HISTORY & SURVEY OF FILM MUSIC

John Williams

(b. 1932)

1975      Jaws

1977      Star Wars: A New Hope

1977      Close Encounters of the Third Kind

1978      Superman

1980      Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

1981      Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982      E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

1983      Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi

1984      Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

1989      Born on the Fourth of July

1991      Hook

1991      JFK

1992      Far and Away

1993      Jurassic Park

1993      Schindler’s List

1998      Saving Private Ryan

2001      A.I. Artificial Intelligence

2002     Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

2002      Catch Me if You Can

2011      War Horse

2015    Star Wars - The Force Awakens

No composer in the past 30 years has achieved the fame and stature of John Williams. From the relative obscurity of studio pianist and TV musician to A-level film composer and world-renowned conductor, he has enjoyed a career unlike any other American composer; his impressive scores and his association with blockbuster films have made movie music more popular than ever. 


Born in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and began working in the motion picture studios during the mid-1950’s, first as a pianist and later as an orchestrator. He found initial success in television (winning Emmys for  Heidi , 1968, and  Jane Eyre , 1970) and gradually moved into music for the big screen. His folk-flavored Americana score for  The Reivers (1969) was the first to attract attention, which grew with his music for such disaster films as  The Towering Inferno and  Earthquake (both 1974).


Williams’s scores for the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas catapulted him to the top of his profession. He won Oscars for Spielberg’s  Jaws (1975),  E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and  Schindler’s List (1993), and one for Lucas’s  Star Wars (1977). The  Star Wars soundtrack made history by becoming the first non-pop album to sell four million records.


When the two filmmakers collaborated on  Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Williams joined them; this triumvirate remained intact for all of the Indiana Jones trilogy. For Lucas, Williams created music of even greater depth and complexity for succeeding films in the  Star Wars  saga. Now the single most sought after composer for films, he has also worked for Richard Donner ( Superman,  1978), Chris Columbus ( Home Alone,  1990), Ron Howard ( Far and Away,  1992) and Oliver Stone (three films including  JFK , 1991). 


Williams succeeded the venerable Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, recording many albums during his 1980-93 tenure and becoming (unlike most of his film-composing colleagues) a familiar public face via the orchestra’s  Evening at Pops series on TV. He now balances movies with a burgeoning career in concert music (with two symphonies, several concertos, and a song cycle to his credit) and continues to be artist-in-residence at Tanglewood.


from John Burlingame, “Sound and Vision” (2000)

Jaws (1975)

“Without that score, to this day I think the film would only have been half as successful,” Steven Spielberg has said of Williams’s contribution to Jaws. Hollywood was aware of the composer before this 1975 thriller, but it was his now-legendary shark motif (that repeated two-note signature for celli and basses signaling the underwater predator’s presence) that won him an Oscar and his first Grammy. The score is much more than that, however: fugues and sea chanteys and inventive writing appear throughout.


(Burlingame, “Sound and Vision”)

Jaws (1975) - “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”

The Star Wars Saga

Not only did the commercial success of George Lucas’s 1977 space opera change the way Hollywood made movies (with every film now seeking $100-million blockbuster status), Williams’s enormously popular music single-handedly brought about the rebirth of the symphonic film score. His swashbuckling style reminiscent of earlier composers from Holst to Korngold, multi-thematic approach, and meticulously scored space battles made an entire generation sit down and listen to orchestral music for the first time. It won an Oscar and three Grammys.


(Burlingame, “Sound and Vision”)

Making of the Empire Strikes Back score (1980)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

After the summer 1977 release of  “Star Wars: A New Hope”, another space blockbuster film arrived, this time from Steven Spielberg. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” dealt with alien abduction. Despite some tense and frightening scenes, the film had a happy ending.

John William’s score crossed over into the content of the film, as music became the common language between aliens and humans. The famous 5 note sequence (D-E-C-C-G) is infused throughout the movie, as score, source music, and communication. 1977 was the year that catapulted John Williams as a household name.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Williams’s score for Steven Spielberg’s touching 1982 masterpiece about a little boy and an alien visitor won him another Oscar for Best Score. The famous last scene was cut to fit John Williams music- a highly unusual method in the making of a feature film.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

This Spielberg-Williams collaboration shows a different side of both film-maker and composer. The lean, script-driven film if matched with a light jazz-flavored soundtrack scored for a small chamber ensemble.

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

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