The Music Of John Williams: The Definitive Collection

Silva Screen Records – SILCD1382 (2012)

6CD set of music performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Notes published as a downloadable booklet.


Williams at 80

He is the most popular, successful and influential American composer of the last century. His work in film brought symphonic music to the masses; a once beleaguered genre, the sound of a symphony orchestra is no longer alien to generations of young people, thanks largely to the otherwise extra-terrestrial experience that was Star Wars in 1977. But you don’t need to be told all of this again, for the John Williams story is one that has been shared time and again, throughout what has gone on to become a fifty year career in film music.

February 8th 2012 sees the composer celebrate his 80th Birthday, a milestone that cannot pass by un-noted. This comprehensive compendium of classics goes in some way to celebrate a life in film music and a voice that continues to resonate, uplift and bring joy to millions. Over the following paragraphs – an updated version of a previously unpublished article – I attempt to find out why Wiliams has remained so consistently at the top his game and wish the world’s favourite musical storyteller a very Happy Birthday with a little help from some of his peers.

“Perhaps if God were to choose one composer of this age to best represent celestial perfection, he would choose John Williams. For such is John’s mastery, such is John’s utter excellence.” John Debney

Thirty Five Years Ago in a galaxy far, far away…

That 1977 score did catapult John Williams to the very top of every director’s composer wish list, despite being on the scene for almost twenty years at that point. It’s interesting that we so often look to Star Wars as the moment Williams became a real ‘hit’. We seem to forget that Jaws preceded Lucas’ space opera by two years; that landmark score was fully orchestral, sparked a number-one selling album and won Williams his first Oscar for an original score. Come to think of it, by the time the composer actually got round to scoring Star Wars he had already scored two films for the young Steven Spielberg (with a third in progress), a clutch of big-budget disaster epics (including the hugely popular The Towering Inferno) and provided music for Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong Family Plot, not to mention A-List star vehicles like The Eiger Sanction, Midway and The Missouri Breaks. Although that last entry is as far removed from a ‘classical’ score as you can get, the majority of what Williams had brought to the screen was largely orchestral and he was the go-to composer for major directors. So was Star Wars such a surprise, stylistic or otherwise, after all?

Surprise or not, the score marked a turning point not just for Williams, who received awards galore, commanded more money, more fans and went onto score some of the biggest motion picture successes of all time, but also for Hollywood film-scoring, as producers sought out a ‘John Williams sound’ for their pictures. The orchestral film score was in vogue again.

“Long after we’re gone, the kids of my kids will be listening to what Williams has composed. And it will continue from there. That, my friends, is what great music is all about.” Douglass Fake, Intrada Records

The Changing Williams

With his career in screen composing beyond its fifty-year mark, John Williams has a lot to be proud of. He has churned out some of the most memorable music ever to grace the silver screen. But what is it about the Williams sound that is so remarkable, and has that sound changed over the years? From Images to E.T, Born On The Fourth Of July to Tintin, John Williams remains effortlessly original and it is that freshness of mind that is the key to his longevity as a film composer. Varèse Sarabande’s Robert Townson recognises this attribute and touched on something very interesting when I asked him his thoughts on Williams:

“Perhaps the most vital aspect of a composer’s work is the ability to maintain growth and John has always grown and evolved as an artist. His score for A.I. could not have been composed in 1969 and, likewise, were he to tackle The Reivers today, it would emerge a very different score from what he created nearly forty years ago.”

The Reivers was written ten years into Williams’ scoring career and is still considered his first ‘major’ score. Up to this point the young composer had forged himself a niche in screwball comedies and melodrama as ‘Johnny’ Williams, harnessing his penchant for rhythm, and lively jazz-like refrains. The Mark Rydell film saw Williams’ first major credit as ‘John’, a symbolic moment not just for the man, but also for the music. The Reivers gave Williams the chance to court a more mature sound for a big film, tipping his hat to Aaron Copland-esque ‘Americana’, while still retaining his trademark energy and wit; the score was a huge success and awarded the composer his first Academy Award nomination for composition.

