By David Templeton | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Last summer, Deutsche Grammophon released the critically acclaimed album Across the Stars, an entertaining anthology of cinematic themes by John Williams, specifically re-written by the composer for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. The album was recorded in Los Angeles at Hollywood’s Sony Pictures Scoring Stage, with Williams conducting the smallish Recording Arts Orchestra. In January of 2020, at the Musikverein in Vienna, Williams and Mutter reunited onstage for a pair of concerts with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Somewhat startlingly, the event marked Williams’ first time conducting in continental Europe. A live recording of the program, John Williams in Vienna, released on August 14, and a concert film of the extravaganza is scheduled, at press time, to be broadcast in June in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. I recently spoke with Mutter from her home in Germany.
When did you first become aware of the genius of John Williams? My best guess is that, like most people, it was Star Wars.
Yes, that’s correct. Star Wars was my first ever John Williams movie, in 1978, when it came out in the Black Forest, the region of Germany where I grew up. There was nothing there, of course, but my violin teacher and soccer games and the movie theater. So there it was, and ever since I’ve gone to movies because of John. I’m a cinéaste altogether, and it started with Star Wars, and now his music drives me into all kinds of movies I might not have thought of seeing otherwise. Catch Me If You Can, for example. That’s another of my favorite film scores. It’s so ingeniously inventive. I liked the score of War Horse a lot. The Book Thief was another wonderful John Williams score that, for once, isn’t a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg film.
What is it you admire most about Williams’ scores?
I love that they are totally self-explanatory. It’s not descriptive music, really, though occasionally it can be. But most of the time it isn’t. It stands so well on its own. That’s why, in its debut days with the Vienna Philharmonic, it was so amazing to see how well and how wonderfully John’s orchestrations work in an acoustical room, not just in a cinema with surround-sound equipment. It works just as well in a room where you normally play Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.
On Across the Stars, along with iconic, highly recognizable pieces like “Yoda’s Theme” from The Empire Strikes Back and “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there are more obscure compositions, including things like “Nice To Be Around,” with lyrics by Paul Williams, from the 1973 movie Cinderella Liberty. There’s “Sayuri’s Theme” from Memoirs of a Geisha, which is beautiful but not that well known. How did those decisions come around?
It was André [Previn, to whom Mutter was previously married] who originally suggested “Nice to Be Around.” That and a piece from the film Dracula, which also is on the album, and was played in Vienna. I had not known Cinderella Liberty previously, but once I looked at the score of “Nice to Be Around,” and what John had done with it for the violin—oh my god!—I was totally smitten. It’s very jazzy. It just struck a chord, maybe because it’s so different from what my own repertoire has been over the last 40 years. I just love it to bits.
How long did it take to identify which pieces you would do, and for Williams to write the music for the new compositions?
It was a process of many years, actually, to decide which music would work. It was a process John had to go through, of course, while occasionally asking for my opinion. But it was on him to identify the themes that would live well with the violin. Because of course, there were reasons that the “Princess Leia Theme,” for example, was not originally written for the violin. It was written for the French horn, in the movies. And it’s great that way, in its original personality. But the great art of this project was to identify themes that could also live within the specific beauty of the violin. The soprano-like voice of the violin brings a different light, a different shine, to these themes. Maybe it brings a somewhat different emotion, at times. That was a rather extensive and time-consuming process.
John did rewrite all of these himself, which was the greatest present a musician can ever imagine. With all the many projects he has running, it was not something to be expected that he would sit down and rewrite these pieces of music. They have been totally written for violin and orchestra.
I remember the first rehearsals we had, in the great master’s rehearsal bungalow on the film-studio lot, and wow! I can only tell you that it was not only unspeakably inspiring, but I learned so much. I learned about phrasing and detail and the stylistic wealth in which each of these themes lives. I mean, Dracula, for one, is so different, in its seductive darkness, than Memoirs of a Geisha.
What was it like working with Williams?
It was thrilling. Standing next to the great master, in front of an orchestra, was one of the most amazing moments for me. Growing up, as I did, where Germany and Switzerland and France meet, seeing Star Wars and being so entranced by it—and of course the music—the idea of someday working with him, performing alongside him, was as far away from possibility as travelling to Mars. Going to the moon, I could imagine that, but Mars would be impossible. And so, finally, standing next to my great idol was surreal. And seeing the joy he feels and brings to the music, the joy of conducting, the joy of hearing the music and seeing the depth of happiness washing over the orchestra as they played it, it was just extraordinary.
And in Vienna, my children were there in the audience, and I have to say it was really one of the most memorable moments of our lives together, and for me as a musician.
In addition to rewriting these famous themes for you, he also wrote a composition especially for you, “Markings,” which appears on Across the Stars. Will that be part of the live album you recorded in Vienna?
Oh yes. “Markings,” our little recording project. That was the first piece John wrote for me. And then the great gift of all these other reimagined themes. And now, in a way, the story continues, because the great master is currently writing a violin concerto for me, and hopefully it will debut at Tanglewood in July. And of course, I secretly hope there will be a few more along the way.
If you could sum up the writing of John Williams, specifically how he writes for the violin, in one sentence, what would you say?
Well, it would be a long sentence. I would say this. All the best that music can be, everything valuable that music can do, and all the good that music can accomplish—in a society, in an audience, and in a human being sitting and listening and being touched so deeply—it’s all there, all of it, right there in John’s writing.