Bigger than Brahms? John Williams in Vienna

Bigger than Brahms? John Williams in Vienna


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2020

Anne Sophie Mutter tells us:

Musical heaven in the Musikverein Wien. What marvellous playing of my great colleagues of the Vienna Philharmonic / Wiener Philharmoniker. And then the music of John Williams … standing next to him is inspiring and intimidating at the same time!

I am posting this from Kansas City; we had to rush to the airport after Sunday’s concert to fly to the US. But these iconic tunes of his are in my head (and heart !) …

Tonight is my first Beethoven recital here with Lambert – Vienna lives on!!! And so does the great art of John Williams.

The way he was greeted and celebrated in Vienna was one of a kind. He for sure has the coolest most passionate fans ever! Thank you all for the unforgettable weekend we spent together.


Foto © Terry Linke / Deutsche Grammophon


  • Phillip21 says:

    In a hundred years time he might well be regarded as the equal of Brahms. Certainly his impact on global culture has been comparable. He did not need to be an innovator of musical language, as 100 years+ after Brahms died pretty well everythihg that can be done with audible sound has been tried.

    • Allen says:

      Phillip21, your photo here shows you at a piano. I expect that if you would play an hour of Brahms every day followed by an hour of John Williams every day, you might soon recognize that Williams will never be regarded as the equal of Brahms. Sorry.

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      Williams the equal of Brahms ??????

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Bigger than Brahms? Equal to Brahms? We live in very poor times in cultural matters. Mr Williams is an excellent conductor (Boston Pops) and composer of entertainment music who is in artistic debt to Richard Strauss for life.

    • Tamino says:

      Why are people doing these silly comparisons?
      Brahms is Brahms. Williams is Williams.
      There is room for both their works in our hearts and minds, and for much more.
      Or do have some people such limited space there?

  • Gustavo says:

    I attended both concerts, because it wasn’t just Brahms.

    Great sounding orchestra – looking forward to the recording!

    • William says:

      I’m jealous. And yes, very excited for Deutshe Grammophon’s forthcoming release of this! With last year’s releases of “Celebrating John Williams” (LA Phil/Dudamel) and “Across the Stars” (Sophie-Mutter/Recording Arts Orchestra of LA/Williams), it seems DG is going all-in on JW’s music, and it’s about time!

      • Gustavo says:

        Yes, VPO, Mutter, DGG seem to be leaping onto the Hollywood band waggon to save their industry.

        Nothing against that at all! (We’ve seen enough golden Karajan editions.)

        Last weekend, I found VPO’s sound unexpectedly modern.

        Just listen to the recent Langaard/Oramo disc!

        Great stuff!

  • anon says:

    With her extensive work with Lambert Orkis and her championing of John Williams, Ms. Mutter seems to have a rather American orientation.

    • Gustavo says:

      Beethoven and Mutter are not American.

      • anon says:

        One does not need to be American to have a rather American orientation, which is my point.

        • Gustavo says:

          Well, Germany has no John Williams – only Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Weber, Schumann, Brahms, Reger, Strauss, Hindemith, Weil, Stockhausen, and…Zimmer.

          This is why Germans like to be in America.

    • Tamino says:

      maybe she just doesn‘t care about narrow minded nationalism and seeks artistic partnership globally?
      That‘s what the best usually do.
      Her Orkis connection went through Slava. The Williams connection through Previn.
      All global citizens.

  • sam says:

    Classical musicians are either the laconic type or the over-the-top gushing type. Somewhere in between would be nice.

    (John Williams is nice enough, no need to make a Gustav Holst out of him, to whom he is indebted for every tune (*cough*, plagiarized) in Star Wars).

    • Petros Linardos says:

      The Star Wars theme is reminiscent of the first loud theme in Bruckner’s fourth symphony.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        In short, Williams is acquainted with all of it!!

        • Petros Linardos says:

          Apparently. More important is what he does with other people’s themes. Beethoven best showed that with the Diabelli Variations.

          I didn’t mean the Star Wars – Bruckner connection negatively. I find it amusing, because the music is so different.

    • Ben Palmer says:

      Forgive me, but this kind of lazy, dismissive comment shows only how little you know of this astonishing composer‘s work. He will be remembered as the greatest film composer of all time, and in due course recognised as one of the great composers of all time.

      • John Marks says:

        Perhaps people would take Mr. Williams more seriously if they knew that his primary teacher had been Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Which has to be one of the coolest names in music!

      • John Borstlap says:

        What a silly comment.

