Woods: You’ve mentioned Bach and Mozart and Haydn, but I’m curious: what music from the past is the most personal to you? The work that after a lifetime in music still resonates with you in a deep way, the music that you would take to a desert island?
Williams: I have the experience that so many musicians do. When I was a youngster, I loved jazz, I loved Stravinsky, I loved Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and so on. I still do. But now I read scores, mostly Beethoven, some Haydn, some Mozart, and so on. I think of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony as being such a glorious gem. I will use a word, and probably regret it, but it’s simple music. It’s tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic. But it still seems to me the greatest music we have. My tastes have become quite simple.
I’m writing every day, and when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about what the next passage is going to be, or the next hurdle to overcome. I will listen to other music and often think, well, it’s so much better than what I write. Why would I want to do that? [Laughing.] What we already have is so miraculous. Harvey Sachs has written a new book about Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was talking about the process of composition, and as I recall, he basically says, and I’m paraphrasing, that you work as hard as you can possibly work and put every bit of knowledge you have into your work, and when you’ve finished all of that, some kind of providential gift might emerge in the piece that is beyond anything that your meager talent would have anticipated. And that’s the thing that lights the music. It’s the spiritual element that most of us with our limited abilities, can’t put there.
I also believe in that. What he’s saying is that we do the best work as hard as we can, do as much self-correcting and editing as possible to get things as beautifully made as they can be. And after the fact, you may be gifted by some aspect of spirituality in the music that you might not have anticipated.
Woods: John, the love that you have poured into your art and craft over so many decades is a constant source of joy to musicians and orchestras and audiences. On behalf of all of us, a sincere thank you to you for everything that you have done for music. It is really a remarkable achievement, and it couldn’t be a greater honor than to sit with you today and talk about it.
Williams: Thank you, Simon. It’s been a pleasure.