Concert Insights - Thomas Heuser

Dig a little deeper into the music with Thomas Heuser, music director finalist and guest conductor for The Music of John Williams with Symphony NH on October 27 & 28. Heuser explores the program, the stories behind the music, what makes compositions sound the way they do, and so much more.

Print copies of Concert Insights will be available to concert attendees per request.

Thomas Heuser will present a pre-concert talk prior to the Nashua performance on Saturday, October 27 at 6:30pm in Keefe Center for the Arts.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … The impact of those words scrolling across the big screen changed millions of lives and heralded the beginning of the endlessly popular Star Wars movie series. But without question, the impact of that moment would not have been the same without the thrilling music of composer John Williams (b. 1932). Perhaps no other American composer has the same popular legacy, with a career spanning decades and encompassing dozens of Blockbuster favorites. 

Williams’ musical career began as an arranger and composer in the Air Force Band. He returned to his native New York to study at Juilliard and to work as a jazz pianist. In the late 1950s, he moved to Hollywood to work as an orchestrator, studio pianist and conductor. He also began to compose scores for television and movies, and by 1967 had his first Academy Award nomination—the first of dozens—for Valley of the Dolls. In his later career, Williams earned equal fame as an orchestral conductor, leading the Boston Pops from 1980-1993 and making many guest conducting engagements each season.

Our program celebrates The Music of John Williams with a generous sampling of his film scores, spanning roughly 30 years between The Cowboys of 1972 through Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone of 2001. While it would be possible to feature every movie score by John Williams as a master example of musical ingenuity, his output far exceeds the length of a single concert and so we have created a program that showcases the diversity of his musical creations. 


When dissecting the music of John Williams, we discover a brilliant formula that makes his music so recognizable and accessible. Just as opera composers throughout history have fashioned individual melodies to represent each of the characters in the drama, so too does Williams give each character a musical theme—in the manner of a Wagnerian “leitmotiv.” For example, imagine the big, bold melody associated with the character Indiana Jones. As the action unfolds, whenever Indy makes his next heroic move, the iconic melody returns and we think, “Indiana Jones saves the day!” Now imagine the dark, brooding melody associated with Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. That motive immediately conjures up feelings of terror and evil, and today that association extends beyond Darth Vader to symbolize virtually anything sinister or menacing. How about the famous “duh-DUN” of Jaws, associated with the movie’s great white shark attacking unsuspecting victims from under the murky waters? Today that music is used to symbolize virtually anything ominous you can think of, even in detergent commercials when dad sees the kids about to spill juice all over the carpet! 

To be sure, Williams is as much a master at penning big thematic melodies as he is choosing different instruments to capture the essence of the scenery and setting. For example, we hear Celtic jigs and reels played by flutes to reflect the Irish setting of Far and Away, a mournful and lonely violin solo for the main theme of Schindler’s List, bombastic trumpets fanfares for the main theme of Superman, and regal French Horns to announce the incredible sight of living dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The music reflects the scene and adds authenticity to the reality presented by each film, and then through repetition, our associations are strengthened between the visual and the aural experience.

Another trademark of the John Williams musical formula is the relationship between the soaring melodies and their detailed accompaniments. In almost every case, the thematic melodies themselves are long, sweeping tunes stretched over busy, rhythmical undercurrents. The climactic, sky-high bicycle ride in E.T. provides a great example, where the running figure of the strings and woodwinds (representing the spinning wheels) supports E.T.’s expansive, otherworldly melodic theme played in long tones by the brass instruments. Similarly, when Harry Potter’s simple yet spooky main theme is first spun out by the celeste, the strings play virtuosic handfuls of scales underneath, providing an eerie, wispy accompaniment. Depending on who you ask in the orchestra, it’s hard to say who has the more difficult task, those playing the busy notes or the long melodic lines, but certainly everyone’s role is crucial to the effect.