        JW is fine for film music. His serious music does not live up to any Brahmsian standard. That is not a matter of ‘purism’ but a matter of taste and of tradition and craft (which is more than orchestral effects).

        • William says:

          And why exactly can film music never be considered as “serious music”, even if it is at a high musical standard…? There is plenty of “serious music” that sounds like garbage and is objectively not as well-crafted as works by Williams; why should those composers be afforded this special “serious” status even if their quality doesn’t live up to what you would consider non-serious? I don’t care what something was composed for; if it is quality music, it is quality music.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Don’t worry about Bore-slap’s snobbish remarks. Personally I think the Beatles is “serious music”. They were serious about their music and it is seriously good. What more is there to say.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        I think that’s over the top, even though I admire Williams. I think Elmer Bernstein the more versatile film composer – compare “To Kill A Mockingbird” with “Magnificent Seven” with “Age of Innocence” with “The Man with the Golden Arm”.

      • Bruce says:

        Translation of Ben’s comment: You can’t predict the future, only I can predict the future.

    • John Marks says:

      I thought that the Korngold Violin Concerto was an influence on Star Wars. Not to take anything away from Mr. Williams, who was always very kind to me and to my family.

      • Byrwec Ellison says:

        I think the Korngold opening – if that’s the theme you mean – bears more a resemblance to Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek TV theme from the late ‘60s.

        • John Marks says:


          No, I meant the theme a bit after the beginning of the third movement of the Korngold vln cto, at rehearsal number 73. The Star Wars theme is something like a semi or partial inversion of that theme. IMHO.

          Also IMHO, Courage’s Star Trek OTS theme owes its opening to a mix of Mahler 1 and Mahler 7, whereas the trumpet entry in the ST OTS theme I think obviously is a nod to Mahler 5.

          A very nice young person wrote a DMA dissertation on the ST OTS music; I can send you a copy if you are interested.

          No need to send the authorities for a Wellness Check; Norman will attest that I am basically sane.


      • Anon says:

        Korngold, was of course also a film composer. His score to Robin Hood is quite good.

    • jobim75 says:

      He is very good in editing pieces of different composers, Holst of course, mixed with Prokofiev and others….( who can ignore what Jaws
      music owes to Battle on ice from Nevsky). Does it deconsider him? Not really, thats couture, but haute couture…..

  • Peter B says:

    Mutter did not say he is the equal of Brahms. It’s just a SD headline. There can be very little doubt that he is the most influential and one of the greatest film composers ever, and Williams himself, who is a very modest man, would never aspire to a higher status than that. All the rest is just talk, to be taken with a grain of salt and preferably a beer.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I often see people on the web asking if John Williams is like a modern Beethoven or Brahms.

    My answer is that he does what he does very well and I think his famous scores will still be played in 100 years but their prominence is almost entirely due to the success of the films they were written for.

    If you dn’t believe me, whistle me the theme from his scores for “Step Mom” or “War Horse” or “The Terminal”… you probably can’t do it.

    He has 158 composer credits on IMDb but only about a half-dozen entered our musical memories, the ones attached to movies that had seismic cultural impacts.

    • Gustavo says:

      “…their prominence is almost entirely due to the success of the films they were written for.”

      These films were an immediate success because of the captivating music!

      No problem whistling those nice “folk tunes” from Terminal and War Horse.

      Recollecting “The Post” is more challenging after learning to whistle the “Rise of Skywalker” anthems.

    • William says:

      But I can whistle those, lol. And your point doesn’t really stand when you consider that the other major composers (Beethoven, Mozart etc.) are similarly primarily known by the general public for their “whistleable” main hits; yet that does not mean that there is not more music of artistic merit by them that is worth exploring, by more serious listeners. The high quality of Williams’ works may be found across his non-hits, too.

    • V. Lind says:

      I am often watching some old music and thinking how pleasant or interesting or suitable the music is when it turns out to be by John Williams. I am not about to enter into the snobs-v-proles debate here, but I think if movies last, the music of John Williams will last.

      There are quite a few cinema composers whose music I find extremely appealing. At the movies. I have not heard a lot in concert halls, but removed from original context the results have tended to disappoint me. But I have not heard enough from this repertoire to make a blanket assessment.

  • Gustavo says:

    I call this cultural evolution.

    No one composes music in a cultural vacuum.

    Bach, Beethoven and Wagner inspired Mahler.

    Liszt inspired Wagner, Wagner inspired Liszt.

    Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Korngold may have inspired Williams.

    Williams inspires Giacchino, and so forth.

    It’s the result that counts!

