A John Williams work for every year of my life 2: The Fiddler on the Roof.

In 1971 John Williams won his first Oscar, for his adaptation and incidental music for “Fiddler on the Roof”. I can not claim to know this film, or the musical, well at all.

When I was in secondary school I remember singing “Sunrise, Sunset” in the school choir. That was the extent of my knowledge of the musical. So I’ve dusted off the album (well, actually, I downloaded it from Amazon) and had a deeper listen.

What is perhaps unique about this score for John Williams is that it is mainly not his own work. The Oscar was not for best score, afterall, but for best adaptation and original song score. But it doesn’t take long to hear John Williams’ mark on the music of this film. At the age of 39, he’d already developed his own brand of sound, his ways of mixing using the sounds of the orchestra. The orchestration of the songs, often much more complex than the stage version of the same songs, shows his love of intricate counter harmonies and rhythms, and his use of big brass section is evident, especially in the opening track, “Tradition”.

Much of the score is a mixture of comedic beats and Judaic melodic turns. Williams had cut his teeth on writing scores for comedy capers, and this was no new skill for him. But there are some parts of the score which point forward to the orchestral and musical language which John Williams has surely made his own in the years since. The first is this piece from the first act finale:

Some of this could be from one of his disaster films, even from one of his later dramas such as Munich. It has a building power and passion which Williams does so very well.

And then there is this – listen from the 1:05 mark, and tell me those strings writhing around above the melody aren’t a precursor to the wonderful writing he did for the Slave Children’s Crusade in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 13 years later?

(listen at 0:37 and then again at 0:58)

So what I need to do now is track down a copy of the film itself, as whilst much of John William’s wonderful music stands apart from the films it was created for, and is a great listening experience in and of itself, one can only really appreciate the mastery with which he writes when you see how he expresses the action on screen through music. That’s what has put him at the top of his craft for so many years – he knows what to say and how to say it, using the speech of the orchestra.

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