7 hours ago, publicist said:

 

Because here, structure is given by the screenplay. I once theorized that, i.e., Jerry Goldsmith was only comfortable working in a visual medium because he needed the structure and images to really free his creative impulses (which explains the relative lack of work aside motion pictures). 

Of course, the film structure certainly drives the score. I wonder if your theory on Goldsmith could be redirected to explore why Williams' concert works that seem to have some extramusical association are more formally successful than those that don't. Even though Williams isn't obviously drawing on structure and image for his concert work, it seems to me that drawing inspiration from nature or myth, for instance (such as the bassoon and horn concertos and Heartwood) or personal tragedy in the case of the violin concerto, leads him to create pieces that more solid structurally-speaking than those that don't rely on those external sources of inspiration. But maybe I'm just rambling.

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15 hours ago, Seth said:

As an aside, if his longevity is being discussed, I think the bassoon, horn, and harp concertos stand a chance of lasting. 

I would add the Tuba concerto.  In a sense, it has already achieved a longevity with regular performances over the last 30 years.  

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On 09/08/2016 at 4:06 PM, Cumulonimbus said:

For example, in my opinion, both in creating melodies as well as in colourful orchestration, he really is (almost?) on par with the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Let me give an example. If you compare Luke and Leia (from ROTJ) with In a Pine Forest (from the Nutcracker ballet, composed by Tchaikovsky), I think one cannot immediately say one of the pieces is better than the other as a composition, even without the film/ballet. What are your opinions? Curious to find out! 

 

 

John Williams is the best composer writing for symphony orchestras today.

 

However, you cannot compare him with Tchaikovsky. Of course, Tchaikovsky is better. Tchaikovsky lived and worked over 100 years ago, so the techniques for composition used back then are not comparable to what they are today. It's like comparing an old vintage typewriter with a modern notebook and asking which one's better.

 

Without these old masters and legends like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. John Williams very likely wouldn't be writing orchestral music the way he is today.

 

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23 hours ago, Josh500 said:

 

John Williams is the best composer writing for symphony orchestras today.

 

However, you cannot compare him with Tchaikovsky. Of course, Tchaikovsky is better. Tchaikovsky lived and worked over 100 years ago, so the techniques for composition used back then are not comparable to what they are today. It's like comparing an old vintage typewriter with a modern notebook and asking which one's better.

 

Without these old masters and legends like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. John Williams very likely wouldn't be writing orchestral music the way he is today.

 

 

John and Jerry are on the same level as these classical composers. Their work is based on classical music? Well, look at what they've developed out of this basis.

The typewriter comparison shows how wrong you are. Some consider the typewriter as superior to the notebook because ... it's vintage.

 

I personally even prefer film music, because its structure is completely unpredictable. No ever-repeating concert structure, but instead a story with turning points and surprises told with instruments.

Another point is the instrumentation. I just say Lost World and Alien and that should be enough for an explanation.

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On ‎1‎/‎27‎/‎2018 at 12:03 PM, Josh500 said:

 

 

John Williams is the best composer writing for symphony orchestras today.

 

However, you cannot compare him with Tchaikovsky. Of course, Tchaikovsky is better. Tchaikovsky lived and worked over 100 years ago, so the techniques for composition used back then are not comparable to what they are today. It's like comparing an old vintage typewriter with a modern notebook and asking which one's better.

 

Without these old masters and legends like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. John Williams very likely wouldn't be writing orchestral music the way he is today.

 

This is odd reasoning.  Just because a great person came before and shaped the tradition does not mean subsequent contributors cannot be as good or better.  Analogy: Einstein would not have been a physicist had it not been for lots of minds before him in the tradition, but he still outshone them all.  Same with filmmakers.  Not great filmmaker of the last 40 years would have been doing their thing without contributions in technique from the previous two generations, but many are just as good if not better than their predecessors.  

 

I am not saying Williams is necessarily better than Tchaikovsky or such, just that the argument is weird.  Quite frankly, I think your example of the typewriter vs notebook proves my same point.  

