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 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.