“We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.

The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities, and perchance as it has never set before–where there is but a solitary marsh hawk to have his wings gilded by it, or only a musquash looks out from his cabin, and there is some little black-veined brook in the midst of the marsh, just beginning to meander, winding slowly round a decaying stump. We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”


It’s understood that music enhances films, and no one has done that better than John Williams. But as I listen to his compositions, I wonder sometimes whether in fact his music does much more. Perhaps sometimes his music is the primary reason the film succeeds.

The common cliche is that all filmmaking is a collaborative process, so I wager Williams would be the first to deny the possibility his music alters anything. He’s written the scores for Home, Alone!, E.T., Star Wars, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark,  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Superman, Harry Potter–movies I adore. But I find if I mute the score when I’m watching those films, something seriously changes. It is as if the heart of the film is absent. Not just its emotional feeling tone, but the reason I’m watching. The music is telling the story. Better said, Williams’ music creates the story at a level we can’t resist.

  • “Luke’s Theme” plays as young Skywalker looks out at the discs of two suns–it is the notes we hear that reveal Luke’s yearning more than the actor’s presence alone ever could.
  • The neighborhood filled with Christmas lights as the camera zooms in becomes enchanted with the synth chimes and celeste, the woodwinds and sleigh bells that Williams gives to the opening of Home, Alone! He used the celeste again in the first Harry Potter film as “Hedwig’s Theme.” Who doesn’t want to enter a magical world like these two musical openings promise? (I remember a television ad appearing before the first film was released playing this theme as it showed the snowy owl Hedwig tracking to a bookstore–it pulled one in like a magnet.)
  • In Superman, there is marvelous thematic music, but underlying it also is something in the music itself that offers a sense of the unknown, of the immense mythology of the franchise, its origins back in the 30s, and the entry into a world that has such a wonderful being in it, our own mystical yearning for that kind of goodness.

In these movies, as in the others he scored for, including Schindler’s List, I can’t separate the music from the film itself. Without the music, the movie loses meaning.  What Williams has created does define the experience of watching the story. His music is storytelling. It can’t be left out.

I remember in an interview George Lucas said that on the opening night of Star Wars he and his wife went out to get something to eat in L.A., and were astonished to see a mob of people across the street and a line around the block. He wondered why and suddenly realized it was to see Star Wars. He hadn’t expected such response. He felt it was a film he hadn’t been able to shape in its full potential, that he lacked the technical devices he needed to make it better. I remember watching it in a theater in New York City, in Times Square, a few days after its release, and taking my three-year old son with me, and both of us sat mesmerized along with the rest of the world not only by the opening credits, but by Williams’ extraordinary music as the story began to unfold. Imagine that opening scene without that remarkable score.

Back in 1980 on July 4th I was in a sailboat at anchor on the Charles River as John Williams began his first Fourth celebration with the Boston Pops on the Esplanade. I never saw him up close, but I was  so glad to be there at that moment, to be able firsthand to honor his immense talent. It seemed extraordinary that the composer of Star Wars now lived in my own backyard, more or less.

He wrote symphonic themes, making them so essentially American, defining the films that way, too. I remember hearing him conduct his original music for the film The Reivers. It held in it the same contours of folk melodies attached to the American landscape that appeared with Copland’s themes, or Virgil Thomson’s “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” music for the documentary on the Dust Bowl.

No one would contest that Williams is a genius. But we’re fortunate that brilliant directors asked him to write the music for their films so that we had access to their stories in ways that ensured the characters and their stories would forever be part of our hearts, and often, part of our souls.

It really did. I was on a camping trip with the Girl Scouts and it was a sudden New England summer storm and we were soaked and gathered in a log cabin while the wind whistled through the cracks and the meager fire in the fireplace did its best, which wasn’t good enough for the twelve of us, eleven of whom were nine years of age and one of whom was the harried scout leader.  That night I listened to a tale someone narrated that was written by Edgar Allen Poe, one I gladly repeated thereafter at every pajama party sleepover I held in my parents’ house. After that night, I understood the power of storytelling–that it wasn’t just the story itself, but the place where I heard it–and later, read it–that made all the difference. Now, many, many years later, I am forever sitting in that cabin somewhere in my mind, thrilled by words that carried me along with the storm raging outside into the terror of a man waiting for the pendulum to slip down one notch too far. I bless that dark and stormy night…and I can’t see any reason why such words should not be part of every writer’s lexicon. They make a hell of a great setting.

Flanders Field Poppies

In honor of soldiers on Armistice Day, November 11, the Royal British Legion is recreating the Flanders Field of poppies at the historic Menin Gate memorial at Ypres, France. The poppies are protected from weather, and placed by hand into the field by Legion volunteers. Each one is donated by people with a message they can write on the back.
I sent in a poppy, with a message, that will be placed by hand in the field with all the others for my dad, Ronald Norman Clarke, who served in the Second World War. It was the Great War ending on this day in 1918 that had special significance for him, that seemed to haunt him most with its tragic battlefields. I cannot count how many times he recited the poem “In Flanders Field,” which called up the extraordinary sacrifice of soldiers at Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme. For Great Britain it meant the loss of a third of their young men, 800,000, accounting for the term “The Lost Generation.” The impact of 800,000 dead if they had been allowed to live—how might the world have been? The question that can’t be answered.

“In Flanders Fields”
by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, May 1915 (Second battle of Ypres)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.


John Masefield, the poet and writer, was at the Battle of the Somme. His account is a famous one. A brief quote from it: “Even outside the trenches, it’s not easy to find one’s way over that blasted moor of mud, from which all landmarks have been blown. Inside the trenches it is almost impossible; one sap looks like another, one communication trench is like another, one blown-in dugout, or corpse, is like another, and all the saps and trenches zigzag and run straight, so that one cannot tell direction. These men, wandering forward, perhaps chasing enemies, from one unknown alley to another, in excitement and danger, far from any possibility of direction or guidance, lost themselves, sometimes half a mile behind the enemy front line.”

The full account, and it is riveting, is at the link here in pdf: