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American Journey

About the Work

John Williams
Quick Look Composer: John Williams
© Richard Freed
In 1999 John Williams composed music for Steven Spielberg's brief documentary The Unfinished Journey, which was shown on the last day of that year. He later adapted from that score a six-part concert suite which he titled American Journey and recorded with a studio orchestra in Los Angeles in 2000

The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo and Irish flute; 3 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, field drum, bass drum, chimes, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal; tam tam, large and small triangles, orchestra bells, tambourine, large and small triangles, vibraphone, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings. Duration (for the three movements performed in the present concerts), 15 minutes.

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An impressive group of participants was assembled for the millennium celebrations in Washington at the end of 1999, with the emphasis squarely on American history, American patriotism, and the events and personalities that made the 20th century “the American century.” In the brief documentary Steven Spielberg made for showing at the end of 1999, President Clinton's voice as well as those of the actors Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis were among those involved in the narration. Three poets laureate—Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky and Maya Angelou—took part, and the text created by Tim Willocks included words of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The obvious choice to compose and conduct the music was John Williams.

With a running time of only 21 minutes, The Unfinished Journey did not attempt a chronological review of the 20th century, but, as Mr. Williams observed, looked at the period “thematically, with a series of tableaux that could be dealt with individually.” This division is reflected in the headings of the six movements of the concert suite the composer arranged from his score for the documentary: “Immigration and Building,” “The Country at War,” “Popular Entertainment,” “Arts and Sports,” “Civil Rights and the Women's Movement,” “Flight and Technology.” In the present concerts we hear the first, fifth and sixth movements only.

Perhaps mindful of the already numerous offerings of books, films and other artifacts titled Unfinished Journey (among which we find such diverse examples as Yehudi Menuhin's memoirs and an Oregon Public Television production dealing with Lewis and Clark), Mr. Williams gave his concert suite the somewhat more specific title American Journey . He had this to say about the work:

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There is so much for Americans to be proud of, even in some of our misfires and our outright failures. For example, in the fifth movement, “Civil Rights and the Women's Movement,” you see the dogs and the water hoses and you also hear, combined with the music, the ennobling words of Dr. King. It gives us a sense that we have come through some hellish fire together.

That was our take. We wanted to look at the good things and the bad things and frame them in such a way as to take heed, and to take heart at the same time, and have this be an uplifting experience.

John Williams