A John Williams Score for Every Year of my Life 10: 1979 – Dracula

Dracula, scored in 1979, is perhaps one of john Williams’ lesser known works. It is however a mighty work, built mainly around the lush and dangerous theme Williams provided for the central character. This theme features firstly in the Main Title and Storm Sequence :

John Williams has said that he tries not to know too much about the books on which the films are often based. In the case of Dracula, he came to the film, if you like, a further step removed – he’d never even seen a Dracula film! Not one. So he had no preconceptions about what a Dracula theme should do. And so what we get in the main theme is a heady mixture of sensuality and threat. It is a sinuous melody. Some of its intervals, and especially the fall at the end of the first two phrases of the melody, play a similar trick to the theme from Superman, in that one can almost hear the word “Dracula” being sung in the orchestra.

There are indeed other links to the Superman score from the previous year. At 1:14 we hear the low strings intoning a ponderous ostinato with trills. Williams used the same trick in Superman, here at 5:30:

There are other themes which wind their way in and out of the score, such as the jaunty brass motif heard at 2:20:

Or the rather threatening brass and piano combination here at 6:38

There is also a lovely little travelling piece which sounds for all the world like a hunt. This may be because of the instrumentation at the beginning – a horn plays a questing little up-down melody before the piece begins in earnest, full of racing strings and woodwind. There is a marvellous melody on the horns, which shows Williams’ mastery of the French horn’s capabilities.

There is one standout variation of the main theme in the score, where john Williams takes it to it’s rapturous extreme, in “The Love Scene”. After a wonderful intro on the horns, the strings come to the fore. They seem to swell like the waves of the ocean, coming to a climax at 1:10. And it really does feel like a climax – its surely the musical version of an orgasm. The piece becomes tender as it draws to a close, but there is always an underlying sense of menace, which pervades the entire score.

There is not much beauty in this score. That’s not to say that the main theme is not majestic, and marvellous. But it’s not a beautiful piece of music. It’s far too dangerous for that.

There are moments of lightness, such as the lovely little motif played on the woodwind in “Give Me Your Loyalty”, at 0:42.

But these moments are rare in a score which is overshadowed by the menace and allure of Dracula himself. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. John Williams is a genius. He creates themes which seem inevitable, fitting perfectly to the characters and images portrayed on the silver screen. This version of Dracula portrays the vampire as a seductive handsome stranger who exerts a supernatural power over the women he pursues. The theme he furnishes Dracula with is likewise intoxicating, seductive, sensual, but at the same time, always with a sense of danger, of menace lurking just below the surface.

If you’ve never heard the score, try and get a copy, or find it on youtube – it’s well worth the listening to.

A John Williams Score for every Year of my Life 9: A bit of a mix, 1978

So I’ve reached the year I turned eight. In that year, John Williams was called upon to score a number of feature films, with wide-ranging subject matter – from superheroes to a man-eating shark. I simply cannot choose one score to epitomise his output that year, so I shall choose a theme (motif) or two from each.

So first, the biggest film of the year to be scored by Williams. Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, was a stylistic take on the age-old superman mythos. Some of the early scenes from Krypton are unique in their visionary portrayal of a civilisation far beyond ours, facing their own demise. The use of reflective costumes makes everything glow with a clean white light. I remember being very struck by this as a lad.

But if elements of the film are rather avant-garde, the score is rip-roaringly traditional in it’s mighty themes, it’s detailed layered orchestration that was a hallmark of William’s writing at the time. The brass of course gets a good workout, especially in the main theme. And what a main theme it is! Its heroic leaps, its reaching for the sky, and its lyrical shape which seems at times to form the words “Superman”. It’s one of the best superhero themes ever created.

But I want to look at a couple of the other themes in the score which need to be heard. The first is the music written for Krypton. Like the theme to Close Encounters, this is deceptively simple. It is a theme made up of one simple angular and heraldic melody, which is heard first in the trumpets over a brooding string bass, and then in further iterations is echoed by the trombones as well as woodwind. In the meantime, the string build up in volume and pitch to bring the theme to a crashing and potent climax, at 1:20. It’s simple by John Williams’ standards, but incredibly powerful. I guess it goes to show that sometimes less is more. And indeed, the least that John Williams has to offer is still hugely impressive.

And then, I have to mention the wonderful pastoral theme, prominent at Jonathan Kent’s funeral, and played in fullest form in the scene below. I’ve looked at this theme in my post on the Cowboys, in which one theme shares some stylistic and melodic DNA to this theme, and so I have copied my text from that post below.

For me, this is what good film music is about. It accentuates and emphasises the emotional charge of a scene. Witness the point at 2:53 where Clark embraces Martha, but John Williams doesn’t bring in the big music just yet – that would be too obvious, too hackneyed. He lets us feel the emotion of the action first, just for a few seconds, before the music ramps up to make sure that we get the full emotional importance of the scene. Truly one of the most wonderful uses of film music that I can think of.

Which brings me to my next score of 1978 – the Fury. The film is less well known I guess, and the music too is not well-known. The main theme is a plodding and nightmarish take on a lullaby, but the two themes I want to share with you in this post are the themes written for the two young protagonists of the film, Gillian, and Robin. First, we have Gillian’s Theme

It’s made up of a number of dancing motifs, all very light-footed, and all painting a picture of a heroine who is innocent, mystical, and beautiful. The theme really comes into its own at 1:40, when Williams gives us another of his soaring, seemingly effortless melodies in the strings. I fell in love with this theme the first time I heard it.

And for me the other stand out theme on the score is The Search for Robin, which, like the pastoral theme from Superman, is a perfect use of melody and dynamics, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster. It starts at 11:37 in the link below. It starts with an elegiac horn melody, which is echoed in the low strings. It continues in this vein for a time, before the main melody comes in on the oboe. It is a sinuous, beautiful tune over a softly moving string and celeste bed. It is delicate, poignant, and I find it very moving. This plays twice, then the strings take over in a full-throated rendition, and the horns provide a rapturous counterpart. It builds, and builds, the timpani provide some lift and… and then dies away to a sweet cadence at the end. It feels bittersweet somehow, as if prefiguring the fact that Robin will not be found, at least, not the Robin his father remembers.

And so to the last score for today’s post. Jaws 2. The film is (possibly rightly) criticised as being a re-tread of the original, but less good. One would assume the music might suffer the same fate. But somehow, John Williams produces a soundtrack which builds on the first score, and in some ways improves on it. The sea-shanty like themes he writes for the Open Sea sections are hugely enjoyable, and as stand alone pieces I prefer them to their counterparts in the first Jaws film.

There is something so seasidey about this music – I can almost smell the salt. It’s not just the melodies – it’s the orchestration. Listen to the section at 0:52 – can’t you feel the sea breeze in your face? The trilling strings over the french horn melody is intoxicating. This is the reason I feel in love with John William’s music. He has such an incredible command of the textures of the orchestra.

Let me give you another example. In “The Water Kite Sequence”, we have a really clever musical trick being deployed. Williams uses different pitches to create a musical image of two different planes – the above water, and the below water. Low strings and woodwind tell us that something lurks beneath. At the same time, higher sounds provide a sense of what is going on above the surface.

And lastly, I want to draw attention to the beautiful End Titles. As in the original Jaws score, John Williams here uses the sea shanty melody heard in The Catamaran race and elsewhere, but slows it down. After the introduction, the melody comes in on cellos, with a simple harp backing and occasional flourishes from the woodwind. The higher strings repeat it, this time with piano. After a grand finale on the brass, the sea shanty returns in full sparkling form, perhaps to remind us that, despite the dangers that might lurk beneath, the sea is still a wondrous and exciting place. At least until Jaws 3, and we won’t go there. John Williams didn’t!

