Celebrating The Legendary Career of American Composer John Williams
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Today marks the informal celebration of Star Wars Day. Its observance has spread quickly through media and fan celebrations since the franchise began back in the 1970s. Interestingly, it probably started as a joke. In honor of Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, the conservative political party printed a congratulatory newspaper ad: "May The Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations." Movie fans picked up the phrase as it was reminiscent of the famous lines from the films “May the force be with you” and coined a Star Wars themed holiday.
The musical score for the Star Wars’ films by American composer, John Williams, is immediately recognizable. With the first few notes of the fanfare, most moviegoers known that they are about to be taken to "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Let’s celebrate this informal holiday by learning more about the life and music of its composer, the living legend John Williams.
John Towner Williams (b. Feb, 8 1832) is an American composer, conductor, pianist, and trombonist. In his career which has spanned an amazing seven decades, he has composed some of the most memorable works of film music of all time. He has scored over 100 films, the music for several Olympics, and composed concert works.
John was born in the Flushing section of Queens, New York. His father was a percussionist, and Williams started taking piano lessons at a young age. He also studied clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. He began composing and arranging as a teen. In 1948, the Williams family moved to Los Angeles, CA. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles for a short time before being drafted into the U.S. Air Force in 1951. While in the Air Force, Williams composed his first film score. It was for a promotional film for the tourist information office of the Canadian province of Newfoundland entitled “You Are Welcome.”
Watch “You Are Welcome”
During his time in the Air Force, Williams served as a member of the U.S. Air Force Band. He played the piano and brass instruments, as well as conducted and arranged music. During this time, he also studied music at the University of Arizona. In 1954, after the Air Force, he moved to New York and worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and on recordings and attended the Juilliard School. At Juilliard he studied piano with renowned teacher Rosina Lhévinne (b. Rosina Bessie; March 29, 1880 – Nov. 9, 1976).
Later in the 1950s, he returned to Los Angeles and began working as a session musician for film composers, including the legendary Henry Mancini (b. Enrico Nicola Mancini; April 16, 1924 – June 14, 1994), Jerrald “Jerry” King Goldsmith (February 10, 1929 – July 21, 2004), and Elmer Bernstein (April 4, 1922 – August 18, 2004). Williams performed the piano on Mancini’s Theme for Peter Gunn.” During the early 1960s, he began to compose music for television, including Gilligan's Island and Lost in Space, as well as films.
Listen to “Peter Gunn Theme” by Henry Mancini, John Williams, piano
Early in his career Williams stood out in Hollywood because he had the talent and skill to compose in various styles as whichever style suited the project at hand. From his combination of classical music education and time refining his “jazz chops” in New York, he was able to excel at both orchestral music and jazz-inspired scores. Williams received his first Academy Award nomination for 1967's Valley of the Dolls. In 1971, he won his first Academy Award for 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof, where he created the score by arranging and adapting the music from musical by American composer Jerrold Lewis "Jerry" Bock (Nov. 23, 1928 – Nov. 3, 2010).
Listen to “Fiddler On the Roof - Main Title (Cadenza for Strings)”
Williams may be best known for his work with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has described Williams as a musical “chameleon” who “reinvents himself with every picture.” He requested that Williams score his first film, The Sugarland Express, as he was so impressed with Williams’ Americana-style score for the 1969 film, “The Reivers.”
Listen to “The Reivers – Main Title”
Since then Williams has composed music for nearly all of Spielberg’s films, including Jaws, E.T, and Empire of the Sun. In fact, Spielberg has such a high opinion of Williams work that he has said, “Without question, John Williams has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker." Spielberg recommended Williams to his friend, George Lucas for the music in the Star Wars films. Interestingly, Williams originally thought that the audience for Star Wars would be kids, so he composed music that was easily accessible and clear in its emotional impact.
Williams continues to reach back into his musical toolkit and compose in a range of styles. His is early training as a brass player and clarinetist as well as jazz musician are evident in his scores. Notice the role that brass fanfares play in his music for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. His orchestral compositions tend towards neoromanticism and use the harmonic language of Romantic composers such as Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 – Feb. 13 1883), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840 – Nov. 6, 1893), Gustav Theodore Holst (Sept. 21, 1874 – May 25, 1934). Additionally, he often uses the romantic technique of leitmotif. A leitmotif a short, recurring musical phrase that is associated with a particular character, place, or idea in a larger piece of music.
Listen and follow the score “Star Wars Suite:”
Williams also composed music for Lucas’ Indiana Jones films.