    • John Borstlap says:

      And in that result the artistic level is all that counts.

      • Gustavo says:

        Please define “artistic level”.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The real Brahms, the real Strauss and Mahler, the real Schreker and the real Ravel and Prokofiev, the real Shostakovich etc. etc.

          Musical expressiveness, craft, richness of invention, variety of form, personal finger prints, and the enduring freshness at every renewed listening when the listener can hear new layers of meaning all the time. And all of this combined. It is not difficult where there is enough talent. That is why it is so rare.

          And that is why the presence of a tradition is so important: through listening one develops more and more of a perceptive framework which makes it possible to compare. In the visual arts: put a Velasquez next to a Koons and ask yourself: what about artistic expression and aesthetic craft? So it is with music: compare La Mer with a rap clip and ask the same question.

          It is not all subjective: through subjective experience and development one can arrive at objective assessment.

      • William says:

        How is Williams’ artistic level any worse than much of the garbage that is being imposed upon concert halls as “new music” these days? I see people walking out of orchestra concerts all the time, wondering if there will be “real” music on the second half after being subjected to things like this:

        Or does the fact that Williams uses a more tonal language, somehow automatically mean he’s not artistic/has nothing of artistic merit?

        • John Borstlap says:

          That is indeed a still widely-held view, that progress demands the farthest possible deviation from musical tradition, since tradition = tonal = old = outdated = bourgeois = meaningless for today = does not reflect contemporary concerns.

          When composers use a tonal language, inevitably that will have references to tradition since the Western musical tradition is tonal by nature, and music in general is tonal by nature. This invites comparison with existing repertoire and that means that any flaws are detected quicker than in a language that can only be compared with another language that cannot be compared with tradition.

  • Gustavo says:

    Potter goes Paganini – John Williams in Vienna

  • William says:

    Came here expecting a bunch of ignorant high-horse classical elitist comments bashing Williams; was not disappointed! The fact is that Williams will be remembered as one of the great composers, an honor he rightly deserves. The audience reception he received in Vienna was unprecedented for the Musikverein—5 encores! Standing ovation after standing ovation.

    Just as opera and ballet music (which were “popular” art forms in their time) were once excluded from the “serious” concert hall setting, so is the case with film music (movies being *this* era’s “popular” art form)—but that is slowly but surely changing, with conductors like Dudamel dedicating subscription weeks to Williams’ music, and Deneve including Williams pieces on subscription concerts alongside other classical masterworks. Of course, just as with opera and ballet, there is a lot of bad film music out there, but that does not mean that the good film music doesn’t deserve its time to shine in the concert hall as mainstays of the classical repertoire.

    For example, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky’s ballet works, while popular, were once excluded from the concert hall stage. And yet now, you cannot go a season without seeing “The Nutcracker” or “The Rite of Spring” or “The Firebird” being performed. History repeats itself, and we’ve seen this same aversion to change in the past. Thankfully, I am confident that the best of film music WILL find its place in the traditional repertoire, just as other past masterworks have. The people who are currently sitting at their computers bashing Mr. Williams and his music, will end up no different than those who used to try and keep ballet works from being seen alongside “serious” music.

    And I’d just like to add, it’s ironic that these gatekeepers tend to be the same sort of folks who cry from the rooftops that “Classical music is dying! What ever are we going to do?!” …Maybe try programming things that general audiences actually want to hear, rather than stuff that makes them leave the building at intermission (or earlier!) and never want to come back? The answer is right in front of you: John Williams sells, and not only that, but there is unmistakable quality in his work.

    Has anyone here bashing him taken the time to actually study his work? Has anyone sat down with his scores and analyzed them? Has anyone here accusing him of “plagiarism” taken the time to actually consider counter arguments? Or are people just so hellbent on looking down on his work and being snobs, that they don’t care?

  • Dennis says:

    He’s a capable bombastic blockbuster film music composer, but his music has no intrinsic artistic value or meaning apart from the films.

    Sad to see serious artists and orchestras lionize this warmed-over film music sludge.

    I got a heavy dose of John Williams promo material last weekend at my local orchestra’s Mahler 5 performance. Apparently this weekend they’re doing “Star Wars” excerpts with various film scenes projected in the background. Think I’ll pass (I guess that stuff helps them pay the bills these days).

  • We privatize your value says:

    Cue Ken Livingstone: “You know who else is bigger in Vienna than Brahms?”