This score wasn’t an absolute musical epiphany though, as Williams had scored a handful of ‘dramatic’ films in the 1960s, including I Passed For White and The Secret Ways. Diamond Head also reveals an early dramatic turn from the composer, as do None But The Brave (the first of a trilogy-of-sorts of War efforts, continued by Midway in 1976 and completed by Saving Private Ryan in 1998) and The Rare Breed; the latter also exhibits a broader thematic tendency. Let’s not forget that the composer had penned a selection of concert works in this decade as well, a process the composer has often cited as a means of learning. So with that in mind it’s perhaps no surprise that in 1969 Williams, and those hiring him, felt he was more than able to get his teeth into something a bit meatier, and indeed higher profile, than Gidget Goes To Rome.

His stylistic approach to The Reivers of course paved the way for The Cowboys in 1972; elements of which foreshadow the gorgeous Americana writing in Superman and, later, The River. Other Westerns followed during the 1970s, namely The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and The Missouri Breaks, both of which share a lot stylistically with Williams’ modern instrumental approach, notable in that 1969 score. Williams was on his way up, taking with him a distinct knack for capturing the essence of a film and giving it exactly what it needed, orchestral or otherwise.

Williams’ tendency to re-invent himself is another aid to his longevity in music. The aforementioned comedy and melodrama scoring, paved the way for the explosive dramatics of the 1970s, while the success of Star Wars laid the foundation for behemoths like Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T.

The years that followed E.T. offer an interesting move in Williams’ career path, and although he did score Return Of The Jedi and two more Indiana Jones adventures in the 1980s, not to mention SpaceCamp, the composer began scoring more mature films. Movies like The River, Empire Of The Sun, The Witches Of Eastwick and The Accidental Tourist allowed Williams the opportunity to ply his inexorable talent on character-led drama, rather than hitting the beats of a chase or battle. These projects were a real turning point for the composer as he began to shake off the blockbuster image he’d earned himself, aided a little earlier by scores for adult genre pictures such as The Fury, Dracula and Monsignor. Without all of these films to his credit, one wonders if he could have approached the likes of Schindler’s List, Seven Years In Tibet and Munich in quite the same way, or with the same touch. Another score of the late 1980s would also have a helping hand with Williams’ mature side, Born On The Fourth Of July. This score echoes Williams’ earlier dramatic efforts somewhat (just listen to his ‘Epilogue’ from The Fury for example) and it sparked a collaboration with Oliver Stone that took in the astonishing JFK and, later, the oft-overlooked Nixon, both of which share much with the earlier score.

Film-scoring aside, Williams’ persona in the United States at this time was akin to that of a ‘folk-hero’. Coming off the back of his enormous success in the late 1970s, Williams took over full time conducting duties with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1980 (following the death of Arthur Fiedler) and became something of a musical figurehead, bringing symphonic music to the masses once more. This appointment did have an effect on Williams’ scoring, if only in the sense that it meant he had less time to do so; the 1980s remain one of the composer’s most spartan in terms of film scoring.

The decade also saw a handful of high profile composing assignments for Williams, upping his credibility as a serious composer and beginning his role as something of an unofficial ‘composer laureate’ for the country. The 1980s saw him compose a Tuba Concerto, pieces for Boston’s 350th anniversary, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and the 1989 Colorado Winter Games, amongst other things. So with these things in mind, Williams’ maturing as a film composer in this period is perhaps less surprising, and the likes of Born On The Fourth Of July and JFK only increased his growing persona as America’s musical storyteller.

Of course Williams didn’t shy away from the blockbusting movies he’d grown accustomed to – he courted his fair share in the 1990s – but approached them I think with a renewed sense of style, self-awareness and sophistication. Williams’ sophisticated side was no more evident than in the period that followed what is now considered to be his magnum opus.

