I can’t leave 1987 with just a look at “Empire of the Sun”, which was the focus of my last blog entry in my ongoing look at a John Williams score for every year of my life. “The Witches of Eastwick” was the other remarkable score by Williams that year – it’s just too great a score, and to not examine it in more detail would be doing it a great disservice. So on to the score.
The film itself is darkly humorous and zany. It’s not perhaps a great film, but it’s got some strong performances by Jack Nicholson and the ladies of the town whom he seduces. But it’s the music which truly lives in the memory.
The Original Soundtrack album opens with the charming “Township of Eastwick” which is light and scherzo-like, although there are some hints of the drama which will soon unfold. For example, The rather wonderful main theme (Dance of the Witches) is quoted a few times, for example, in the piano theme heard very early in the piece. There are also a few distinctly witchy sections, predominantly in the way Williams uses the strings, for example at 00:25, and again at 1:30.
There are some resonances with Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, in his use of rather use of scratchy strings at 4:30:
After some slightly unusual (for Williams) playing on an electronic piano of some kind, the piece comes to a fulfilling conclusion. The next piece, the concert version of the main theme, is called “Dance of the Witches”, and it is just perfect. It does everything a darkly comedic theme for a film about witches needs to do, with even an inverted allusion to the Dies Irae which so often finds its way into Williams’ work, often prefiguring a fateful decision or journey. At 2:30 there is a wonderful passage for brass which is then interwoven with another secondary flighty melody on woodwind. It’s just ingenious. This leads towards the final statement of the inverted Dies Irae, followed by the final statement of the theme on climbing brass, before a final flourish on woodwind before it dies away into nothingness. I could listen to it endlessly.
The following piece contains some of the darker music of the score, with some evocative and slightly atonal writing for solo stringed instruments. It features a really quite creepy statement of the main theme, complete with spine-tingling pizzicato strings. Parts of it put me in mind of Williams’ writing for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, especially some of the music for the adventures at Pankot Palace. But it also hints at another sublime theme – the one which becomes Darryl’s Theme. It is played on harpsichord towards the beginning.
The following theme contains a fuller statement of this new theme, again on harpsichord. It is wonderfully gothic, seductive and beautiful, with a strange sense of not being quite right. It comes in again at about 1:14, before it’s final luscious hearing at 1:57, played first on woodwind with slightly distressed strings before being let loose on soaring strings and passionate brass. It perfectly conjures up a seduction scene, with Alex (the lady being seduced) holding Darryl off for a time, but then finally giving in to her passions. Every couple needs this playing in their boudoir!
I’m skipping onto the next but one track now, which describes another seduction, this time of Suki. This is one of my favourite parts of the score. It starts with a beautiful passage for solo flute, followed by a languorous segment for muted strings. This wanders around for a little bit, before a brief statement of Darryl’s theme, which rises and segues into one of the most beautiful melodies John Williams has ever written – the Ballroom Scene. It kills me that this was not included in the final cut of the film, although there has been a suggestion that Nessun Dorma (it’s replacement) was always going to be there, and that what John Williams did was to take the end section which he appended to Nessun Dorma and enlarged it for the album into this wonderful theme. I don’t know if that is true, but one thing which John Williams does better than any other composer I can think of is to evoke flight, and this certainly does that in spades. The melody, with it’s wonderful leaps in melody and constantly shifting harmonies, with it’s soaring instrumentation, creates a beautiful sense of weightlessness.
Moving on, we have the music Williams penned for the Tennis Game, which perfectly matches the action on screen with its sense of to-ing and fro-ing. The piano features prominently in this cue, with some rather wonderful rhapsodic movement, which leads into the climax, when the ball magically shoots into the air and stays there, on that wonderful brassy climax.
And then we have “Have Another Cherry”, a piece which shares its DNA with the music Williams wrote for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the scene on the airship, called “No Ticket”. It is wonderfully sinuous and menacing.
For reference, here is “No Ticket” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
“Darryl Rejected” has another statement of the Darryl theme, but this time, it is lighter. It is proof yet again that Williams is the master of taking a theme or leitmotif and varying it in it’s tone and arrangement to suit the action on screen. Later in the same cue, we get another rendition, this time full of dark menace and foreboding, with a wonderful flourish of the Witches theme played over it in counterpoint. It’s moments like these which remind me that Williams truly is one of a kind.
“The Ride Home” is basically the Main Witches Dance theme played with panache and lots of timpani.
“The Destruction of Darryl” is Williams at the height of his career, writing action music, complete with Bach like melodic twists and even some gothic pipe organ thrown in for good measure. It all gets rather complicated, with sections of the Darryl theme played on brass under rather atonal sections in the other instruments. Worth mentioning is the incredible horn playing which is featured, playing what I can only describe as fairly satanic music.
“The Children’s Carousel” is the Witches dance played in what is very nearly a major key on a caliope-like sound, giving it the impression of a music box or fairground carousel.
By the time I was seventeen, the year this score was released, I was already an avid fan, collecting every JW album I could find. This was I believe the very last score I bought on LP, as the year after this I bought myself a CD player which I hooked up to my amplifier. I’ve since also bought it on CD. Whilst the CD version is beautifully clean sounding, it does lose something of the raw warmth which I heard first of all from the LP. I fell in love with the score instantly, and nothing has changed. It still hits me the same way. It’s a score which shows Williams huge mastery of the power of the orchestra, joined to his utter ease with creating memorable melodies which never quite sound predictable. I’d recommend it to any fan, not just of Williams’ work, but of film scores.