What We Owe John Williams
Editor's Note: The piece below draws extensively from an article on the Olympics that I wrote in 2014.—RWT
Composer John Williams turns 86 today, which by happy coincidence is the same day millions of viewers will be celebrating some of his best music: the themes he wrote for the Olympics, which have since become a staple of American television coverage of the games. You will probably here some of it if you tune in tonight for the opening ceremonies of the Winter games.
John Williams is best known, of course, for composing the best movie themes of the late 20th century—pieces that are both instantly recognizable and instantaneously summon to our minds the distinctive style and sense of life of the film (or in many case, film franchise) for which he wrote them. Most of these tunes can be identified from as few as two notes (Jaws and probably also Star Wars) and no more than five notes (say, Superman or the Harry Potter films). In between, he gave us the music from Close Encounter of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films, E.T., Jurassic Park, and many others. I won't bother linking to these, because you probably already have most of them playing in your head.
But the height of John Williams' contribution to our culture is the music he created for the Olympics. This music took the distinctive style of his best film scores—a sense of adventure, striving, and unabashed heroism—and raised it to a higher level with a more serious purpose. The heroic music from his films—say, the Indiana Jones theme—is great fun. His music for the Olympics is something more than fun. It's exhilarating.
When they were resurrected in 1896, the Olympics were intended to create a direct connection to the heroic tradition of the Ancient Greek games. The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, referred to the athlete as a "living sculpture," and our modern equivalent of the idealized heroic figures that decorated the Athenian Acropolis are the photos we see every two years of the ideal physiques of superfit athletes.
That same heroic tradition is reflected in the music. The iconic music of the games, the piece traditionally used to lead the Olympics broadcast, is a combination of Leo Arnaud's "Bugler's Dream" (composed in 1958 and used in Olympic coverage starting in 1968) and John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare and Theme," composed for the opening ceremony of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles.
If you have the Olympics in LA, you have to get a Hollywood composer to give it a movie soundtrack—and as we all know from Star Wars, John Williams knows how to write a fanfare. Williams went on to build an extensive soundtrack for the games. He composed "The Olympic Spirit" for NBC in 1988.
He wrote "Summon the Heroes" for the Atlanta games in 1996.
Finally, he created "Call of the Champions" for Salt Lake City in 2002.
All of this music is instantly recognizable, to Americans at least, as the Olympic music, the emotional core of the Olympic coverage we see on television every two years. The fact that some of this music was composed for NBC is one of the reasons the network has basically owned the Olympics for the past few decades. (The other reason is Bob Costas.)
I used to recommend these on a CD that includes a few other pieces of music that have been associated in some way with the Olympics. A CD seems a bit antique these days, and I am sure you can find these pieces individually by way of your favorite music service. But my old CD includes some interesting notes on the compositions, including this quote from John Williams describing his inspiration.
I remember seeing a photograph of a female athlete suspended above the ground, every fiber of her being stretching for a ball just beyond her reach...captured in a shot, freezing time and denying gravity. There is an unquestionably spiritual, non-corporeal aspect to an athletic quest like this that brings us close to what art is all about.
Williams's music captures this sense of striving. It has the rhythm of a military march, but without the sense of strife; it is the music of competition, not of conflict, the music of striving for excellence. It always reminds me of Ayn Rand's description of a (fictional) piece of heroic music in Atlas Shrugged.
The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising themselves, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive.... It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort.
When John Williams first started writing film scores like this, they were very much swimming against the current of highbrow culture, as were the films he made them for. Mainstream reviewers regarded them much the same way they regarded that Ayn Rand novel I just mentioned. They looked down their noses at “the mythic and simple world of the good guys vs. the bad guys,” and sniffed that it “will do very nicely for those lucky enough to be children or unlucky enough never to have grown up.” This was the mid-1970s, after all, when "serious" meant "washed out and demoralized."
But Williams was giving us, in musical form, exactly what we really needed and exactly what the Olympics demands: an exalted, heroic view of man. And he kept on doing for decades. For the next two weeks, if you are watching the coverage from the Winter games, this is what you will be immersed in. Take a few moments to thank John Williams.