Obviously, the moviegoing public loves him. But the story is different in the broader classical music community. The orchestra may be playing Williams' tunes at the Mann, but they certainly wouldn't take him on a European tour. Williams is, after all, a film composer. He's not Bach, not Mozart — not even Leonard Bernstein, who composed the popular " West Side Story" score but is regarded as one of America's greatest serious classical composers.
Tim Scheurer, chair of the Department of English and Humanities at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, and an expert in film music and popular culture, credits this lack of recognition from the classical community to inherent differences between film and classical compositions.
"Williams' work doesn't stand as real classical music, but not because of its quality," Scheurer said. "It has to do with the nature of the music. The movie theme may be every bit as powerful and moving as a classical theme, but it would have to be reworked into the model of a classical structure."
In other words, the different themes a composer creates for a movie — from the main theme to pieces associated with characters (think Darth Vader's "The Imperial March") don't parallel the sections of a symphony or concerto, which revolve around specific movements, each designed to perform a different function within the piece. In some ways, film composition offers more freedom, as the themes don't have to fit into a traditional classical structure. But this freedom often makes the work seem less credible than pieces that fit within classical constraints.
Williams does compose music separate from films. In 2011, he wrote pieces celebrating Aaron Copland and Bernstein to accompany the unveiling of busts of the composers at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But Williams still hasn't achieved the same status as the composers to whom he paid homage.
"It's not such a matter of his skill or expertise, but a matter of output," Scheurer said. "He simply has not produced as large a body of serious classical music as he has music for films."
Another problem, according to Scheurer, is that Williams often writes for genre films — adventure, science fiction, or horror — that require a composer to play off familiar nostalgic themes in order to elicit a reaction from his audience. It's Williams' lesser-known work — such as his compositions for "Memoirs of a Geisha," a project on which he worked with famed classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma — that show the breadth of his creative abilities. But audiences don't associate him with those works. They're not as popular, and they aren't what led to Williams' fame.
Film composers can find crossover appeal with the classical community, Scheurer said, citing Copland and Bernstein. "Every once in a while you find a composer who can bridge the gap and do what's popular and also be received as a great composer."
The classical community continues to push back, but Scheurer believes things could change for Williams eventually. "Currently there's a sense in the music community that we need to come back to melody and traditional forms," Scheurer said. "But there's also a chance the trends in classical will catch up to the trends in film."
Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave., 8 p.m. Friday, $49.50-$12.50, 215-878-0400, manncenter.org.