A John Williams Work for every Year of my Life 4: Cinderella Liberty

In some ways John Williams’ music for Cinderella Liberty was a departure from the style he was beginning to make his own in the early seventies; certainly in the context of the soundtracks which he’d composed in the years before, such as Jane Eyre, the Cowboys, it almost feels like a different composer. It is very much inspired by jazz idioms – felt very much in the two opening tracks – Wednesday Special (The Main Title), and Nice To Be Around, sung by Paul Williams (no relation to the composer).

However, this was no departure for Williams, but a return in some ways to much of his work during the 60s, when he’d written jazz elements in many of his scores for films such as Diamondhead, Batchelor Flat, A Guide for the Married Man. It was an idiom to which he’d return in later scores, including his disaster film of the mid-seventies such as Towering Inferno, and even later in “Cantina Band” in Star Wars as well as the dance scene in 1941. Perhaps it finds its ultimate expression in the soundtrack to “Catch Me if you Can”, as well as in the title sequence to “the Adventures of Tintin”. That is one of the many refreshing aspects of listening to John Williams’ ouvre – his ability to write in so many different styles, chameleon-like. He is just as much at home with big band numbers as with the full symphony orchestra, as well as much more intimate writing for chamber orchestra, as is found in scores such as “Stanley and Iris”.

The score opens with the vocal “Wednesday Special”, sung by Paul Williams, himself a songwriter – he penned the lyrics throughout. It’s a groovy soul number which has echoes of Williams later work in “Rosewood”. This is followed by “Nice to be Around”, which is perhaps the most famous number form the score. It’s a much more laid back expansive piece complete with soaring harmonica lines, which you can imagine being played in smoky jazz clubs at the end of the evening.

This is followed by “New Shooter”, an upbeat piece for brass, drums and saxes. It’s similar to “Miles on Wheels” which Williams would compose the following year for Earthquake. It illustrates another aspect of Williams’ scores, or at least his presentation of the scores – and fans argue about whether he’s right to do this. He organises the tracks not in the order in which they appear in the film generally, but to make for the best listening experience, so he follows up a lazy jazz theme with this light-hearted poppy piece, so that the ear doesn’t get too used to any one style or dynamic for too long. For myself, it depends on whether I want to listen to the score as background music, or if I want to actually listen with a musician’s ear to the music. In that case, I prefer to have the tracks arranged in dramatic order, as they appear in the film. But in that case, I also want to listen to the entire score, so that’s where the spate of entire score presentations in recent years from La La Land Records and Intrada come in very handy.

The 4th track, Maggie Shoots Pool, is again a wonderful quietly understated jazz inspired piece. It is very like music he would compose for his disaster films for Irwin Allen the following year.

The following pieces are built on ideas which Williams has already worked into the score – for example, Boxing Montage is a more upbeat version of Nice to be Around, all fast paced shuffle beats and funky piano. It’s brilliant Sunday afternoon listening. This is followed by the first vocal rendition of “Nice to be Around”, sung again by Paul Williams.

Neptune’s Bar is out and out jazz, built around a series of harmonic ostinati, with searing sax lines improvising above.

The last few pieces are again built on existing musical ideas from the score – generally either of the songs. But each time we hear them, they are treated differently. They are still recognisably themselves, but the particular instrumentation might vary. The tempo might be different. The harmonies might be subtly changed. The treatment of the jazz elements might be altered. And that again is part of William’s huge talent. He is able to write variations on a theme with deceptive ease, and this is a craft he uses throughout his career – that ability to change the purpose and emotional impact of one single melody simply by changing tempo, orchestration, rhythm, pitch. He is an absolute master of this.

I’ve never seen the film “Cinderella Liberty”. To be honest, I don’t feel I need to. The music is a pleasant listening experience in and of itself. Because of the lack of action cues and its being built around jazz elements, it almost feels like a concert album, an easy listening album of the seventies. As a child of the seventies, I love the sounds of this album. I know it’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you’re not a heavy jazz officianado but enjoy some light jazz listening on a Sunday afternoon, you could give this score a go.

