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How to get into Williams’ Concertos


Garrett
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I love almost all of Williams’ music: from movies, to TV, to the Olympics, to Celebration pieces (e.g. Liberty Fanfare or Celebrate Discovery), his music is exciting and beautiful.

 

I attribute this to the simple melodies he writes, making his songs memorable, and his use of tonality, making them emotional.

 

But I can’t seem to get into his Concertos. They all feel extremely chromatic, and borderline atonal. Moreover, it’s hard to pick out any simple, repetitive melody.

 

As others have pointed out, Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra sounds like a cat walking on a piano.

 

His most popular work around here seems to be “The Five Sacred Trees.” I tried to like this, but couldn’t. Where, in all five movements, is there a hummable melody? And it all feels so slow and sad.

 

My Question:
Does anyone have ideas on a good introduction to Williams’ concertos, that could help me learn to appreciate them?

 

Instead of naming a whole concerto, it might be helpful to me if you could pick a specific movement, and even more helpful to include the time stamps of your favorite parts.

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You can legally purchase the FLAC of most of them on the web.

 

I would suggest to go with the concerti JW recorded HIMSELF first (if he recorded them, there must be a reason I tell myself!) :-)

 

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Then there is the new Violin co n°2 recorded with Mutter, and the brand new recording of the Cello concerto with Yo-Yo Ma.

 

Principal Principal

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Are you familiar with the final movement of his Horn Concerto? That's the closest I've heard him get to his film work in his concertos, it features a beautiful tonal melody. The title of the movement is "The Crimson Day Withdraws" and I could imagine this in a film scoring a lonely soldier against the sunset after experiencing the horrors of war, like the end of War Horse. 

 

 

The second movement of Five Sacred Trees features a melodic hook right at the very beginning that reminds me of his more complicated action motifs. It's not the most "hummable" and goes in all kinds of directions but the first couple bars are definitely recognizable, and the movement in general keeps a rhythmic pulse. When the motif rears its head here, it's very reminiscent of Williams action-suspense setpieces. Not hard to imagine this segment scoring a character slowly realizing they're in some sort of danger and making an escape. 

 

 

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Also, hummable melodies are not always the goal of a composer when they set out to write. The concertos clearly fulfill a need in him to expand and innovate and do more than just ‘songs without words’

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42 minutes ago, QuartalHarmony said:

If you’ll forgive me being brutally honest, I think you might be asking for something that doesn’t exist.

 

I haven’t listened to all (or, probably, even most) of his substantial concerto output, but I have found a completely different kind of listening pleasure in them than I find in his film work or his ‘accessible’ concert works such as the Olympic stuff. It’s quite understandable that a person could love some types of his works but not others and it might be that this describes your situation. If you try the suggestions I that you will no doubt get here and don’t get anywhere, don’t worry - you just might be someone for whom JW’s concertos do nothing. It doesn’t make you a bad person!

 

Mark

QuartalHarmony (and also blondheim):

Thanks for the replies. But if I’m listening for the wrong things in concert pieces, then what are the right things to listen for? What should I be paying attention to when listening to such pieces?

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It took me 40 years to appreciate Close Encounters of the Third Kind at its just value... So if I live till 80, I'll have plenty of time to fall in love with JW's concerti.

 

I'm just a bit "slow"!

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57 minutes ago, Garrett said:

QuartalHarmony (and also blondheim):

Thanks for the replies. But if I’m listening for the wrong things in concert pieces, then what are the right things to listen for? What should I be paying attention to when listening to such pieces?

I am sorry if it sounded like I meant that in a condescending way. I didn’t. I used to listen to music for exactly what you are listening for and still do most of the time. I should have spent more time on my reply.

 

Ears have to be trained, like any other part of the body. They don’t have to be, but they can be. If that is a thing you want. Take me and Shostakovich for example. I love the fourth symphony but would I have loved it before I had explored Mahler, before I had explored Bruckner, Sibelius, Beethoven, Wagner, before I had trained my ear to hear more and more complicated chords, counterpoints, thus making it easy to decipher and enjoy? Sometimes music takes a few listens. Sometimes it never unlocks. But it is all up to you. You can’t do music wrong.

 

Another example, recently I decided I was going to understand Tristan and Isolde. So I made myself do dedicated listens, just me and the music. Multiple recordings. One act at a time. Over twelve hours. But I get it now. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that even a couple of years ago but I worked my way there. It was a thing I wanted to understand so I chose to listen until I did. People talk about the Tristan chord, its influence. I wanted inside that club.

 

Anyway, it just seems to me like you like John Williams enough to try. So there are lots of way to train the ear. It’s a very personal journey. I hope I’ve given you some examples of ways you could go about it. If you wanted to

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My key to Williams' concert work was his first violin concerto. I found and still find that quite accessible as the first two movements are based on one quite recongizable themes. 