“His talent in music is rare and we must treasure it in our time.” Tan Dun

After Schindler’s List…

With a fifth Oscar on the mantle, worldwide kudos for a beautiful new work, not to mention the success of a certain dinosaur blockbuster, Williams was at a precipice of sorts in 1994. Akin to his post-E.T. period, the composer saw fit to take a break from the scoring stage, partly to focus on writing his Cello concerto, but also perhaps to take stock and soak up the successes of the early-1990s. Aside from Schindler’s List, Williams had delivered two Home Alone scores, two further Spielberg spectacles, Ron Howard’s Far And Away and of course more ‘serious’ scores in the shape of Presumed Innocent, Stanley & Iris and JFK.

The overtly classical style of Schindler’s List and the success/respect that it brought meant Williams, more than ever, was in demand to score the biggest, most dramatic and intellectually-sound films being produced; so it’s interesting that the composer next chose to score Sidney Pollack’s remake of Sabrina. An intriguing ‘comeback’ indeed, but we can forgive him for wanting to take on a film that was at a completely different pole to the holocaust. Williams dipped his toe back into scoring with that 1995 romantic score and followed it with Nixon, rather less romantic and exhibiting a darker style that would have an impact on a number of scores that followed. The brooding nature of Nixon permeates scores like Sleepers, which came the following year, and later Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Revenge Of The Sith, War Of The Worlds and Munich.

1997 could be considered the real ‘comeback’ year for the composer however; the three years preceding it only witnessed three scores, equal in terms of their low key approach, and more concert music. 1997, however, represents the beginning of the current chapter in his career, full of carefully chosen, high calibre films, broad orchestral strokes and richly sophisticated thematic material. The year saw two films with Spielberg, a darker Jurassic Park sequel and Amistad, plus Rosewood and Seven Years In Tibet. The former saw Williams give a nod to his Reivers days with the application of harmonica, guitar and jaw harp, but grounding them amongst weighty strings and haunting vocals; the latter saw a collaboration with classical soloist Yo-Yo-Ma, for whom Williams had written his 1994 Cello concerto. The use of a star soloist of course comes off the back of his collaboration with Itzhak Perlman for Schindler’s List (although 1972’s Images saw percussion performed by Shomu Yamashta) and would precede projects with the likes of Christopher Parkening (Guitar, Stepmom), Mark O’Connor (Violin, The Patriot), Barbara Bonney (Vocals, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and of course both Perlman and Ma on Memoirs Of A Geisha. So again the ante was upped in this period in terms of Williams’ status and persona, and I think the music reflects this. However, one series of scores spanning the new millennium would reveal more than ever just how much Williams had evolved as a composer.

“It is rare, perhaps unheard of, to find a composer who is as brilliant with the broad strokes as the subtleties.” Lukas Kendall, Film Score Monthly

The return to a galaxy far, far away…

The world held its collective breath in 1999 when Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace was ready for release. Years in the making, this ‘prequel’ would ignite Star Wars fan fever in the young and extinguish it for many, who were disappointed in the resulting film. Beside from a few names and locales, the music was about the only thing that bore any resemblance to Lucas’ original trilogy… or did it? Williams’ score actually exhibited something a different sound for the saga; the tightly crafted music fits the opulent and sophisticated pre-Episode IV world on display, not to mention the new characters. There is also perhaps more ethnicity in the music; it’s notable that Williams himself once put the impact of his original 1977 score down to its overtly earthly familiarity, against the otherworldliness of the film itself. The 1999 score is much broader orchestrally, less simplistic maybe, and while it’s still the London Symphony Orchestra playing the notes, the denser orchestrations and choral sections make for a very different experience. Saying that it’s still very John Williams and the double album released in 2000 reveals a little more of the ‘old’ Williams in some of the cues that didn’t make it to the first pressing. The brass is always an area where you can say ‘that’s more like it’ and I think that’s an important point; Williams may have dialled down those trademark brass flurries in recent years and that’s a film-specific/orchestrational choice of course, but when it is used it raises hairs – as in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. The Williams brass sound is legendary and was a staple in those heady days of the 1970s and 1980s. As an aside The Towering Inferno is a notable starting off point with regards to that sound and it’s also worth noting that Herbert Spencer was Williams’ main orchestrator from that score onwards (though they worked together on A Guide For The Married Man), overseeing every score up to and including Home Alone in 1990, prior to his death in 1992.

