John Williams in Vienna? Now the Berlin Phil premieres The Simpsons guy

John Williams in Vienna? Now the Berlin Phil premieres The Simpsons guy


norman lebrecht

February 11, 2020

From the Berlin Philharmonic website:

Millions listen to his music: Anyone who loves The Simpsons or Desperate Housewives and films like Batman, Spider Man, Mission Impossible or Men in Black knows Danny Elfman’s music. He is one of Hollywood’s most successful film composers and a multiple Oscar winner. 

Elfman has composed a new work for the Berlin Philharmonic Piano Quartet. In this concert, which takes place in cooperation with the Berlinale, the piece will be performed as a German premiere. Danny Elfman himself can be heard before the concert: in conversation with the musicians of the piano quartet, the composer gives insights into his new work and his work and answers questions from the audience.

We couldn’t make this up if we tried.


  • Elfman is a very talented artist. He composed many very good scores, a especialy the one of Milk, one of the best soundtrack of the last 20 years. Strangely he never received an oscar. It could be interisting.

  • Andrew Barnard says:

    The post title is misleading. It’s the Berlin Phil Piano Quartet, not the Berlin Phil itself premiering the piece. A bit of a difference there.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      It’s not misleading. This is an event put on by the Berlin Phil, played by members of the Berlin Phil, for the Berlin Phil audience. What the ****’s misleading about that headline?

      • HugoPreuss says:

        Hmm, when I read “the Berlin Phil premieres” I assume that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra will premiere some work on their main stage. Not a handful of musicians on, presumably, one of the chamber music stages. I would have written “members of the Berlin Phil” or something like that. But I’m not the owner of the site.

      • Carlos Solare says:

        And what the ****’s wrong with you that you scream like a spoilt brat every time someone dares to criticize your, er… misleading headlines?

      • Michael says:

        Norman – you are trolling us, and you know it. Good for the clicks – bad for any modicum of accuracy or truth. Andrew has pointed out the distinction between the Berliner Philharmoniker and an ensemble consisting of musicians of the orchestra and a pianist who is quite evidently not. And what exactly do you mean by “Berlin Phil audience”? That’s not a thing. Moreover, what’s your point? Do you think the music of John Williams and Danny Elfman beneath the dignity of musicians of Vienna and Berlin? These are outstanding composers. You may not admire their popular aesthetics, but other, ‘serious’ musicians have every right to. I’d like to hear your Opus 1. Yours is the kind of vindictive snobbery that is far more symptomatic of the death of classical music than the ignorant tweet of a record company intern.

      • Mark London says:

        Temper temper ! The famous Lebrecht anger suppressed that sometimes comes out in public

      • MacroV says:

        A touch disingenuous there. But it does raise the question: Why doesn’t the Berlin Phil commission a piece by Danny Elfman?

      • Willymh says:

        And your response gives “ingenuous” new depth of meaning.

      • Gustavo says:

        The question mark behind Vienna.

  • Zsolt Bognár says:

    Mmmm…. forbidden donut….

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I knew Elfman 40 years ago back when he was still doing Oingo Boingo, and Steve Bartek, too. One of his breakthrough scores was Batman (I still have the autographed score of the suite). Elfman is a very serious musician and composer as his recent Violin Concerto demonstrated. We disparage his music at our own peril: his concert music is more entertaining and better than most of atonal, microtonal crap being written by the academic crowd. If Elfman and people like him (Daugherty?) can revive a dead repertoire, more power to him! The Simpsons theme is delightful, and one of the few real theme songs for television these days – and it’s something Prokofiev would have been proud of.

    • jay says:

      As with Williams one is hard pressed to find an original thought within the Elfman violin work. Most
      often whenever interest is aroused you can trace the source.You cannot revive the “dead repertoire” by rearranging the bones of past masters.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It depends upon personality and talent. The ‘past masters’ used a common language but stampted it with their own personality, turning it into a personal version of a common language – and, in spite of their originality, you can always easily trace their sources, even with the most original composers like Debussy. So, tracing the sources is not the point, but the way the language is used.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That violin concerto is OK music, well-made, but hardly any musical substance, it’s all in the surface as with film music, just for creating a mood:

      44 minutes to say nothing, I think that is a bit pretentious.

