MFF: Music, Magic, and Mystery 

Who’s Who

John Williams
Manuel de Falla y Matheu
Camille Saint-Saëns
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Igor Stravinsky

One of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood today, John Williams (b. 1932) studied with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in California and at the Juilliard School in New York. He worked first as a pianist in the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra, then began writing film music. The rest is history. Williams’s numerous credits include music for more than a hundred films, including such blockbusters as the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series, Lincoln, Schindler’s List, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Superman, and Jurassic Park. For the Harry Potter series of films, Williams ably conjured the enchanted world of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Among the many fantastic beasts of the series is Hedwig, Harry Potter’s beautiful pet owl. Williams recalled, “Hedwig needed some music that was gossamer and light, so I thought of the celesta, which is like a mini piano but each note is like a bell…if you put the pedal down you get this beautiful little blur that’s kind of like a bird feather that would just float.”

Williams’s music for his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg’s Hook portrays a different kind of flight—that of (the) now-adult Peter Pan who is joyous at his rediscovery of his dormant abilities.

As a teenager, Manuel de Falla y Matheu (1876-1946) set his sights on becoming an author, but by the time he was twenty he gave in to a consuming passion for music. His youthful piano studies paid off, and he advanced quickly through conservatory instruction, graduating in 1899 from the Madrid Conservatory. Nonetheless, Falla’s first steps in his chosen profession were far from dynamic. Unable to scrape together a living by composing serious music and not quite a good enough pianist to find acclaim in the recital hall, he left Spain in 1907 for where the action was—Paris. He remained there until 1914, associating closely with Dukas, Debussy, and Ravel. During those years he refined his craft as a musical Impressionist without sacrificing the Spanish flavor that lay at the root of his inspiration. The outbreak of World War I forced his return to Spain, but this time Madrid proved more amenable to his talent. A series of stage works rich in Spanish flavor flowed from his pen, beginning with the 1915 ballet El amor brujo (Love the Magician). El amor brujo contains among its many treasures a sizzling ceremonial dance around an open fire.  

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was an accomplished organist, a champion of forgotten earlier music and of contemporary composers, an inspiring teacher, a gifted writer, a world traveler, and an avid aficionado of such disciplines as Classical languages, astronomy, archaeology, philosophy, and even the occult sciences. He started piano lessons at the age of two and a half and embarked on composition and organ instruction at seven, by which time he was already performing Bach, Handel, and Mozart in public. Saint-Saëns would live a good, long life, and it’s astonishing to think that he was born when Beethoven was still being mourned and died when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had already entered the repertory. Surprisingly, nobody much liked Danse macabre at first. Nevertheless, effective music will find its way, and soon enough this toothsome exercise in Romantic horror became a repertory mainstay.

A lover of animals, Saint-Saëns was aware that more people than animals bought concert tickets, so he made his accommodation with humanity. No question, The Carnival of the Animals was written to please people. The radiant Swan movement was originally composed for cello and subsequently became one of that instrument’s most famously beautiful miniatures. Today we hear it played on the theremin, which was the earliest electronic musical instrument to achieve success. With its eerie beauty the theremin became a popular sound in science-fiction movie scores, but it also proved interesting to some classical composers.  

Asked to name the first Russian composer who comes to mind, most music lovers would choose Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). It’s hard to know how Tchaikovsky would have reacted to that, for he was ridden with self-doubt and melancholy. His Symphony No. 6, called the Pathétique, was first heard nine days before his death; at its second hearing, twelve days after he died, listeners interpreted the somber opening and closing movements as the composer’s premonition of his final days. The last movement opens with a great cry. A consoling melody tries to offer relief, but its repetitions become obsessive and threatening, leading to catastrophe. From its shards rises a lament. Snarling horns and a single, soft drum stroke are tokens of disaster and defeat. The music, over a dying pulse, sinks back into a dark region and moves beyond hearing.  

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) moved with comfort between various languages and was at ease in different cultures. His music can reflect continental elegance and American exuberance (he lived in both New York and Los Angeles), yet he never lost touch with his Russian roots. Stravinsky wrote The Firebird for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, launched in Paris in 1909 and on the cutting edge of the European arts scene. The company made a specialty of dancing works inspired by Russian folklore, and The Firebird was perfectly suited to Ballets Russes designs. The colorful tale involves a dashing prince, an evil sorcerer, enchanted princesses, a magic egg, and, of course, the mythical and mystical titular creature. The Firebird not only changed Stravinsky’s life, it dominated it. The 1919 Suite is still his most performed, most widely loved score. Stravinsky himself conducted it more than a thousand times. And once, a man on a train addressed him, quite seriously, as “Mr. Fireberg.”