But for you they probably are not accessible enough.

 

The tuba concerto is, I think, widely considered to be quite close to Williams' film work. 

 

But If you are not interested in concert music in general apart from film music, then it might be a good idea not to listen to it. And If you are interested in getting into it, then John Williams is probably not the best place to start with it.

 

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I would start with the concerti closest to his film music and then venture out.  in this case, I would suggest the following order to get things started: tuba, harp, horn.  Highwood's Ghost is another good start--it is concertoish. 

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I agree with those speaking of the tuba concerto being close to his film work. I find it very accessible but it’s hard for me to judge what’s accessible anymore. I used to find Drag Me to Hell as an album to be slightly difficult to pay attention to and get through and the other day I spun it and wondered how the hell I ever thought that. Times change. So do our ears and taste buds.

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Firstly – enjoy what you want, no matter why and no matter who wrote it. If you love Williams’ film scores but can‘t get into his concert music, that’s fine. Not everything is for everyone!

 

That said – I was also about to mention the tuba concerto, which has a very lovable, bouncy little tune in its first movement. The syncopated rhythm of the harp concerto’s second movement I’ve always liked, and I think the atmosphere of the horn concerto is wonderful, too.

 

If it helps you, try paying attention to how the film and concert music are alike, rather than how they are different: True, there are few melodies and the harmonies are often more ‘complex’, shall we say… But listen to the orchestral colours, the way he employs glockenspiel, harps and celeste – it’s so entirely Williams it could be from any of his scores. Maybe try listening to film scores you know well, but listen for everything but the hummable tunes. I think you’ll find a lot of similarities to the concerti.

 

Maybe that helps! If not, no worries. Those film scores aren’t going anywhere.

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Enjoy want you want, yess... we'll not judge you if you're not enough mature to like JW's concerti.

 

We'll just stop talking to you. :P

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Is there a recording of the tuba concerto that is widely considered “best”?

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39 minutes ago, Andy said:

Is there a recording of the tuba concerto that is widely considered “best”?

Good question

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3 hours ago, GerateWohl said:

This concerto stuff is really something to work into. I remember as a Boy being quite obsessed with Tschaikowsky's Nutcracker ballet music with about one and a half hour of melodic very accessible pieces. So, I wanted to explore more music of that composer. My parents had a record of his first piano concerto. And ,yeah, that starts off really with a hit tune. But after three munites it already becomes a little more complicated. So, I decided, this is not for me and it took some time until I listened to it again. In the beginning I was too focussed on the tunes and melodies. Later on I learned better to look at other things like interplay and communication between Instruments, echoes, modulations, rhythmic architectures and what the single instruments are doing in there.

Problem is, the better you get at recognizing and enjoying such things when they are well made, the more your ears start bleeding when you hear the one or the other modern film music.

 Ain’t that the truth

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On 20/8/2022 at 8:38 PM, Garrett said:

But if I’m listening for the wrong things in concert pieces, then what are the right things to listen for? What should I be paying attention to when listening to such pieces?


Firstly, many of the responses above are excellent, but I’ll try to add to them nonetheless!

 

I never suggested (nor thought) that you might be listening for the wrong things in the concerti, so I’m struggling to respond to your first question. But maybe I can suggest you try some related works from other composers - Holst’s Planets Suite and Stravinsky’s major ballet works (esp the Firebird and Rite of Spring) for example. If you can enjoy at least parts of those, it might be worth trying a JW concerto or two again.

 

Picking up on @TownerFan’s point about taking time, I’ll quote something an Art teacher I once knew said. She’d just come back from a school trip to Paris and was bemoaning the fact that they’d taken the pupils to five art galleries in three days. Surely that’s a good thing? I asked - exposing them to lots of material and ideas? No, she said, it’s like force-feeding animals. You wouldn’t listen to eight symphonies one after another and expect to fully appreciate them, would you? Fair point, I conceded.

 

So, you might have been trying to listen to too much in too short a space of time. Maybe take just one concerto, or just one movement. Listen to it a couple of times in a day, with a good break in between. Listen to it again a couple of days later, then maybe a week later. Don’t rush it. A lot of music needs the listener to be in a certain mood to get anything out of it. It takes a composer a long time to write a piece, and a long time for musicians to practise it up to be ready to record. Just because it ‘only’ takes a few minutes to perform doesn’t necessarily mean it can be fully appreciated in the same time.

 

Mark

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The bassoon concerto is my favorite by far. The first, third, and final movements are beautiful and the second reminds me of his dark mischievious music ala The Witches of Eastwick and similar material from Harry Potter.

I saw Williams conduct his tuba concerto with the LSO, and it was quite a fun and lively experience. 