Return to Jane Eyre

I’ve been working on a piano transcription of the Theme from Jane Eyre, my choice of John Williams Score from 1970. I’ve just posted it to youtube. There will be more to follow – I’m going to do a number of John Williams themes – especially some of his less well-known ones, or at least less well-known themes from his well known film-scores.

Whilst you’re visiting my channel, subscribe for more content – mainly my own compositions for TV and stage.

A John Williams Work for every year of my life 3: The Cowboys (1972)

John Williams was 40 when he wrote the music to the Mark Rydell film, “The Cowboys”. In the same year, he produced what has to be his most avant-garde score for the Robert Altman film, “Images”. I just want to briefly look at his work on this latter film before taking a more in depth look at “The Cowboys”.

Images tells the story of an authoress’s descent into madness. The music more than suggests this – it is deeply unsettling, with disembodied voices and strange otherworldly instruments peppering the pieces on the score album. The only recognisable melody is “In Search of Unicorns”, but even this begins with disjointed piano wanderings, before it begins a sombre and deeply disturbing elegy, written for piano and strings. Any sense of eerie peace is disturbed by a horrific outburst on rather weird percussion and what can only be described as a siren. Periodic returns to more melodic iterations are intermittently disturbed by more deeply unsettling and frankly shocking interludes.

The main theme, such as it is, returns at points later in the score – such as in “Dogs, Ponies, and Old Ruins”

Throughout the soundtrack there are elements of John Williams musical language which found their way into later scores, such as Close Encounters, The Empire of the Sun, and War of the Worlds. But this is Williams at his most unconventional, his most experimental. It is not pleasant listening. Very interesting, but not pleasant. This really is the stuff of nightmares, of horror movies. It’s interesting to note that the film itself is not a horror film – maybe the intention is to make us feel that there is nothing more horrific than the descent into madness of the human mind.

So to “The Cowboys”.

The Main Theme is gloriously bright, positive, exuding a wonderful Americana which could very well have come from the pen of Copland. You can almost smell the horses! And where Images created it’s sounds around strings, piano and a selection of non-Western percussion instruments, “the Cowboys” is written for full orchestra, with occasional help from the mouth organ, and electric piano.

This is John Williams at his most jubilant, his most melodic. I defy anyone to listen to the main theme and not go away humming part of it. The film is about a rancher who must find replacement drovers when he is deserted by his ranch-hands. He finds his troupe in a group of school-boys. The music reflects their joie-de-vivre, and even though the film has it’s dark turns, there is little in the original score album to take away from that first sense of fun we hear in the opening theme.

As an example, “Wild Horses”, the 4th track, is absolutely, wonderfully joyful, conjuring up a horse-ride through the majestic plains of the Wild West.

And then, as if the main theme wasn’t enough, we get an alternative main theme, which I presume was written, recorded, but never used. It is just wonderful! If anything, I love it even more than the actual theme that was used. It has something of the theme to Dallas about it – maybe in those sawing strings.

In “The Ranch” we hear one of the secondary themes from the film. This is a beautiful theme full of wide-open space, and if you’ve got the feeling as you listen to it that you’ve heard it before, then maybe it’s because it’s the precursor of the wonderful pastoral theme from Superman, played predominantly when Clark Kent takes his leave of his mother in the cornfields. This is the full coming of age of the theme which we hear first in the Cowboys.

For me, this is what good film music is about. It accentuates and emphasises the emotional charge of a scene. Witness the point at 2:53 where Clark embraces Martha, but John Williams doesn’t bring in the big music just yet – that would be too obvious, too hackneyed. He lets us feel the emotion of the action first, just for a few seconds, before the music ramps up to make sure that we get the full emotional importance of the scene.

If you’ve never discovered the music to “The Cowboys”, then I urge you to give it a listen. It’s John Williams as he was entering what might be seen as the golden age of his cinematic work. It’s full of beautiful melodies, of drama, of intricate orchestrations. These are the hallmarks of his trade which are then seen in his countless scores up to the present day.

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.