How John Williams Brought ‘Home Alone’ To Life Through Music

If you mention Home Alone to a group of ’90s kids-turned-adults, the response will likely consist of two parts. Jokes about Kevin McCallister’s (Macaulay Culkin) best traps, and Christmas nostalgia. The latter is especially relevant given the story’s setting, but what isn’t mentioned enough is how integral John Williams’ film score is to this sentiment. Sure, a paint can to the face is fun, but mention “Somewhere in My Memory” and chances are everyone will start humming the tune.

So, when the Boston Pops played selections from its former conductor’s film score at a performance last December, the decades of maturity I’d amassed were shed away in an instant. I was no longer a thirtysomething writer enjoying a holiday concert. Instead, I was a 5-year-old boy fantasizing about what I’d do if left behind and forced to defend my home from nefarious burglars. Or, to paraphrase the song’s lyrics, all I could think about were precious moments, special people and happy faces. And paint cans.

Later that same month, the Pops played the entire Home Alone score for three live screenings of the film. These special performances were meant to capitalize further on the movie’s holiday nostalgia. But they also demonstrated an intense devotion to Williams, who conducted the Pops from 1980 to 1993. The Hollywood composer’s arrival in Boston wasn’t a popular decision at first, as he was a West Coast outsider replacing Arthur Fiedler, a bona fide Boston musical legend who conducted the orchestra for 50 years. But what he brought to the organization, including the world premiere of “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back at his first concert, quickly silenced his critics and turned the city into his biggest fan.

“Fiedler put the Boston Pops on the map. Then all of sudden, there was a new guy in town,” says Dennis Alves, Director of Artistic Planning at the Pops. “Things were going great, but when John came in, it was certainly a breath of fresh air. Something new and different.”

A former trumpet player for the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Alves was on stage at Symphony Hall for Williams’ inaugural concert on April 29, 1980. Among other things, he got to belt out the iconic brass part in the first public performance of “Darth Vader’s Theme.”

“It was a big deal” when Williams came to Boston, he says. Fiedler, the previous conductor, had died the previous year at the age of 84. His absence from the Pops was palpable, and filling the void would be no easy task.

Williams was already an Academy Award-winning film composer when he took up the challenge. The two-note ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) of the Jaws theme, the triumphant main title of Star Wars, the musical heroics of Superman — these and other film scores had earned him high praises from filmmakers, musicians and audiences. During his 13-year tenure with the Pops, however, he would write the music for the Indiana Jones films, E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialJurassic Park and, of course, Home Alone — all the while conducting the orchestra’s regular and holiday concerts.

“It didn’t take him long to realize just how good this orchestra was,” says Lawrence Wolfe, Principal Bass at the Pops and Assistant Principal Bass at the BSO.

“There were occasions when the orchestra simply did not have enough rehearsal time for Williams to go through every piece of music on the program. He knew they had played the music before, but he hadn’t conducted it, so he would say: ‘Teach me.’ He just let us go, and knowing he trusted us, we played even better for it. He gave us total respect at all times.”

This wasn’t always the case. Williams resigned as Pops conductor following an incident during a rehearsal on June 13, 1984. According to the New York Times, “hisses reportedly came from orchestra players” during a rehearsal of his own music. The “behavior [was] said to be common toward other composers’ works at Pops rehearsals as an expression of opinion,” and sources “did not think that incident alone was strong enough to provoke Mr. Williams to resign.” Williams did resign, but returned to the position after the orchestra apologized.

Thirty years have since healed whatever wounds were left on Williams by the Pops, and vice versa. He currently occupies a symbolic position as laureate conductor, and his former colleagues continue to sing his praises — sans hissing, of course.

“An amazing understanding of music for film — when it needs to be heightened, underscored, invisible, distracting or not, ” says Wolfe, who was already a 10-year member of the bass section when Williams arrived in 1980. “He has an instant sixth sense about that. Just absolutely amazing.”

Alves couldn’t agree more, saying that “to see John doing what he does so well, writing and recording film music, was pretty amazing.”

“I remember asking him where he got his inspiration. He said, ‘Dennis, if I sat around waiting for inspiration I would never write anything.’ So, whenever he was working on a film score, he would get up every day and write two and a half minutes of music. He explained that you learned the art and craft of writing music by doing it. It’s more than just inspiration coming in the wind or a dream.”