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On 1/27/2018 at 3:11 AM, Seth said:

In my mind, form has a lot of impact on how interesting and involving a musical work is and can affect how I receive a piece emotionally or intellectually. It can reveal a lot about a composer's ability to manipulate his/her material and get mileage out of it, so to speak, and it can show a great deal about pacing and architecture, and how everything fits together. Form affects everything, from how the piece's building blocks (whether it's melodic material, textural, harmonic, or rhythmic devices, etc.) are established, and then how those building blocks get rearranged, elaborated on, varied, combined, and so on. I actually agree with @TGP that it's hard sometimes to argue with that criticism when it's applied to Williams. A good example to me is the first movement of the cello concerto or the corresponding movement of the viola concerto, where Williams lays out his material fairly quickly, gives the soloist a little room to ruminate on it, but Williams places what other composers might use for a climax comes so quickly that there isn't really anywhere else to go. That's not to disparage the orchestral scoring or the melodic material in either case, and Williams gets into and out of the climactic passage material skillfully, but it feels out of place and as far as I'm concerned the rest of the movement is wheel-spinning punctuated by occasional moments of interest. By contrast, the first movement of The Five Sacred Trees is a formal structure that works much better. It's a really artfully constructed build, from the solo bassoon opening through to the various passages for orchestra without soloist and that feature the soloist weaving in and out of the orchestral textures, and the climax of the movement comes naturally and comes at just the right place--it's related to the material that got worked over throughout the movement, and it still allows for the soloist to have a denoument, in literary terms, before the movement comes to a close.

 

In the bonus track interview of the Naxos Horn Concerto digital release, Williams talks with Leonard Slatkin about his music for the concert stage and, referring to the Horn Concerto, at one point he says - with his characteristic humbleness - that it would be better to call it "a suite" than a proper concerto. I guess JW was thinking exactly about those concerns about form and structure, as he's aware that most of his concerti don't follow a strict logic of structure usually related to this kind of musical composition, but they're written with a sort of free-form approach. The point is that Williams seems to eschew any kind of programmatic reference when writing for the concert stage. Even when there is a programmatic nature (The Five Sacred Trees or the Horn Concerto itself), Williams eschews any kind of narrative reference and seems to develop the musical material following its own logic. I can see that sometimes this can lead to results that are more difficult to immediately relate. Perhaps he does it to distance himself as much as he could to his "film score persona", but I think it's mostly because he feels more attuned to explore a more esoteric side of his own musical world when writing without the constraints of film. Also, I think this speaks volume about his humble character--he doesn't want to give even the slightest form of pretentiousness to his concert music.

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17 hours ago, Tom said:

I am not saying Williams is necessarily better than Tchaikovsky or such, just that the argument is weird.  Quite frankly, I think your example of the typewriter vs notebook proves my same point.  

 

A typewriter and a notebook cannot really be compared because they are things that were/are relevant in different eras. In the 40s and 50s, a typewriter was the best thing to use to write correspondence. Today, not anymore.

 

Similarly, Tchaikovsky was a composer for orchestral music 100 years ago (and continues to be celebrated today). John Williams is a film composer still active today. There is no comparison. 

 

Still, if forced to make a choice, I'd say Tchaikovsky was the better composer overall. John Williams is the best living composer, who owes a lot to Tchaikovsky and other "classical" composers.

 

This piece alone makes Tchaikovsky the winner: 

 

 

 

 

 

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On ‎1‎/‎29‎/‎2018 at 6:14 AM, Josh500 said:

 

A typewriter and a notebook cannot really be compared because they are things that were/are relevant in different eras. In the 40s and 50s, a typewriter was the best thing to use to write correspondence. Today, not anymore.

 

Similarly, Tchaikovsky was a composer for orchestral music 100 years ago (and continues to be celebrated today). John Williams is a film composer still active today. There is no comparison. 

 

Still, if forced to make a choice, I'd say Tchaikovsky was the better composer overall. John Williams is the best living composer, who owes a lot to Tchaikovsky and other "classical" composers.

 

 

 

This puzzles me even more.  Either they can be compared or they cannot.  if the latter, it simply does not make sense to say one is better than the other (for that is a comparison).  

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On 1/29/2018 at 7:14 AM, Josh500 said:

 

A typewriter and a notebook cannot really be compared because they are things that were/are relevant in different eras. In the 40s and 50s, a typewriter was the best thing to use to write correspondence. Today, not anymore.

 

Similarly, Tchaikovsky was a composer for orchestral music 100 years ago (and continues to be celebrated today). John Williams is a film composer still active today. There is no comparison. 

 

Still, if forced to make a choice, I'd say Tchaikovsky was the better composer overall. John Williams is the best living composer, who owes a lot to Tchaikovsky and other "classical" composers.

 

This piece alone makes Tchaikovsky the winner: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

:blink::blink:

 

You don't know anything, wow!  This post makes you sound like a baby!

 

:lol:

 

- TGP, responding to Josh500 in his own style

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