As the Star Wars saga darkened in Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, so did Williams’ approach to the music. Clones is perhaps the most familiar sounding of all three prequel scores; again the brass writing and action cues (‘Chase Through Coruscant’, for example) have something to do with this, as well as the somewhat weightier use of pre-existing themes. ‘Across the Stars’, the only noteworthy addition to the thematic canon, is as lush a Williams love theme as you can hope for, though again more ‘mature’ than say ‘Han Solo and the Princess’ from 1980 – for all the reasons covered previously.

With Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, the darkness turned pitch black (informing his following score for War Of The Worlds some might say) and this time Williams delivered a very emotionally charged piece, to match Lucas’ tragic third chapter. Sith is without doubt the most adult of the Star Wars scores; its emotional impact achieved with weighty choral writing and heavy strings and borrowing, as I said, something of Nixon’s temperament. While it is an astonishing piece of work, it is perhaps the least Star Wars of the lot musically. When Williams eventually brings in ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ and ‘The Throne Room’ from his first 1977 score you almost feel you’ve been watching a different movie, those themes being so connected to the more exuberant and upbeat original film we all know and love.

“John Williams, besides being the most seminal film composer working today, is an almost solitary beacon of musical integrity in film music.” Don Davis

Williams isn’t one to fence himself in then, or adhere to a preconceived style. His longevity owes as much to his originality as it does to his ability to approach each project with an open mind; the film absolutely informs the choices he makes for the music. He’s famously sketchy when it comes to discussing old scores, he tends not to look over his shoulder, and that is evident in the breadth of new material he is able to write. I can think of very few instances where he has re-used a melodic line or motif (except in a sequel or homage); and while some colours remain the same over time and stylistic dots are joined across scores, Williams remains just about the most original and talented film composer working today. His command of the symphonic idiom, continued study of music in all its forms – not to mention a fastidious work regime – have undoubtedly contributed to his growth as a composer and his resulting music. That is why the John Williams of 2012 is a very different musical animal to the Williams of 1977 and before.

What next?

This is an artist who has inspired, excited and moved millions for over five decades and even after forty-five Academy Award nominations, five Oscar wins, twenty Grammys, four Golden Globes, two Emmys and seven BAFTAs, the eighty year-old isn’t resting on his laurels. Williams continues to challenge himself, exploring all aspects of his musical personality and adding to his already immense knowledge to create the most perfect film score. Even in the twilight years of a prestigious career Williams embraces the sorts of movies that made his name in the 1970s and 1980s. The Harry Potter franchise was of course a massive success and once again the composer created thrilling, fantastical music across three spellbinding films. In 2011 Spielberg’s Tintin and War Horse saw him deliver two scores that, despite their differences, work together to galvanise the composer’s status in Hollywood film music and again show why the director recently hailed him as ‘the most important collaborator I’ve ever had in my career’. Tintin has glimpses of the energetic wit and non-stop action you’d have expected from a younger Williams, while War Horse continues the tradition of the keenly applied, emotionally dramatic writing we’ve come to expect. This year Williams takes on Spielberg’s long-awaited Lincoln and with concert appearances and commissions for US orchestras and soloists continuing to take up his time, and while he has the luxury of picking and choosing what film projects to take on, it’s safe to say there are more gems to come. His development as a composer continues even today, so what will he come up with for those films yet to be heard? One thing’s for sure, there’s no second-guessing John Williams.

Happy Birthday Mr Williams…

I contacted a veritable who’s who of film composers and industry figures about the composer in the lead up to his 75th birthday. They gladly offered their birthday wishes, selected favourite scores and a few thoughts on his contribution to the art of film and film music. I’m thrilled to be able to finally share these now.

