Scott Speck on the genius of John Williams

My life would not be the same without John Williams.

I first became aware of him in 1975, when the movie Jaws burst on the scene. Even then, as a kid, I knew that the music was something special. What was this sorcery? Not since Psycho had there been such a simple yet powerful theme. Using only two notes just a half step apart (the smallest interval in Western music), John Williams compelled us to feel the unrelenting power and terror of a great white shark.

The story goes that when John Williams first played the Jaws theme for Steven Spielberg at the piano, Spielberg said, “You’re kidding.” But he wasn’t kidding, and John Williams became the composer for nearly every Spielberg masterpiece ever since – not to mention the movies of George Lucas and so many other great filmmakers of this century and the last.

Can you imagine Jaws without those two notes? For that matter, can you imagine Close Encounters without the iconic five-note theme that the aliens used to communicate? Or E.T. without the flying theme? Can you imagine Schindler’s List without the searing violin solo, or Harry Potter without the opening tune on the celesta? Superman without its unforgettable brass fanfares, Raiders of the Lost Ark without the March? How about Catch Me If You Can without the jazzy saxophone solo? And – perhaps most indelibly of all – Star Wars without the opening orchestral outburst (which totally rocked my world in 1977), and the unforgettable Leitmotifs for Luke, Leia, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Darth Vader?

For that matter, can you even imagine the Olympics without John Williams’s many themes … or NBC News without his motto … or Sunday Night Football without his NFL fanfare? Over the years the music of John Williams has become synonymous with the spirit that we, as Americans, still strive to attain.

It’s fair to say that John Williams has created the soundtrack of our lives. And my life specifically. Growing up in Boston, I was thrilled when he became the successor to Arthur Fiedler to lead the Boston Pops. The opportunity to see him live, and watch him transform my world, was absolutely formative. Because of John Williams I initially wanted to become a film composer (before I realized that my talents lay elsewhere) – and it was that wish that led me to music school, where I learned the skills that allow me to stand in front of you today.

It’s been fascinating and instructive to watch attitudes shift within the “serious” classical musical world over the past three decades. Like Rachmaninoff and Aaron Copland, John Wiliams was initially not taken seriously in academic circles, because he was “too popular” – his music was considered too accessible, too easy to understand, too readily appealing to the emotions. Even serious orchestras shunned his music, except in the occasional “movie pops” concert. But like Copland in his day, John Williams has now become the Dean of American composers. Just this year, for the first time, he conducted his music with the venerated (and notoriously stodgy) Vienna Philharmonic orchestra. What caused this shift? I don’t know. Could it be that all of today’s critics and musicians grew up watching Star Wars?

By the time of this concert, John Williams will be 89 years old – and still going strong. We wish him continued health and success, and I hope the fact that he is one of our favorite American heroes brings him some measure of satisfaction. Thank you, John Williams!

–  Scott Speck, Music Director