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John Williams and Alban Berg: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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When Erich Wolfgang Korngold, narrowly avoiding the dark cloud of Nazism in his native Europe, settled in Los Angeles in 1938, he would later credit the same year’s film The Adventures of Robin Hood with saving his life. What cinephiles and music fans would credit Korngold with in turn was saving the life of the film score. Journalist, consultant and president of the International Korngold Society Brendan G. Carroll described his process as “treating each film as an 'opera without singing.’”

Six years prior to that—and 80 years ago today—John Williams was born in Flushing, Queens, and would make his own transition to Los Angeles as a teenager in the post-War years. While The Adventures of Robin Hood is regarded as one of the greatest film scores of all time, Williams’s music for the Star Wars trilogy, namely Episode IV: A New Hope, is considered by the American Film Institute to be the greatest American movie score of all time. It’s the work that earned Williams an Academy Award (he’s nominated for two more this year) and solidified his reputation as a compositional force to be reckoned with in the film world, particularly in partnership with director Steven Spielberg.

Over the years, Williams has been criticized for borrowing from his musical predecessors—from Stravinsky and Holst to Shostakovich and Dvorak—but his bigger debt is to Korngold by way of Wagner. While reinvigorating the symphonic film score genre he infused cinematic characters with a Ring Cycle brand of leitmotif. It’s an overlap that has had significant bearings on Williams's career and music—and perhaps it’s an attempt to lengthen the influences of his musical idols from whom he cherry-picks, pays homage to, parodies, or outright steals from that keeps echoes of The Planets and Korngold’s own King's Row in Star Wars.

The connection becomes more literal when taken into account that producer George Lucas himself wanted to revive the Korngoldian tradition of film scores in Star Wars, a film trilogy that in and of itself owes much to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The combination, to speak in a gross understatement, wasn’t half bad: Spielberg and Lucas created a three-part epic with a fan base as ardent and committed as Wagner’s, operatic in its own right and scope. Much of the trilogy’s endurance is predicated upon a score that is indelible from the cultural consciousness starting in the ‘70s. Whether Williams, a prolific symphonic composer, could sustain such an operatic leaning through a full-scale stage work is debatable; in 2000 Plácido Domingo had announced that Williams would write a work for the Los Angeles Opera’s 2004-05 season, an announcement that was news to Williams and a commission that never came to pass.

Williams’s lasting legacy may lie in the fact that he has opened up the connections between late-20th-century blockbusters and early 20th-century classical music. In the process this allowed for a generation of cinema composers who take the reigns on originality while acknowledging their reverence to the past. Alex Ross once called him “an accomplished pasticheur, able to make music of any image thrown his way… a master of his art, even if he has no style to call his own.” On the flip side, however, is tomorrow’s birthday boy, Alban Berg.

Berg was not immune to influences or talent-crushes. In fact, he was much more enchanted by the artistic zeitgeist than his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, knowing the music of Debussy, Weill and Brecht throughout his life, and also deriving a heavy amount of inspiration from Schoenberg’s string quartets and first Kammersymphonie.

Yet while Williams harkened to the past, Berg looked mostly towards the future. Works written after his tutelage under Schoenberg, such as his Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Anischtkartentexten von Peter Altenberg, which though brief blows Erwartung out of the water in terms of grandiosity and tapped into a common theme among Viennese artists of the time with its provocative texts written by a poet who was at the time in an asylum. Other shocking materials went on to fuel Berg’s two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, the former coming just five years after Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and the latter separated by the same amount of time from John Williams’s birth.

And, perhaps in their own pre-code way, holding a candle to the film work of Louise Brooks and Fritz Lang, Berg’s own operas have cinematic leanings, a yin to Williams’s yang. Biographer Douglas Jarman describes the composer’s musical language in Wozzeck as “an atonal language that, constantly hovering on the edge of tonal confirmation, becomes a perfect musical metaphor for the emotional and mental state of the opera's chief protagonist.” Jarman goes on to praise the world of Wozzeck, which stands as “a world without normality or humanity and peopled by grotesques, a haunted world of strange, hallucinatory voices and visions and of natural phenomena indifferent to the human tragedy being played out.”

With a significant amount of time separating Wozzeck and Lulu, there are progressions and developments of style, though not without a few sly nods here and there—listen, for example, at the top of Act I, scene 2, for a string accompaniment straight out of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s little room for pastiche here, which should come as no surprise: There’s little that connects the exact subject matter in Lulu to its forebears in Le Nozze di Figaro, Carmen, Tosca or Salome (okay, perhaps there was more connective tissue in Salome). Still, the themes remain the same: An encapsulation of contemporary sociology tempered with a liberal dose of verisimilitude and a yen for the scandalous.

And as if that weren’t enough, Lulu even has a film.

Sound off: Would John Williams be able to write a standalone opera? Can his scores be considered demi-operas of the 20th and 21st Centuries? Does he warrant the accolades given his excessive borrowing? And how would Berg have fared in the Hollywood machine? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Tune in on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 8 pm to hear Berg's Violin Concerto.