      Compare it with this:

      That has musical substance and does not need any ‘nice sound effects’ as the Elfman, everything is in the notes.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    We had a similar conversation here recently when J Williams conducted his film scores with (I think) Vienna Phil. Some said what a shock this venerable institution allowing this and others pointed out how, well, the world is changing.

    • John Borstlap says:

      …. and not for the better. The musical world seems to return to the clumsy state of the 19th century (read Berlioz’ memoirs). The difference being that in that time, there were quite a bunch of great composers. Al most all of them.

      • Ned Keane says:

        You are really a frightful snob, I’m afraid. And – if I’ve got the gist of your clumsy prose – the notion that ‘almost all’ composers in the 19th century were ‘great’ means you aren’t much of a historian either.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Beethoven, Schubert, Rossini, Bellini, Chopin, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Saint-Saens, Liszt, Bizet, Moussorgski, Tchakovsky, Dvorak, Verdi, Mahler, Strauss, Puccini, Fauré, – etc. Of all great composers, almost all of them were (and still are) great. Since when are cultural facts snobistic? Sorry to disappoint you.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            The music of most 19th century composers is no longer performed, and their names are no longer known. You are highlighting the small proportion of 19th century composers whose music survived and became part of the standard repertoire.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    “Anyone who loves The Simpsons or Desperate Housewives and films like Batman, Spider Man, Mission Impossible or Men in Black knows Danny Elfman’s music.”

    Who in their right mind is going to ingest any of that rubbish? Stephen Fry commented a couple of years ago about the schlock that grown adults pay good money to watch in cinema; he was mainly referring to these kinds of action pics and wondered what prevented people from growing up!!!

    If Danny Eflman is able to compose serious music then I think that’s got to be a major positive. I’d be interested to hear it.

  • M2N2K says:

    My favorite of Danny Elfman’s movie scores is still the one he wrote for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – clever, inventive, and absolutely delightful.

  • Simon Toyne says:

    What’s the problem here? Elfman is a major significant composer. The NYO is performing a new work by him this summer.

  • Ceasar says:

    Had the chance to hear it in Santa Monica earlier this year. Hopefully they upload it to youtube. His Serenada Schizophrana is worth a listening.

  • Mayflower says:

    Love his music. When I think of Danny Elfman, I think of “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Men in Black” and “Edward Scissorhands.” I didn’t even know that he wrote the “Simpsons” theme.

  • V.Lind says:

    Isn’t that concluding comment a little pre-judging? Are you saying that because someone does one thing they are therefore automatically incapable of doing another?

    I am not familiar with any of Danny Elfman’s work, nor do I know anything of his training. But many “serious” composers turned to film — and lived to tell the tale.s there any reason to pre-suppose this composer cannot go the other way with a piano quartet?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Composers with the talents for traditional, tonal, expressive music, cannot make a career in the regular classical performance culture, since it is a great taboo there to want to contribute something using the language of the established repertoire. So, they turn to film music where they can make a living of their work. And the limitations of that commercial field are such that they hardly ever develop the inherent qualities which would qualify them for the classical concert circuit. The problem is not the film music commerce, but the symphonic establishment which is still much behind the times.

      When film composers begin to be accepted in the classical performance culture, their works may not live up to the standards, but at least they prepare the way for better talents, who had not spoiled their talents in commerce (Bacri, Matthews, Escaich, Dubugnon, Connesson, Kirchner, Beffa, Asia, Leshnoff, Albert, Kernis, Jalbert, Gilliam, Heggie, Moravec, and probably many others).

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Baffled by why this is a big deal. The RSNO performed his Violin Concerto this season, to a large audience; he’s got a Percussion Concerto coming up with the London Philharmonic. He’s a gifted melodist and a fine orchestrator, with a good grasp of large scale form.