 

I do find some hard to get into and "enjoy" as I do his more melodic film music, but I do like some specific movements from his various concerti. I much prefer the revised cello concerto opening as opposed to the quite brash original beginning. I still listen to the concerti occassionaly, slowly getting to know them. 

 

I just wish we had good recordings of all of them. 

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For many years I tried to like his concertos and give them a shot once in a while ...but  just can't get into them apart from some specific passages. Last I listened to the latest iteration of the cello concerto and I felt like changing to something else mid way.

 

I also don't think they are more "sophisticated" or "refined" than his film scores or  if you don't like them  it's just because your not a true music connoisseur or can't appreciate real art.

 

The Piano Scherzo does sound like a cat walking on a piano. And one thing's for sure,if Williams wasn't my favorite composer because of his film scores and celebratory fanfares, I would have never listened to any of the concertos all the way through

 

I like Soundings.  But it leans closer to a celebratory fanfare or film  music than the concertos

 

All that said, I still want them as a part of my Williams music collection

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On 21/8/2022 at 3:05 PM, QuartalHarmony said:


Firstly, many of the responses above are excellent, but I’ll try to add to them nonetheless!

 

I never suggested (nor thought) that you might be listening for the wrong things in the concerti, so I’m struggling to respond to your first question. But maybe I can suggest you try some related works from other composers - Holst’s Planets Suite and Stravinsky’s major ballet works (esp the Firebird and Rite of Spring) for example. If you can enjoy at least parts of those, it might be worth trying a JW concerto or two again.

 

Picking up on @TownerFan’s point about taking time, I’ll quote something an Art teacher I once knew said. She’d just come back from a school trip to Paris and was bemoaning the fact that they’d taken the pupils to five art galleries in three days. Surely that’s a good thing? I asked - exposing them to lots of material and ideas? No, she said, it’s like force-feeding animals. You wouldn’t listen to eight symphonies one after another and expect to fully appreciate them, would you? Fair point, I conceded.

 

So, you might have been trying to listen to too much in too short a space of time. Maybe take just one concerto, or just one movement. Listen to it a couple of times in a day, with a good break in between. Listen to it again a couple of days later, then maybe a week later. Don’t rush it. A lot of music needs the listener to be in a certain mood to get anything out of it. It takes a composer a long time to write a piece, and a long time for musicians to practise it up to be ready to record. Just because it ‘only’ takes a few minutes to perform doesn’t necessarily mean it can be fully appreciated in the same time.

 

Mark

Thanks for the reply. I never though about it that way before.

 

I have listened to Holst’s Planets suite… but for me, it was a mixed bag.


Mars is amazing. It’s by far my favorite piece in the suite, and one of my favorite pieces in the classical music canon.

 

But it was hard to get into anything else. Eventually, after listening to Jupiter over and over, I finally got it. Now I think it’s enjoyable.

 

But I don’t “get” any of the other planets. I read on Wikipedia that Saturn was Holst’s favorite. But it’s soooooo boring! How can anyone like it?!?

 

It’s hard to identify a main theme in Saturn. If anyone knows of a good analysis with timestamps, that would be nice.
 

UPDATE: After posting this I went back and listened to Uranus. I finally “got” it! It’s really cool. Maybe someday I’ll learn to like all of the planets.

 

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If you have a hard time grasping The Planets (which is perhaps one of the most accessible and “film-like” pieces of classical music ever written), then it’s understandable that you struggle with much more abstract compositions. The way you are expressing it, it seems that you need a clear and identifiable melodic or thematic hook to hold on to, am I correct? That’s of course more than normal, but music can evoke emotions also through colour, atmosphere and texture. It depends on how much we are open to embrace, beyond personal taste and preferences.

 

9 hours ago, King Mark said:

The Piano Scherzo does sound like a cat walking on a piano. And one thing's for sure,if Williams wasn't my favorite composer because of his film scores and celebratory fanfares, I would have never listened to any of the concertos all the way through

 

I like Soundings.  But it leans closer to a celebratory fanfare or film  music than the concertos


Perhaps that has more to do with what you usually expect Williams’ music to sound like than what the piece actually is. If you expect Williams always writing in his Star Wars/fanfare mode, then you will always end up disappointed whenever he goes into another territory. As much as we tend to forget this, we all grew up being imprinted with those film scores and the memories of our childhood/adolescence attached to them are so vivid. It’s totally fine to prefer that style/vernacular over others, but following your reasoning this doesn’t mean that that is the “true Williams” and his more abstract pieces are not. Saying that the Scherzo for Piano is like a cat walking on the piano is a very unfair way to dismiss it. It’s certainly dissonant, sometimes harsh in its turnarounds, but having being written for Lang Lang there is a puckish, almost impertinent character that reveals a great deal

of fun.

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I mean, basically, what is music? Melody, rhythm, harmony, accentuation, expression. 

That said, over thousands of years people elaborated some formulas, patterns, schemas and genres that work out well. There are some people known for inventing things and some just developing it further and some just using it.

