Screeners Podcast

8 Examples of John Williams at his Emotional Best

By Chad Guyton

"Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.." -Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Composer, conductor, producer, maestro, teacher, genius. These platitudes only begin to describe the wholly unique, John Williams. With over 50 Oscar nominations(five wins) and 24 Grammy Awards, his prolific output is matched only by his cultural impact. In honor of his 86th birthday, I decided to listen to his every available composition with the specific goal of discovering the scores that would move me not just because of the film to which it was attached, but as a stand-alone work.

Over the last few weeks, I had the great pleasure of listening to hundreds of his concertos, orchestral works, and yes, film scores. My daily immersion into the fabric of his music proved to be unexpectedly emotional. And while I was thrilled to experience once again the iconic themes that served as the backdrop of my childhood, it was his lesser-known work that moved me beyond a nostalgic high and into a personal rumination on life, my family, dreams of the past, and the future awaiting my son. Heavy stuff, I know, but that is the power inherent in music. It can make you believe a man could fly, that a robot boy could long for his "mother," and a high-school teacher turned soldier would lay down his life to get a Private safely back home.

Having just finished the score for The Last Jedi and The Post I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the gift that Mr. Williams has given us for the last 60 years. And while it would be impossible to narrow down his work to an objective "best of" list, I offer the following eight examples of John Williams at his emotional best.

War Horse: The Reunion

The primary challenge in making a film version of the stage play War Horse was trying to find a way for an audience to make an emotional connection with an equine central character. While the film may not have fully succeeded in that regard, the score does everything it can to sell the idea. The Reunion feels like cinema. The entrance of the main theme (at 37 seconds) is GORGEOUS. At once subtle and warm, this is classic John Williams.

Saving Private Ryan: High-School Teacher

The longest selection on this list, High School Teacher beautifully weaves the main theme throughout. It is solemn but hopeful and conveys perfectly the unit's tension between a longing for home and their respective lives and families against their determination to finish the mission (Ryan) even if they don't fully understand it. This underscore lifts a heart-wrenching conversation from Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he reveals the mystery of his life back in Adley, Pennsylvania.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Reunion of Friends

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the perfect canvas for John Williams. His ability to maintain the sense of whimsy established in Sorcerors Stone while allowing for the darker elements in Secrets is what makes this track so special. Having just defeated the basilisk, Harry meets his friends in the Great Hall. Reunion of Friends opens with a sense of joy and triumph. The interlude implies dangers yet to come but leaves an impression that the relationships between the characters will be the key to future victories. The ending feels like a score from 40 years ago, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Angela's Ashes: Angles Never Cough

Angela's Ashes tells the story of the McCourt family, an Irish clan forced by poverty to return (from New York) to their ancestral home in Limerick. The film was shot with stoic realism, and the score is appropriately somber. At only 2:32, Angles Never Cough beautifully conveys the theme of hope in the face of despair. Rich strings and a wonderfully expressive piano anchor this haunting and beautiful work.

The Patriot: Ann Recruits the Parishioners

Yes. The Patriot. A Roland Emmerich joint. John Williams was famously brought onto this project after David Arnold was removed. While the film is packed with capital A - Action, Ann Recruits the Parishioners is a lovely interlude that instantly caused me to smile as I realized I was once again in the hands of a master composer. The soaring horns at the midway point are majestic and regal.

Artificial Intelligence: The Reunion

The Reunion is probably John Williams' most underrated score. It has been a few years since my last viewing of A.I., so I was wholly unprepared for the reaction I had when listening to this seven-minute and forty-seven-second masterpiece. This is a breathtaking piece of work that transported me to the moment when after thousands of years, David was at last reunited with his "mother." This inevitably led me to thoughts of my mother, and it wrecked me. While this track doesn't have an instantly memorable theme, it does have something not entirely quantifiable at its core. Something raw. Something beautiful. Something good.

Munich: A Prayer for Peace

No one can compose a lament like John Williams. While there are good arguments to be made for Saving Private Ryan's Hymn to the Fallen or the Main Theme from Schindler's List, I can feel the pain of loss and sadness in A Prayer for Peace. The lush strings and haunting violin melody are played with such pathos it's almost physically painful to hear. I envisioned people praying to their God out of a heart filled with suffering. It is powerful and unrelenting.

Lincoln: The People's House

After Munich I wanted to end on a more uplifting note. I almost chose The Petersen House and Finale but ultimately ended up with The People's House. It is immediately light and buoyant. The flute is featured throughout and helps to propel the orchestra as it builds to a thoroughly patriotic and American sound. This is the most John Williams score on the list, and while it doesn't stray far from his previously established work, it perfectly captures the feeling of hope embodied by President Lincoln as he prepared for his life's most important work.