“I’ve often had the thought that you almost need to be a composer to understand how truly brilliant John Williams is. A Swiss watchmaker’s craft, with the soul of a poet; unprecedented virtuosity and technique, with the unfailing ability to touch the human heart. It’s an impossible task to choose a favourite score from such a wealth of decades of brilliance. But if I must, I guess it would be The Terminal featuring the late clarinettist Emily Bernstein.

Thank you for setting the bar so unreachably high and happy birthday Mr. Williams!”  Joel McNeely

“John Williams is a giant in the film music world. My favourite scores of his are E.T. for its sophistication and glorious melody, Schindler’s List for its beauty and compassion, and Harry Potter for the main theme’s aptness and orchestration. He is endlessly inventive and his musical intelligence is matched by no one, in my opinion.” Rachel Portman

“I recall seeing John conduct the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher in New York a few months ago. It was a programme beginning with Bernard Herrmann excerpts narrated by Martin Scorsese and then a complete Williams second half narrated by Steven Spielberg. I marvelled at the work of John in this concert. The playing of the Herrmann was loving and precise. The piece from Taxi Driver a standout. His command and control of the intimate colours of the orchestra is wonderful. His work in the second half from Raiders, E.T. and Jaws to Star Wars and Schindler’s List pure joy. To hear the work of these two masters together in one evening was extraordinary. Thank you John for all that you have given us so far. Please keep up your brilliant work and many happy Birthday Wishes.” Howard Shore

“Some of my earliest memories of going to the cinema are of hearing the music of John Williams. I can remember coming home from Star Wars and picking out some of the themes on the piano and then bugging my parents to buy the record. When, after much pressure, they finally did, I’m ashamed to say it was with some disappointment that I told my parents that the Geoff Love version they had bought me ‘wasn’t quite right!’ As a child I naively set about trying to work out why this disco arrangement didn’t sound like the original, and what made the original so exciting for me. As it happens, I’m still working this out today. As they say, the devil’s in the detail, and there’s a hell of a lot of that in John Williams’ music. Apart from his incredible gift for melody and characterisation, and his unfailing harmonic invention and wit, what stands out for me is the level of detail in all his scores. The orchestral patina is always implied within his melody and harmony in a way that only a true master of symphonic scoring may achieve.

For me, his greatest single score would probably have to be E.T. which has one particularly outstanding achievement for a film about an alien – its humanity. The relationship between E.T. and Elliot is so touchingly portrayed in the intimate scenes between these two , which are sometimes overlooked. His achievements are really too many to mention. Happy Birthday, John Williams.” Alex Heffes

“I only worked for John two or three times. He was always very professional and considerate and never left town without calling to say ‘Thank you’. He is in fact a thorough gentleman. John’s score for Schindler’s List was very poignant and I think my favourite.” Vic Fraser, Music Copyist/Arranger

“John Williams is probably the greatest film composer alive on the planet today, and his work certainly classifies him as one of our indelible masters. Like everyone else, I have been a fan of his work for decades. The best thing I like about John’s writing is that he is a great tunesmith with wonderful melodies that are always surrounded by sophisticated colours and shapes, only to enhance their beauty.” Aaron Zigman

“I have long believed that the nicest guys in this business are also the best at what they do: guys like Silvestri, Debney, Frizzell, Elfman and Bartek have always been over-kind to me? But John Williams redefined humility for me – and it was a quick lesson in learning if you want to harness that kind of magic from orchestras the world over, all you have to be is that sweet and humble, and the genius musician part doesn’t hurt either. Happy Birthday John!” Damon Intrabartolo, Conductor

“I will be true to my younger self and say that The Empire Strikes Back is my favourite John Williams score. Of all his ‘blockbuster’ scores from the glory period of 1975-1983, this one had (along with the movie) the most depth, darkness and passion along with its brilliant fantasy-film storytelling. Williams’ ability to draw upon a vast, sophisticated arsenal of musical history and use it to connect with a global audience is a testament to his talent and work ethic. To this day, ‘The Imperial March’ is recognised by the public as quickly as any ageless folk song or rock hit (it is played at sporting events usually when the home team is stomping on the opponents). To come up with a melody that perfect, yet so simple, is a near-impossible feat. It is rare, perhaps unheard of, to find a composer who is as brilliant with the broad strokes as the subtleties — with the purely filmic storytelling as the adherence to musical structure — and Williams is rightfully lauded as the best.”
Lukas Kendall, Film Score Monthly