 

If you are interested in nice harmonies, recognizable melodies and the sound of a symphony orchestra, then you might be in good hands with film music. Good film music.

 

But still I think, the path from Williams' film work to his absolute music does not necessarily work in a direct step.

 

I would really recommend first to explore some other works of classical or romantic composers, who might be more accessible.

 

Rather start off with symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, dive into La Mer of Claude Debussy, listen to the two heavenly piano concerto's of Maurice Ravel or Stavinsky's ballet music. Listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams' fifth symphony. Explore some Prokofief or Rachmaninov symphonies. Then Schostakovic. Then you might try some classical stuff like Mozart, Brahm, Beethoven. Try some chamber music. Sting quartetts for example.

 

Then try Williams' concertos again. Then they might sound different and more accessible to you.

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5 hours ago, Garrett said:

After posting this I went back and listened to Neptune. I finally “got” it! It’s really cool.


This shows real hope for you! Neptune doesn’t really have any tune or melody as such, it’s more about creating an atmosphere. If you can enjoy it, there’s a chance you can move beyond needing a melody to engage with a piece of music (which several of your previous posts have suggested).

 

Another thing that’s occurred to me is to ask how you find JW’s film music that is more influenced by the 20th century than the 19th. Jaws, for example, leans heavily on Stravinsky - if you like the score to Jaws, try Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and let us know how you find it.

 

Mark

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I listened to the Bassoon Concerto a couple of days ago. That last movement contains some of Williams' most beautiful and sublime passages. 

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I believe Copeland wrote something to the effect that there are four elements of music: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, and Texture. Getting caught up on only one of those and ignoring the other three is going to keep you disappointed, because if melody is missing, or fragmentary, or just not memorable, your ears don't know what else to listen for. 

 

Personally, I would add Timbre and Form to this list. The reason, I think, that so many people can get into film scores, but not classical music, and why so many get caught up on sequential programing, is because the form follows the movie, and is therefore easier to understand. Classical music has form. Even atonal music has form, but if you don't know some basic forms (Sonata, Rondo, Binary, Ternary, Theme and Variations, Tone Row, etc) then you will always be trying to read a book out of order. You might be able to piece a few plot points together, but the story will not make much sense.

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On 24/8/2022 at 1:57 AM, QuartalHarmony said:


This shows real hope for you! Neptune doesn’t really have any tune or melody as such, it’s more about creating an atmosphere. If you can enjoy it, there’s a chance you can move beyond needing a melody to engage with a piece of music (which several of your previous posts have suggested).

 

Another thing that’s occurred to me is to ask how you find JW’s film music that is more influenced by the 20th century than the 19th. Jaws, for example, leans heavily on Stravinsky - if you like the score to Jaws, try Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and let us know how you find it.

 

Mark

Whoops. I meant to say Uranus, not Neptune. And I do love my melodies. They’re my favorite part, to be honest.

 

I do love the theme from Jaws, though. It was one of the key songs that led me to Williams in the first place. I’ll give the Rite of Spring a listen when I get a chance, and then report back! (Might be a few days.)

 

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On 24/08/2022 at 5:21 AM, Garrett said:

But I don’t “get” any of the other planets. I read on Wikipedia that Saturn was Holst’s favorite. But it’s soooooo boring! How can anyone like it?!?

 

It’s hard to identify a main theme in Saturn. If anyone knows of a good analysis with timestamps, that would be nice.

 

Saturn, in a good recording, is breathtaking. For a long time, Neptune was the one for me that seemed less interesting, not much more than a lengthy coda to a set of much more exciting pieces, but in recent years, it's become one of my dearest parts of the suite. Perhaps one of the Holst's greatest accomplishments in this work is making it so diverse that you can find and appreciate entirely different things and parts after years of being familiar with it.

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A little late to the party, but I consider John Williams' Oboe Concerto one of his more tonal -and beautiful- concert works and it might serve as a nice starting point for anyone interested in exploring 'the other side' of the maestro.

 

 

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  • 1 month later...

 A long time ago I hated pretty much all "contemporary" music. I basically forced myself to listen to pieces until I understood it. Williams concerti was a huge help. I actually started with the Tuba concerto which is an exciting and more tonal orientated piece, especially the finale. But it isn't a straight forward melody. In shit style of music its more about appreciating other things, kind of like Jazz. I think the most important thing is to get used to hearing different kinds of harmonies and listening to the same pieces over and over again until they're more familiar.

His newer second violin concerto for example I had to hear it a few times to really hear everything, and even so hearing it live was a game changer. So its more complicated music that requires listening to a few times to understand and get into.

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4 hours ago, WilliamsStarShip2282 said:

In shit style of music its more about appreciating other things, kind of like Jazz. 

No comment necessary.  

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