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I wish I’d been there. John Williams is a very important composer of our time and every bit as popular as Rossini was in his day – especially in Vienna, after Beethoven had become unfashionable.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Why are performers like Mutter, who is one of the best, so enhusiastic about a film composer? Or, about music by a film composer? Because there is not very much modern traditional music around, and probably she does not know composers like David Matthews (who wrote a very beautiful cello concerto) or the late Hans Gal (who also wrote a beautiful cello concerto), or Nicolas Bacri who wrote various violin concertos which were very successful in performance (I don’t understand why such music does not travel around). But JW is at least better than Xenakis or Pintscher or Olga. It is like a badly prepared traveler crossing the desert and finally finding an ice cream stand. In such situation, you are happy with anything that can quench your thirst.

    Mutter recorded a beautiful concerto by Wolfgang Rihm: ‘Leichtes Spiel’, a piece full of nostalgic sighs for romantic, tonal music, so ‘out of reach’.

  • willymh says:

    Sorry I’m trying to figure out where Mutter or Williams make a comparison to Brahms? Ah wait a minute – a touch of click bait to get the old comments section full of righteous indignation? Damn tricked again. LOL

  • Squagmogleur says:

    Brahms composed within the large forms of Classical music. This represents a much higher order of achievement than that of John Williams who, as a film composer is essentially a composer of themes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      True, serious music is more than the themes. And the themes of JW are not very interesting in themselves but reflect very general, impersonal tropes. That is in itself not a problem, but then, the intricate forms that the classical tradition offers can bring added layers of meaning to them. Almost all themes by Beethoven are simple little tunes but they get their meaning in the formal context.

    • Tamino says:

      It’s called cues, not themes.
      Brahms worked for the concert hall.
      Williams (mostly) for the cinema.
      One or the other by itself is not a higher achievement by any means.
      It always depends what you do within the given format you work for.

    • Anon says:

      So was Wagner. Both use leitmotifs.

  • anon says:

    As it is said, good artists copy. Great artists steal.

    • John Borstlap says:

      …. and turn the material into something of themselves. It is a matter of personality, and not only of talent.

  • Gustavo says:

    I find DGG’s cover art inappropriate – like some kind of LACÒME perfume advert.

    Hope they get it right for the VPO release.

    The content will be opulent enough!

  • Hans van der Zanden says:

    You can’t separate the music from the screen. When Star Wars is still remembered in 100 years – which I doubt – the music might remain popular; otherwise it will be forgotten. The near perfect collaboration between David Lean and Maurice Jarre (and Peter O’Toole) in Lawrence of Arabia might be a 100 years movie.

  • Couperin says:

    Brahms would’ve loved John Williams music, and surely would’ve stolen his orchestrational ideas too.

  • Anon says:

    Why is everyone making such a big chasm between film composers and non film composers? As though film composing shouldn’t be considered serious classical music because it’s from a popular genre. Are opera or ballet scores inferior music because they’re from popular genres? Of course not.

    Film score composing is relatively new. If Brahms were around now he might very well give it a go.

    Saint-Saens wrote a film score. So did Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Korngold, Glass & tons more. Max Steiner, who wrote the Gone with the Wind score was a pupil of Mahler. Most film scores have deep and respectable roots in classical music.

    This elitist attitude that film music is somehow unworthy of attention in a concert hall is pure ignorance. It surprised me to no end to read an article by a well known music critic, formerly of the WaPost, announcing her concession that “movie music” might not be so bad. It’s shocking to me that someone with such a high profile in the world of classical music would display such pure and utter ignorance.

    I make no judgement call on whether or not Williams is a great composer. I like his music because it’s well orchestrated and fun to play. Passages from his film scores are now turning up in orch. excerpt books, and on orchestral auditions. John Williams is a undeniable presence in classical music in our generation. It doesn’t matter if he’s a “great composer” or not. Haydn wasn’t a great composer. Neither was Chopin or Paganini. But they have important places in classical music and certainly in concert halls.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Haydn wasn’t a great composer. Neither was Chopin or Paganini.”

      This line reveals the reason why JW is defended in this comment.

      To mention in one breath Haydn, Chopin and Paganini as ‘not great composers’ is missing the point of all three of them. The first two certainly were great composers, Paganini wrote vehicles for his own virtuoso performances.

      • Anon says:

        John, if you’d like to think of Haydn, Chopin & Paganini as great composers, you go right ahead. That’s your opinion. It doesn’t happen to mine. Just as it doesn’t happen to be the opinion of many readers here that John Williams is a great composer. It doesn’t much matter. What matters is that they all have their place in the legacy of classical music and in the concert hall.