The humble Mr Williams

12Jul09

JohnWilliamsIt’s not every day that the telephone rings and the man’s voice at the other end happens to be a legendary composer of film music. But that’s what happened to me yesterday. My home phone rang at 5pm and the caller was none other than John Williams, phoning from the famous Massachusetts music venue Tanglewood where he is preparing to conduct the Boston Pops orchestra in a concert of film music on 18 July.

Yes, it really was John Williams, composer of more famous film themes than any other person – here are a few of my favourites: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Superman, Harry Potter, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Star Wars, Amistad, Seven Years in Tibet, Born on the Fourth of July, Empire of the Sun, Memoirs of a Geisha, A.I.Artificial Intelligence – the list goes on and on.

On top of that, the mighty Mr Williams has been nominated for no fewer than 46 Oscars, the record – as far as I know – for a living person. He has won five. And of course, then there are the literally millions of album sales. The original Star Wars soundtrack was the biggest selling non-pop LP of all time.

Mr Williams’s phone call didn’t come as a complete surprise. I was expecting it. I have been carrying out a special writing assignment this week for which I suggested interviewing him. It all worked out quite smoothly. And what a genuine thrill it was to have some fifteen minutes discussing his life and work with him.

It was not the first time that John Williams and I have spoken. Almost eight years ago –  the day after 9/11 to be precise – he was stranded in London having been over recording the first Harry Potter soundtrack. No planes were heading back across the Atlantic because of the terror attack. So a colleague and I from Classic FM took the opportunity to interview him in a hotel suite on Park Lane.

You could not wish to meet a more dignified, friendly, courteous and humble man. With such achievements under his belt, you might expect some degree of pumped up pride, a whiff of arrogance perhaps. But no. John Williams has the air of a highly cultured American university professor – softly spoken, intensely interested in life and literature and films and music and…and so many things.

He was the same during yesterday’s telephone interview. Self-effacing and modest but clearly thoughtful and passionate about the things he cares about. Asking him about the huge number of successful film soundtracks he has composed, he simply replied, “Well I am very grateful to have had so many commissions”.

When I questioned him whether he has a favourite amongst his own scores, he responded, “You know what they say – a Rabbi that praises himself has a congregation of one!”

Humility is not a fashionable personality trait these days. And, by definition, not something that one would boast about. The only exception to the rule is the villainous Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield who rather over-eggs the insincerity pudding by continually stressing how “umble” he is.

“As soon as one feels a little better than, a little superior to, the rest, he is in a dangerous position,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “and unless he casts away the seed of such an evil thought, he is not a fit instrument for the service of the Kingdom”. And elsewhere, “However much a man may progress, yet he is imperfect, because there is always a point ahead of him. No sooner does he look up towards that point than he become dissatisfied with his own condition, and aspires to attain to that. Praising one’s own self is the sign of selfishness.”

It is humbling to speak to a man of such great achievements as John Williams. And yet, even more humbling to be in the presence of such genuine humility.

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