“John Williams’ musical contributions to film scoring are vast and beautiful. His timeless melodies bridge the ages as well as physical age. My and my daughter’s favourite score is Saving Private Ryan. My daughter is 3 ½ and listens to that score every day. It’s wonderful that John Williams affords this wonderful opportunity to bond in such an intelligent and musical manner.” Starr Parodi, Composer/Pianist

“John Williams’ talent in writing memorable themes is his greatest gift. The fact that so many of his scores are memorable in their own right is a great tribute to the man. From giant cascading tunes, to the simplest of themes, there’s always an elegance and melodic interest which haunts you – often long after you’ve seen the movie.

Favourite score: Schindler’s List – immediately haunting and memorable, with an understated beauty and simplicity. Debbie Wiseman

“John Williams, besides being the most seminal film composer working today, is an almost solitary beacon of musical integrity in film music. As each new score brings new surprises, I was particularly delighted with his work on the Steven Spielberg film Munich – beautiful melody with an astonishment of dissonance – absolutely brilliant. Don Davis

“I have never been more nervous about working for a composer than I was on the first score I booked for John. It was a perpendicular learning curve for me and pretty scary altogether. However, when I worked for him the next time on Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban I was completely in tune with how he worked and what he needed. The Double Decker Bus cue (‘The Knight Bus’) was the most bizarre instrumentation I have ever booked and the result was absolutely mind blowing. It all seems so effortless with him – a mixture of genius and preparation. Yes, I can safely say that was my favourite score for many reasons. Working with him lifts everybody’s game and his music leaves its mark on everyone in the room.” Isobel Griffiths, Orchestra Contractor

“While most fans seem to leap at his space fantasies and super heroics, my own favourites lean towards the emotional and dramatic stuff, what we might call the ‘more serious’ fare. Topping my list of favourites: Empire Of The Sun; it was my favourite when it first appeared in 1987 and remains so twenty years later. Following closely behind is JFK, especially that main theme for solo trumpet. I’d put Nixon pretty high on my list and I have a soft spot for the theme from Munich. I just might consider Schindler’s List his crowning achievement but at times I put Saving Private Ryan in this position. Anyway, you get the idea.

His heroic music is certainly tops, too. I’d choose Superman probably as my favourite here, but again largely because it gets into that emotional Americana territory, such as when Clark Kent leaves Kansas. As for pure action, I find I play War Of The Worlds a lot and may just consider that his most aggressive triumph.

Unquestionably, no composer working in film has left such an incredible thumbprint. In all manner of projects, be they exciting, fun-filled, scary, emotional, intense, melodic, or just plain gentle, John Williams has excelled. When it comes to music making, he’s opened the book, written it, signed the last chapter and closed it up again. Many a fine composer will have chances to read the book and study from it but none will ever write one of their own with the finesse and pure musical joy that John Williams has authored.

Currently my own contributions to Williams’ recorded output have merely been producing the masterful music he did for Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series. But what impressive music it is to work with! I truly believe there is nothing musically-lasting this artist cannot, indeed, has not accomplished. Long after we’re gone, the kids of my kids will be listening to what Williams has composed. And it will continue from there. That, my friends, is what great music is all about.” Douglass Fake, Intrada Records

“My favourite John Williams score would have to be Catch Me If You Can because it is so sophisticated and original and plays as brilliantly outside of the film as in it. His impressionistic use of the modern jazz vocabulary is astounding and truly inspiring. The word ‘master’ is thrown around a lot, but in the case of John, it truly does apply. He is in a class by himself. His sense of melody is brilliant. John works within the traditional aspects of the film music genre, yet always makes it sound completely new and fresh, and it never fails to be the ideal choice for the picture he’s scoring.” Mark Isham