Pops players pulling double-duty as BSO members witnessed Williams-the-composer firsthand when they recorded the music for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Otherwise, Williams-the-conductor kept his Hollywood work separate from his Pops duties, though that didn’t stop him from occasionally sharing the musical wealth. As Wolfe recalls, Williams often brought “excerpts and selections hot off the presses for us to play.”

These included parts of the Home Alone score, which Williams added to the Pops’ repertoire after the film’s release in 1990. These selections remain a regular part of the orchestra’s annual holiday concert series today, which also features traditional carols, popular classical music, and other seasonal tunes. Yet it wasn’t until the 2014-15 season that Keith Lockhart, Pops conductor since 1995, decided to arrange the entire film score for special screenings of the film accompanied by a live orchestra.

“When they first told me that this was available as a property, I thought, ‘Home Alone? Really?'” he says. “It was a great chance to really understand that for a whole lot of people, it was a big tradition to watch Home Alone during the holidays. I was aware that it took place over Christmas, but I didn’t really think of it as a holiday film the way I think of Miracle on 34th Street as being a holiday film.”

Lockhart turned 31 just before the film’s release, putting him several generations behind ’90s kids whose Christmas memories would become synonymous with Culkin’s king-of-the-castle adventures. As an observer, he was surprised to discover just how nostalgic that particular audience would be, especially because they’re currently as old as he was in 1990. As a musician, however, he was blown away by Williams’ score.

“I didn’t realize how much music there was until I started studying it. How much it made the movie a better movie,” says Lockhart. “The real sentimental moments in the film — Macaulay Culkin’s loneliness and being abandoned on Christmas Eve — are underscored by the music. It doesn’t make the slapstick, so much as it makes the human moments in the film what they are.”

Alves knew precisely what the Pops had on its hands with Home Alone. Hence why he “jumped” at the chance to get the complete score for the 2014 December concert series. “It was perfect for the holidays,” he says.

“When ‘Somewhere in My Memory’ starts, I get this warm feeling all over. It’s amazing how in that music, in that film, he was able to capture the feeling of Christmas.”

This suggests that the Home Alone score, much like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark before it, can stand on its own. The music’s specific attachment to the movie is no doubt the reason for its fame, but, as Alves points out, “John’s music lends itself best to being played without the film. He writes beautiful melodies, and that’s not always the case with other composers. So much of his music stands on its own, without the film.”

Lockhart agrees, saying that “the funny thing about great film music is it’s unobtrusive in its context. It’s so organic with the picture that you don’t think it’s great until you break it off separately.”

So, the Pops acquired and learned all of the music from Home Alone, and accompanied three showings of the film in the days after Christmas. Besides, as Lockhart notes, “More and more it has become a tradition to do full films accompanied by live orchestra.” The orchestra had recently accompanied screenings of The Wizard of OzSinging in the Rain and Fantasia, so attempting Williams’ more modern movie music seemed appropriate.

The performances nearly sold out, despite taking place on Friday, Dec. 26 and Saturday, Dec. 27 — when most people were busy with their own holiday plans. Alves stresses that “films with a live symphony orchestra have become a popular thing over the last 10 years,” though “it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.” Yet Williams’ expertise as a composer of film music helped to streamline the process for Lockhart’s conducting and the current crop of Pops musicians.

“John has amazing ears. He can hear things that many of us can’t. When he would sit down at the piano with a full orchestra score, with 25 to 30 lines of all the instrument parts on it, he could realize all of it. That is a really difficult thing to do, and there are probably only a handful of people in the world who can do it,” says Alves. “When he looks at a score, it’s different than you or I looking at it. We see black dots and letters and shapes, but John can actually hear the orchestra in his head.”

I was away from Boston during the screenings, so I didn’t get to enjoy the novelty of a live orchestra accompaniment. Though the brief selections I heard were strong enough to make me want to watch the movie on my own. So I did, and while thirtysomething me enjoyed the movie just as much as 5-year-old me, it was only after hearing Williams’ score isolated that I realized just how integral it was to the film. The soft, memorable tones of “Somewhere in My Memory” help to make Home Alone a truly wonderful viewing experience. Home Alone without music would just be lonely.