Sunday, May 28, 2017

Composing Greatness: #4. John Williams - "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971)

Scene from Fiddler on the Roof
Welcome to Composing Greatness: a column dedicated to exploring the work of film composers. This will specifically focus on the films that earned them Oscar nominations while exploring what makes it so special. This will be broken down into a look at the overall style, interesting moments within the composition, and what made the score worth nominating in the first place. This will also include various subcategories where I will rank the themes of each film along with any time that the composer actually wins. This is a column meant to explore a side of film that doesn't get enough credit while hopefully introducing audiences to an enriched view of more prolific composers' work. This will only cover scores/songs that are compiled in an easily accessible format (so no extended scores will be considered). Join me every Sunday as I cover these talents that if you don't know by name, you recognize by sound.

Series Composer: John Williams
Entry: Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Collaborators (If Available): Cast members singing on various songs. The list includes Topol, Norma Crane, Rosalind Harris, Michelle Marsh, Neva Small, Molly Picon, and more.
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score
Did He Win: Yes

Other Nominees:
-Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Sherman Brothers, Irwin Kostal)
-The Boy Friend (Peter Maxwell Davies, Peter Greenwell)
-Tchaikovsky (Dimitri Tiomkin)
-Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, Walter Scharf)

Additional Information

This is to help provide perspective of where each composer is in their Oscar-nominated life as it related to the current entry.

Oscar Nomination: 4
Oscar Wins: 1

Acceptance Speech

Track List

1. "Prologue / Tradition"
2. "Matchmaker"
3. "If I Were a Rich Man"
4. "Sabbath Prayer"
5. "To Life"
6. "Tevye's Monologue (Tzeitel and Motel)"
7. "Miracle of Miracles"
8. "Tevye's Dream"
9. "Sunrise, Sunset"
10. "Wedding Celebration / The Bottle Dance"
11. "Entr'acte"
12. "Tevye's Monologue (Hodel and Perchik)"
13. "Do You Love Me?"
14. "Far from the Home I Love"
15. "Chava Ballet Sequence (Little Bird, Little Chavaleh)"
16. "Tevye's Monologue (Chava and Fyedka)"
17. "Anatevka"

*Note: Listen to the score here.

Exploring the Music
The area of the column where I will explore the music in as much detail as I see fit for each entry.

Theme Exploration:
"Prologue / Tradition"

This is probably the hardest thing to properly assess so far in the John Williams series. Like the majority of the movie musicals of the time, this was based off of a stage show with some great music. Williams would even admit it in his acceptance speech. So I am left to ask myself; what did he bring to the overall production? While I don't know that this sounds yet like Williams, I do think that it feels like a strong adaptation of his style: it's classical and epic, finding a way to elevate the theatrics into traditional and operatic musical styles. It starts humbly with a fiddle before Topol enters to provide the credos of the story. It's jaunty and attentive. You cannot help but sing "Tradition" with the back-up vocalists. If there's one thing that does feel like a little much, it is the level of grandiosity to which the music goes. The male and female choirs singing along overpower Topol in a way that distracts me. Even then, this feels like a classical musical in a period where they were on the way out. It also helps that the song choice ends with a killer fiddle solo that highlights many of the great music choices that Williams made when composing this.

Interesting Standout:
"Tevye's Dream"

Had it not been for this song, there probably would have been too many interesting song cues to pull from. Yet the musical sets aside time for a nightmare sequence that is delightful and innovative. It's haunting while also be so authentically Jewish in what the terrors actually are. If nothing else, it's the funnest composition that John Williams has done between these four nominations so far. He captures the insanity alongside the lyrical complexity by which this operates. It builds and drops in appropriate measures, creating a visceral experience that takes us into Tevye's head while also making us wonder what's going on. Despite this seeming otherwise out of place, it's still an effective song that adds to the psychology of the other songs, and it's so great because of that.

Best Moment:
 "Wedding Celebration / The Bottle Dance"

I would've also picked the more iconic "To Life." However, I feel like one of the elements to Composing Greatness has to be, ahem, the composing. This orchestration is the best highlight on the entire album of John Williams' talent at adapting. He doesn't have any of the singers to fall back on. Instead, he's pushing the instruments to louder and more energetic places. He leaves the listener feeling the excitement of the wedding celebration, which perfectly coalesces in the bottle dance sequence. As a piece of music, this is about as artful as Williams' work gets for this movie. He may have done excellent work in adapting the bigger numbers, but I think you see traces of the Williams who would become an icon in mere years starting to form here. It's beautiful, fun, and probably the closest to his style in the entire selection of music.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?:

Considering that this is an adaptation category, it is easier to confuse what was originally in the musical and what John Williams brought. It's a question that I struggled with, because in theory Williams didn't actually compose the music. He merely took material fro the stage and put it onto film. From there, you have to wonder if what he personally contributed was a worthwhile experience. To me at least, it remains a complicated issue that is only going to get more confusing as the decades roll on. For now, I see Williams' contribution to the music as taking the existing music and make it more appropriate to traditional movie musical status. It's grandiose and full of life (l'chaim). Had this come out 15 years prior, it would still feel appropriate to the era of movie musicals. I don't exactly know what he changed, but at least it sounds very good and operatic in the right ways.

Did This Deserve to Win?

It's funny to think of this as John Williams' first Oscar win, especially since it's for adapting. Considering that he would become better known for his original compositions, it almost feels deceptive. With that said, he does a great job at capturing the authenticity of the music and elevates it to a powerful cinematic experience. I do think that it still doesn't quite sound like him, and in hindsight makes it inferior in some ways. However, it's still a great piece of music full of great songs that were appropriately adapted to the cinematic medium. This may not be the welcoming cry that Williams would probably be known for (that's still a few weeks away with Jaws), but at least it's a great piece of music to be proud of.

Up Next: Images (1972) for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score

Best Theme

A ranking of all themes composed by John Williams.

1. "Prologue/Tradition" - Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
2. "Main Title/First Introduction/The Winton Flyer" - The Reivers (1969)
3. "Where Did My Childhood Go?" - Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
4. "Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls'"/"Theme from 'Valley of the Dolls' - Reprise" - Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Best Winner

A ranking of all winners composed by John Williams.

1. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score

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