“My favourite movie soundtracks of John’s are Schindler’s List and Star Wars. John’s music is very passionate when capturing a story acoustically and it (vividly?) emulates (imitates?) the invisible activity of the psyche and spirit. It also is exceptionally unique, being so perfectly structured and orchestrated. His music is truthful and original. It is well crafted and effectively acts as a counterpoint to the picture and dialogue. His talent in music is rare and we must treasure it in our time. It must stand-alone as a new kind of art that connects the picture, colour, action, psyche and spirit. He is a role model in this art form. Most of all, to me, John is a warm, loving and wonderful man. I admire and love him as a person as well as an artist.” Tan Dun

“John Williams has had more influence than any other living person not just on film scoring but the entire art of cinema. His work is the gold standard against which our craft will be measured for the next hundred years.

I have many favourite Williams scores, but if pressed I would say E.T. Partly for geeky technical musical reasons that you don’t want to hear about involving bitonalism and motivic development (I told you), but mostly because it is such a perfect complement to the story. Happy Birthday John.” Michael A. Levine

“To try and sum up in words all that John Williams means to me is simply impossible. John is the number one reason why I decided to pursue a career as a composer for film. Hearing the opening strains of Star Wars in 1977, I was immediately catapulted to worlds only dreamed of. John’s music simply stated is sublime perfection.

Hearing John’s work moves me, challenges me, inspires me and humbles me. So lucky are we to have John Williams in our lifetime, for his talent is truly once in a generation and we are so very blessed to witness his genius.

Perhaps if God were to choose one composer of this age to best represent celestial perfection, he would choose John Williams. For such is John’s mastery, such is John’s utter excellence.” John Debney

“Genius! For every composer of film music, John Williams is an icon. His approach has inspired and informed us all. His themes, orchestrations and sensitivities in every cue speak to his creativity and musicality. His lasting contributions have to include the tremendous bar he has set for us all. A ‘favourite’ is hard for me to identify, but Empire Of The Sun was a score that truly opened my ears to the immense vocabulary available to film composers.” Jay Weigel

“John Williams is the master – he stands head and shoulders above the rest.

When the history of 20th (and 21st) century music is finally written, his best work will be celebrated alongside that of the masters of the first half of the century – Richard Strauss, Bartok and Stravinsky.

In an age when so many scores are dreary dirges that rarely rise above the level of sound effects, his scores keep alive the magical instrumental colours that can be painted with the symphony orchestra.”Anne Dudley

“Over the years John Williams has proved to be the one composer who could bridge the supposed gap between the very insular world of media scoring and the mass entertainment field that subsequent compact discs of such works brings and of course the concert hall exposure that finally follows. He has done this by writing a whole plethora of haunting and melodic themes for almost every genre, any one of which any other composer would be proud to put their name to. (Surely far too many great themes for one mere mortal?) More significantly he has done this while remaining totally true to his personal stylistic ideals of romanticism and at the same time also exploring boundaries of modernism. A style which is truly ‘Popular’.

Of all his marvellous scores the one I return to time after time is the music for the 1970 TV movie of Jane Eyre starring George C. Scott and Susannah York. This is John Williams in full, nostalgic, romantic and dramatic vein, with the string writing (in the English traditional of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten) being in particular of the very highest calibre.” James Fitzpatrick, Tadlow Music

“John Williams’ Schindler’s List is a great representation of what a film composer can do for a film. This score takes all of us to a place we may not want to visit, but we can’t help going there because the music along with visual make for a perfect marriage of sight and sound. John Williams is a master at choosing a tonal palette that can mirror the visual limitations that comprise the context in which a story is told. I love this score because he also had the courage to write it for one of our premier violinists Itzak Perlman, whose performance brought to bear the pain and heartache of those who suffered. Everyone talks about his orchestrations, that of course has always been the standard to attain, but for me it is the willingness to try new things that makes him stand above the rest. Never becoming comfortable, but always learning and pushing ahead. He is the standard that I shoot for in my life as a film composer and performer. Terence Blanchard

“Although I would have heard Williams’ music prior to 1977, it was only then that I suddenly became acutely aware of it courtesy of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. I was eleven years old and will never forget the shock of hearing ‘Alien music’! It was clever, funny, big and it blew me away. For weeks, I had the five-note theme stuck in my head – those five notes simply refused to go away!

