Brussels Philharmonic | Brussels Philharmonic | Kazushi Ono, Music…

John Williams: Raiders of the Lost Ark

programme notes

written by ROBIN BROOS, author of The Original Soundtrack

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
film by Steven Spielberg
music by John Williams

[all programme notes]


22.09.2023 23.09.2023 24.09.2023 FLAGEY

What makes the soundtrack of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ so iconic?

For fans of Indiana Jones, 2023 is a special year. For the fifth and last time, the now 80-year-old actor Harrison Ford is once again donning the hat, whip, and leather jacket. But: there can be no Indy without the ‘Raiders March’. An earworm by the Hollywood composer John Williams.

“This damn music follows me everywhere I go. It’s played every time I walk on a stage, every time I walk off a stage. It was playing in the operating room when I went in for a colonoscopy.”

When in 2016 Harrison Ford was asked to mount the stage of the American Film Institute to give a speech in praise of the composer John Williams, this, too, took place to the tune of the ‘Raiders March’. The musical theme is unmistakably linked with the action hero. And the action hero with the actor.

The fact that John Williams was commissioned to write the music for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is no surprise. Indiana Jones was conceived by George Lucas, but he was too busy with Star Wars. While he was on holiday with his good friend Steven Spielberg, Lucas surrendered his brainchild. Spielberg made it be known that he would like to direct a James Bond film. The modest Lucas said: “I have somehing better”.

The reason why the ‘Raiders March’ has become so iconic lies in two contrary choices made by the composer. After his earlier, experimental score for Jaws in 1974, he specialized in a genre that had long been out of fashion by that time: the romantic idiom of the classic symphonic Hollywood music of the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, Williams, like his forerunners Alfred Newman, Max Steiner and Elmer Bernstein played on the given leitmotiv and used grand orchestrations.

Fans consider that in so doing, Williams restored the orchestra to its place of honour. As Maestro Dirk Brossé, music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and guest conductor at the Brussels Philharmonic remarked: “The genre was old-fashioned but at the same time brand new. Williams was one of the first to breathe new life into the symphony orchestra, even though at that time electronic instruments were becoming more popular. You are right to see this as a courageous statement. In so doing, he made the train change directions again.”

And it is precisely for that reason that Williams was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1985 from Boston University. The jury’s citation notes: “At a time when melody and harmony were disappearing from both popular and serious music, Williams once again enabled people to enjoy music in the style of Beethoven and Brahms. He gave children a chance to experience complex harmonic and rhythmic structures in the tradition of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Williams has made orchestral music accessible to millions.”

What is more, his leitmotiv for Indy was written deliberately as a march. According to Williams: “This is not a period many people associate with marches, but I seem to find it fun to write marches. A good march does get the blood up, and it might take a clever musicologist or sociologist to explain why this is true.” This contrarian trend could already be heard in his marches for Star Wars (‘Imperial March’), 1941 (‘The March From 1941’) and Superman: The Movie (‘Theme from Superman’). Yet the ‘Raiders March’ is perhaps the best march he ever wrote.

Although the score was written as a symphonic march, at the same time Williams does something unusual. The theme for Indiana Jones is not a pure leitmotiv, but a twofold symphony in which both melodies have an equally catchy, recognizable force.

Williams: “My task was to create a recognizable theme for the Indiana Jones character. Every time Harrison jumps on the horse or does something heroic, I wanted to pay reference to this theme. That became the ‘The Raiders March’, seemingly a very simple tune, but I spent more time on those bits of musical grammar than anything else. The sequence of notes has to sound just right so it seems inevitable. Those simplicities are often the hardest things to capture.”

Ultimately, the composer came up with not one but two potential leitmotivs. Annoyed that he was unable to choose between them, he left the choice to the director, Steven Spielberg. But Spielberg was so impressed that he suggested using them both. The result is a march with a separate musical bridge. As if they were always meant to be together.

In addition to Indiana Jones himself, his love interest Marion Ravenwood also has her own theme. ‘Marion’s Theme’ emphasizes not only her personal identity but also serves as a love theme. It evokes the same emotion as the love theme in Superman. There are also three secondary themes: for the medallion, the Ark and for each new discovery made by the adventurous archaeologist.

And of course, there are the action scenes such as the chases in the desert, with a powerful motif that propel the Nazis and the Ark forwards. With Indy in the saddle, Williams makes abundant reference to the ‘Raiders March’. Although this moment is the film is divided, from a technical standpoint, into three separate scenes, the composer links them together in one gigantic action piece lasting eight minutes that sounds exciting at each new twist and turn.

“Thanks to the music of the Raiders of the Lost Ark, within three seconds you are in the atmosphere of the film; that is John Williams’ signature”, according to Brossé, who will conduct the cinema concert three times. An exceptional opportunity to experience (once again) the start of this great film adventure with a fabulous soundtrack, in the best possible live version.

Indy would say, cynically: “they don’t know what they've got there”. But the Brussels Philharmonic knows very well what a musical pearl it holds in its hands today.