A John Williams Score for Every Year of My Life – 1975 Jaws

It has to be done. Whilst I am a great fan of the other score of 1975 which Williams wrote for “The Eiger Sanction”, I couldn’t not devote this blog entry to the stroke of absolute mastery which is Jaws.

As a teacher, I often use the theme from Jaws to illustrate how composers use dynamics, tempo and texture to build up tension in music. It’s amazing that almost every child I have ever taught, even from the age of 6, recognises this visceral music. I am quite sure that the vast majority of them have never seen the film. Maybe we can put that down to it’s use in the execrable “Baby Shark” (Please, if you’ve never heard of this, do not go and find it on Youtube – it will cause irreparable damage).

But that’s what this theme is all about. It is classic horror music, in that it tells the listener what is to come. It builds up from it’s creepy beginnings, building in volume and speed, adding layers of sounds on, until the tension is unbearable. The listener is left in no doubt that something huge is coming closer… and closer… And all from a piece of music which is little more than a two note ostinato.

It’s fascinating too to see the effect it has on a scene. Witness the title sequence from the film, but turn the sound down. It could very easily be a calm start to a documentary. Try it…

There are many such moments in the score, in which the famous theme is used to signal the presence of the shark, or the after-effects of that presence. One such example is in the piece called “Night Search” on the youtube playlist link at the top. The music is utterly beautiful, magical, full of tender harp glissandos and bubbling woodwinds, with the strings creating a sense of depth – this is after all an underwater search. About halfway through though, the mood darkens, and before too long we hear the ominous signalling of the shark’s arrival.

But here John Williams again shows his mastery of creating mood through music. Because the shark does not appear. What does appear is the horrific partly eaten bloated head of the sailor who had owned the boat they are searching. The shark’s doing of course.

I’ve said that the beginning half of Night Search is beautiful. It is in fact one of my favourite pieces of music by Williams. It is deceptively simple, creating an underwater world for us to explore, rather as Saint Saens did with Aquarium from “The Carnival of the Animals”. But there are other moments of wonder and beauty, and even fun, in Jaws. Promenade (Tourists on the Menu) is an utterly delightful quasi-classical overture, complete with harpsichord, which would be quite at home in the dining room of a palace. And that’s the point. The tourists promenading along the beach and in the water are the choicest of snacks offered up to the king of the sea. I’d be interested to know who came up with this wonderful idea – Williams or Spielberg. But it’s works beautifully.

And then we have a wonderful sea shanty-esque piece which is played a number of times when the boat is on the open sea. It is heard prominently at 0:19 in track 4, Out to Sea. It is playful, and treated in a number of different textured ways throughout the score – as a fugue, for example, but it’s always a breathe of fresh air. I always imagine eating fish and chips when I listen to this – there is something so very much of the sea and boats about it.

Some other music is reminiscent of the work Williams did on “The Cowboys” – for example, the scherzo he writes for “One Barrel Chase”. And that I sense is purposeful – it is almost as if they are riding the waves on horseback, as the boat is dragged along by the massive beast.

Preparing the Cage is a wonderful contrapuntal fugue of a piece, in which Williams shows his absolute understanding and deep roots in classical music at it’s best.

And then at the end of “Hand to Hand Combat”, Williams provides us with another absolutely beautiful passage, as the bloody remains of the fish sink below the surface of the water. The piano plays gentle arpeggios downward, as if tracing the fish’s last journey to the bottom. The strings provide the absolute perfect amount of cushioning, soothing and understated. This is then brought to a conclusion with the End Title, which is predominantly a slowed down version of the sea shanty theme. It’s almost a funeral march, sombre and stately. Interestingly, John Williams uses the same trick in his end theme to Jaws 2 a few years later, for which he wrote an entirely new sea shanty theme. But more on that when we get to 1978…

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