John Williams and the end of an era for film music

John Williams and the end of an era for film music

Analysis: The composer’s impending retirement marks the end of a film soundtrack tradition from Hollywood’s Golden Age

Shortly after celebrating his 90th birthday, five-time Oscar winner John Williams announced that he would be retiring soon. His last two films, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans and the as yet untitled fifth Indiana Jonescould mark the end of a dating tradition from Hollywood’s golden age.

This time, which began with the “talking pictures”, not only gave us classics like The Wizard of Oz, Blown by the wind and Casablanca, but also defined the role and style of film music. Composers who emigrated from Europe had transplanted the sounds of European Romanticism to the big screen, using operatic devices such as leitmotifs (short themes for a person, place or object) to parallel the narrative in the music. These early soundtracks took on the task of amplifying the emotional story.

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From the RTÉ Radio 1 arena celebrating the genius of composer John Williams

One of the most prolific film composers was Max Steiner, whose music for King Kong (1933) humanized the stop-motion monkey and terrified audiences. The score inspired Danny Elfman (Batman, Edward with the scissor hands), who stated Kong defined “the whole concept of a full blown dubbed film score”.

In the 1960s, this classic way of composition began to die out when films like The graduate, Soundtrack, by Simon & Garfunkel, popularized a playlist-like approach. But in 1975, Williams revived old-school methods in the first summer blockbuster. Jaw.

Just like Kongthe music of Jaw instilled fear. The animatronic shark “Bruce” wasn’t known to work, so Williams’ original two-note motif acted as a substitute. The bass tones indicated oceanic depth; the incessant rhythms conveyed the implacable nature of the animal; Volume and tempo indicate his aggression. The music was so effective that Spielberg credited Williams with half of the film’s success.

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The composer’s penchant for creating memorable themes in the classical style went beyond this Jaw (whose legacy continues with the opening of hauntingly catchy Baby Shark). superman, AND, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter Each followed the revived classic model now expected of blockbusters to increase box office success.

References to the old Hollywood tradition have continued throughout William’s career, with an occasional vague distinction between inspiration and imitation. war of starswhose individual scores are so extensive and detailed that every motif has been catalogued, Flak has deemed it to sound a little too familiar.

Stylistic caricatures are not intended to deceive or be an attempt at plagiarism, nor are they limited to Williams. When Hollywood classics Erich Wolfgang Korngold compose (The Adventures of Robin Hood) heard how his own music sounded, one remembered the words: “Why are you stealing me? Why don’t you steal the man I’m stealing from, Richard Strauss?”

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More of a chameleon than a magpie, Williams changes styles from film to film: Schindlers List takes on a Hebrew sound; Catch Me If You Can is rooted in cool jazz; far awayadopts Oirish-Lilts with the help of The Chieftains; and memories of a geisha refers to Japanese styles. The diverse soundtracks of his long career (including collaborations with Hitchcock and Sinatra) were numerous and colourful: a description that doesn’t quite fit Hollywood today.

Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, gladiator, beginning) is the composer of our digital age. While he has embraced well-known themes and brought an experimental approach to film sound, the composer is often accused of promoting a school of compositional anonymity in which “the minions do the actual writing” and the composer’s name is given credit. With many fans, imitators and apprentices (“Zimlings”), he is undoubtedly as influential as Williams, but has in a way ensured the homogenization of modern film music.

This should not damage the current landscape. Recently, unique and promising voices have emerged – like Hildur Guðnadóttir (joker) – alongside those moving out of mainstream genres – including radioheads Johnny Greenwood (spencer).

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Aside from these new hopes, the age of long melodic lines and balletic action cues seems to be withering away, with minimalist themes and endlessly urgent chase music replacing them in the multiplexes of cinematic universes.

But Williams is not going to be left to the past so easily. Just as he drew on the sounds of his predecessors, today his own music is quoted and quoted in the latest entries in the law, potter and war of stars Franchise. Familiar themes are needle-busted like Easter eggs and whole cues are recycled in bulk. As long as franchises and reboots are milked for studio profits, Williams themes will routinely reappear to inject nostalgia into their latest content.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s ‘Today With Claire Byrne’, Stephen Bell, Principal Guest Conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, talks about the music of John Williams

Despite these taunts about legacy, his popular works have enjoyed a longer life as concert films and continue to introduce succeeding generations of young listeners to the orchestra. But the attention given to the music here should be savored. In cinemas today, music competes with increasingly loud sound effects, while streamed films are heard through sub-par TV, laptop or phone speakers. Slick CGI doesn’t seem to require the same old Hollywood romantic traits that once led us to believe in a giant ape, a great white man, or a dinosaur.

Today’s composers face an uphill struggle in the struggle between technology and tradition. The once beloved tunes of classic Hollywood have all but faded into obscurity, but with the recently premiered “Helena’s Theme”. Indiana Jones 5Williams promises the Golden Age sound won’t be lost entirely.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ



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