Listen and follow the score for “Indiana Jones Raider's March:”
Hear the midcentury jazz influences in his theme for Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.” Also notice the “Mancini-like” mood the theme creates.
Listen to the “Theme from Catch Me If You Can:”
He has also composed music that is powerful in its simplicity and emotional impact. This is especially evident in his “Theme for Schindler’s List” in which a simple melody in a solo violin seems to cry over the orchestra.
Listen to the “Three Pieces from Schindler’s List:”
Other than composing for the screen, Williams has composed numerous concert works, including two symphonies as well as concertos for flute, violin, clarinet, viola, oboe and tuba. His cello concerto was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma at the Tanglewood music festival in 1994. He has also composed for voice; his seven-piece song cycle for soprano and orchestra, Seven for Luck, premiered at Tanglewood in 1998. Its was based on texts by the former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Frances Dove (b. Aug. 28, 1952) At the opening concert of their 2009–2010 season, the Boston Symphony premiered Williams’ On Willows and Birches, a concerto for harp and orchestra.
Listen to the “On Willows and Birches:”
In Jan. 1980, Williams was named nineteenth music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler (Dec. 17, 1894 – July 10, 1979. Williams retired from the Boston Pop after fourteen seasons in Dec. 1993, but he still currently holds the title of Boston Pops Laureate Conductor. Also, he holds the title of Artist-in-Residence at Tanglewood.
Williams has earned many honors over his seven decade career. He has received more than 20 honorary degrees. He has also received more than 50 Academy Award nominations and won five, more than 60 Grammy Award nominations and won 21, and more than 20 Golden Globe nominations and won four. He has also been nominated for six Emmy wards and won three. Other honors include: an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, being named a American Academy of Arts & Sciences Fellow in 2009, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2004, a National Medal of Arts in 2009, and an Olympic Order in 2003. Williams credits his career to his consistent practice saying,
“I developed from very early on a habit of writing something every day, good or bad. There are good days, and there are less good days, but I do a certain amount of pages it seems to me before I can feel like the day has been completely served.”
John Williams is probably the highest regarded composer living today. A reputation that he has earned with his well-loved music. His neoromantic compositional style has a familiar quality that appeals to our emotions. His music has an enduring quality and will no doubt be continued to be adored for generations to come.
For Further Information
Ankeny, Jason. “John Williams: Biography & History.” AllMusic. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/john-williams-mn0000232480/biography
Barrett, Heather. “Decades before Star Wars, John Williams Composed His First Score in Newfoundland | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, September 30, 2015. Last modified September 30, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2021. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/star-wars-composer-john-williams-first-score-a-1952-newfoundland-film-1.3241603
Greenberg, Robert. “Music History Monday: John Williams: Robert Greenberg.” Robert Greenberg | Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian. Last modified February 8, 2021. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-john-williams/
“John Williams: Home.” John Williams | Home. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.johnwilliams.org
Keegan, Rebecca. “John Williams and Steven Spielberg Mark 40 Years of Collaboration.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2012. Last modified January 8, 2012. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-xpm-2012-jan-08-la-ca-john-williams-20120108-story.html
Kettler, Sara. “John Williams.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, September 8, 2020. Last modified September 8, 2020. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.biography.com/musician/john-williams
Roberts, Maddy Shaw. “John Williams Confesses His Star Wars Opening Credits Music Was 'Probably a Little Overwritten'.” Classic FM. Classic FM, July 22, 2020. Last modified July 22, 2020. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.classicfm.com/composers/williams/confesses-parts-of-star-wars-score-probably-overwritten/
Rose, Teresa. “What Composer John Williams Can Teach Us About Consistent Practice.” Music Reading Savant. Last modified June 27, 2014. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.musicreadingsavant.com/what-composer-john-williams-can-teach-us-about-consistent-practice/
Wainfur, Rob. Happy 85th Birthday John Williams. Here's 85 Photos Of Our Favourite Composer. Last modified February 8, 2017. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.thebeardedtrio.com/2017/02/happy-85th-birthday-john-williams-heres_8.html
Weinberg, Rob. “John Williams: Compositions, Movies, Age and Awards Revealed.” Classic FM. Last modified October 22, 2018. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.classicfm.com/composers/williams/guides/facts-williams/
Whalen, Andrew. “#StarWarsDay 2019: How Margaret Thatcher Launched ‘May the Fourth Be with You.’” Newsweek. Newsweek, May 3, 2019. Last modified May 3, 2019. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.newsweek.com/star-wars-day-2019-may-fourth-be-you-margaret-thatcher-history-explained-1414528
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.