I think we have all been blessed that John happened: the world would be a lot, lot poorer without his beautiful, emotional, sensitive, energetic, clear and witty musical thinking. For me, John Williams represents the best example of what having ‘musical ideas’ really means. His ideas are simply so memorable, clear and direct and once you have heard them they stay with you forever. I hope he will never stop writing, ever!” Dario Marianelli

“There is a great tradition of holding special celebrations and tributes to mark the birthdays (sic) of major artists. For John Williams, this must be both a very proud time as well as a particularly happy occasion. There is, unquestionably, so much to look back on – a triumphant life and career in music that has long since exceeded any level of success he ever could have imagined for himself – but still, even with so much incredible music behind him, it is perhaps most exciting to see John remaining so active, and focused so intently, on the future. What could be more exciting than to have a master composer of John’s stature hold out the likelihood that some of his best work still lies ahead?

But the greatest gift John has imparted upon so many may well be the way he has acted as a sort of ambassador to the world of symphonic music. His scores, aided by the films in which they have been featured, have served as an introduction, an entryway, if you will, for countless individuals to discover the wonders of a symphony orchestra. It is incalculable how many people can trace their own interest in film music back to the scores for Star Wars or Superman or Harry Potter, to name just three. John Williams has been reaching and connecting to new generations for almost fifty years now, providing the spark that may ultimately encourage further explorations into the composers of film music’s golden age, or into the world of the classical masters. The story and path is different for everyone, but many of us share a common beginning. In this light, it would not be an overstatement to claim that John Williams’ most valuable contribution has been to open people’s eyes and ears to not just his own music but to an entire world of exciting orchestral composition. Speaking personally, I can, without hesitation, trace my own passion for music back to some of these very scores… John Williams’ Star Wars and Superman, Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek and Alien. And that was indeed just the beginning.

In selecting a favourite John Williams score there are many candidates that come to mind: Hook, Jane Eyre, The Fury, Close Encounters, The Empire Strikes Back, and so many favourite cues. ‘In Search of Unicorns’ (Images), ‘The Reunion’ (A.I.), ‘Cadillac of the Skies’ (Empire of the Sun), ‘Desert Chase’ (Raiders), the list is a long one! But I think the one score that emerges from the pack for me is Superman: The Movie. If ever there was a single score that captured the widest variety of what I love about John Williams’ music it would have to be this one. The ‘Main Title’ may well be his most rousing march among some particularly stiff competition. His fanfare for ‘The Planet Krypton’ is stirring and awe-inspiriting. The music for Kansas, ‘The Death of Jonathan Kent’ and ‘Leaving Home’, are quintessential Williams Americana and some of the loveliest music he has ever written. ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ is utter magic, probably one of his finest cues ever. John’s music for ‘The Flying Sequence’ truly did convince us that a man could fly. And to cap it all off, the ‘Love Theme’, in its full statement that closes the ‘End Title’, may be John’s most rapturously beautiful creation. When I was lucky enough to produce a new recording of the Superman score (with the maestro’s blessing) with John Debney and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, it was a wondrous return to my childhood. To hear all of this music being performed, live, much of it for the first time since the London Symphony Orchestra last put their bows to the cues in 1978, was something I will never forget. And what I remember most is the feeling of absolute joy that the music inspired in me. It is the spirit of this music that, for me, truly epitomises John Williams.

Along with so many others, I owe John such a debt of gratitude and I am thrilled to be able to take this opportunity to say, thank you and happy birthday.”  Robert Townson, Varèse Sarabande Records


*This article was originally written in 2007 for Music from the Movies magazine to mark John Williams 75th Birthday, but was unpublished. This updated edited version was used to accompany the above CD boxed set release.

© Michael Beek 2007/2012