Lenox — Motion pictures have always had a way of bringing the classical music world to its senses. That’s because the most lucrative jobs writing movie scores go to the most talented and capable composers, not to the most accomplished conservatory graduates (and rarely to Pulitzer Prize winners). For any composer, getting into the movie business is a lot like auditioning for the Boston Symphony Orchestra: If you sound good, you are good, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or academic background. In other words, it’s a meritocracy. Composer John Williams whose music for “E.T.
the Extra-Terrestrial” filled the Shed at Tanglewood on August 25 in a live-to-picture performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra, has a highly respectable academic pedigree from the Juilliard School. But that’s not why he gets the best movie scoring jobs. He gets them, film director Steven Spielberg will tell you, because he has more talent and skill than the runners-up. It’s an unfortunate case of innate genius unfairly separating the men from the boys.
Talent alone, however, will not get you far as a composer of anything. Still, it might get you get started on the several thousand hours of study and keyboard practice that you’ll need to invest before you can begin to take full advantage of your innate musical gifts. In the meantime, you can continue to cultivate a professional demeanor that will make everyone you meet want to work with you. So, all told, a film composer must be talented, skilled, charming, articulate, diplomatic, thick skinned, and humble. Have we missed anything? Ah! Yes! Lucky! After meeting all of the above requirements, an aspiring composer is ready to capitalize on some good luck, and Williams himself will be the first to tell you how lucky he has been throughout his career. But who will believe him? He has not, it would appear, needed much luck. And yet he did have the wonderfully good fortune of meeting Steven Spielberg in the early 1970s. (The rest, as they say, is history.)
Keith Lockhart conducted Williams’ “E.T.” score on Friday, August 25 and, as usual, made the live-to-picture miracle look easy, which it certainly is not. Lockhart has been conducting live-to-picture concerts with the Boston Pops since 2009. About twelve years earlier, John Williams, in a montage of Star Wars excerpts, had been the first to conduct the Boston Pops in a live-to-picture concert. (This, too, was a historical moment.)
It would be difficult to say whether Williams’ E.T. score is serious, sublime, or silly, because it all depends on the requirements of each scene in the story. Stories have been incidental music’s raison d’être for thousands of years, and they remain its primary inspiration nearly a century after the first orchestral movie score appeared in the early 20th century. Stories continue to reign supreme, just as they did in the 17th century with Henry Purcell’s incidental music for “The Fairy Queen”; the 18th century, with Mozart’s music for “Thamos, King of Egypt”; the 19th century, with Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s “Egmont” and Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”; and the 20th century, when Tanglewood’s own Aaron Copland won an Academy Award for his incidental music in William Wyler’s “The Heiress.”
In the 21st century, we have already heard some of the most exquisite incidental music ever written, the vast majority of it for the cinema and a good portion of it by John Williams. Yes, Mr. Williams continues to dominate the field, but he does have a few worthy competitors, arguably the most important of whom is John Corigliano, one of only two composers (the other was Aaron Copland) to have won both an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Thus, Mr. Corigliano is one of a small number living composers from the academic world who are capable of giving John Williams a vigorous run for his money, not as theoreticians, but as composers of Oscar-worthy incidental music and Pulitzer-worthy concert music.
So it’s not motion pictures, per se, that invite the classical music world to come to its senses. It’s composers like John Williams and John Corigliano. These modern-day masters extend the invitation every time they write a film score that holds its own against the best incidental music of centuries past.