    This whole idea that film composers are a bit beneath the salt is just…well, a bit 1950s Third Programme, wouldn’t you say?

  • Tichy says:

    Wow…calm down already! Music doesn’t belong to anyone, especially not the so called “serious composers”. It is just good music or not, no matter what main working field the composer has. I’ve heard the piece on CD, along with his violin concerto “eleven-eleven”, which is quite frankly one of the best and most interesting concertos in years. Check it out. Then complain.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, as I did above and it does not live up to any serious standard, to my feeling. There is so much better. But orchestral staff reach out to the most easily available and ‘hopefully popular’, the usual lazy commercial motivation.

  • Guest says:

    “He is one of Hollywood’s most successful film composers and a multiple Oscar winner. ”

    Elfman has zero Oscars. Maybe someone should tell the Berlin Phil

    • John Borstlap says:

      The Berlin Phil is a European classical symphony orchestra with a longstanding tradition of the best of the repertoire, and has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Hollywood. There are hierarchies in art, sorry to reveal the most obvious.

      • Tichy says:

        But the holy Berlin Phil already recorded two filmscores (the perfume and some documentary). And a few years ago, they did a whole concert just with film music, and they loved it.

      • Tamino says:

        Oh they have quite a bit to do with Hollywood. Their former Über-Maestro H.v.K. studied and implemented many concepts of filming aesthetics, also from Hollywood.
        For years the orchestra was routinely doing film shoots in shabby film studios in Berlin, where they acted as their own orchestra, photographic backdrops of the Philharmonie with audience were put in the frame, the music came from tape and the orchestra was doing its playback stick.
        Just like on a Hollywood set.
        No serious artist has a problem with the technicalities of trying new art forms.
        Only old snobs have.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Those HvK films are awful indeed, he should never have done that.

          But filming orchestral performances is not ‘a new art form’. In fact, it is irrelevant to the real thing that orchestras are doing, it is mere marketing stuff.

  • Gustavo says:

    Danny in Wonderland

  • Brandon says:

    As it says above, this is actually the German premiere of the piece. It’s been around for a while and was first performed on a US tour by the Berlin players back in 2018 and was released on Sony Classical last year. They also did it at the Philharmonie in Paris last year too. It’s a serious piece – I heard it on BBC R3. Why shouldn’t the Berlin Phil be commissioning and performing it?

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is a deplorable gesture to populist taste and a desperate sign of ignorance. At such orchestras there is nobody spending time to explore what is really going-on in the development of contemporary music, it is too difficult and too time consuming and thus, too expensive. And it has too little interest to make space of it and to create an item for it on the budget, thanks to half a century of unlistenable rubbish which has eroded the reputation of new music to a record low.

      • Brandon says:

        I don’t think orchestras would generally be interested in piano quartets (Berlin aside). Presumably you’re referring to the Violin Concerto?

      • Tamino says:

        Nobody is spending time to explore … contemporary music in Berlin? Why don’t yo check out their season programs and see for yourself that your straw man argument is nonsense?

        • John Borstlap says:

          For a symphony orchestra to explore the field of new music, is an expert job, and staff simply don’t do that. Programming at symphony orchestras is the result of discussions and proposals between conductor and staff, and coincidental and the result of local and personal considerations, nothing wrong with it since no orchestra is under any obligation to represent Historical Truth while still being in the present. The forces behind orchestral programming are manyfold and new music is only one of the mostly haphazard elements in decision making. It is the season programming of orchestras which exactly show this, and which is normal for a free profession.

  • Peter B says:

    Sigh. Elfman has an excellent piano quartet and a good violin concerto. I’m sure the classical music world feels terrible that it doesn’t conform to your mid-twentieth century standards anymore. But what’s there to do? The world is going to the dogs anyway. Sit back and enjoy the horror!

  • Save the MET says:

    But has he taken the time to learn to read music? It is the same as being illiterate in your language. I don’t think he will ever be as great a success as he could be without it. He’s not Irving Berlin.

  • Springbeg says:

    In matters of faith and taste there are no winners.