February 8, 2022
Today marks the birthday of one of the most well-known film composers of our time, John Williams. Williams early days as a jazz pianist and performer led him to Hollywood where he would record with the likes of Marty Paich, Andre Previn, Stanley Wilson (performing and writing music for M Squad) Henry Mancini (an exquisite performance can be heard on "Dreamsville" from Peter Gunn), and Elmer Bernstein (he is the soloist for that gorgeous theme in To Kill a Mockingbird) among others. Those connections would eventually get him some TV scoring gigs and eventually he would move into feature scoring.
Williams' comedy films in the 1960s (How to Steal a Million, Bachelor Flat, Fitzwilly) owe a great deal to Mancini's style and approach. It was during that decade that he would pen some iconic themes for Irwin Allen's TV Series' Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. While his score for The Reivers (1969) is an excellent exploration of Americana and whimsy and earn him an Oscar nod, I have always felt that his work for 1965's None But the Brave a rather engaging work. It was the former though that would begin to open even more doors for Williams moving forward as it would get the notice of a young director named Steven Spielberg.
In that period towards the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Williams was attached to musical projects, the most known of those being his work on Fiddler On The Roof (which just got another 3-disc special edition release last year from La-La Land Records). His music was also part of one of the most notorious Super Bowl cutaways when the game ran long and NBC cutaway for its presentation of Heidi!
For a while, Williams would become the go-to disaster movie composer with successes for the films The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (both for Irwin Allen). One might also think of Jaws flirting a bit in that genre but even with the surprise success of that film, Williams' other projects were gaining him attention from another Mark Rydell film, The Cowboys (1971) that is a full Copland-esque furtherance of Williams' Americana adaptations into his own work. His avantgarde score for Altman's Images (1972) is the closest to his contemporary concert style that would appear for some time in his film work. And while the adaptation of the popular novel Black Sunday (1976) was perhaps the film that was supposed to get him noticed more (the finale of that film's score has surprising similarities to what Williams would do for Star Wars the next year), it was his work first for Close Encounters of the Third Kind that captured the imagination first (there was even a disco version of the theme as a 45 rpm bonus with the soundtrack release!). After the success of Star Wars, Williams began a stream of amazing scores from 1978's iconic Superman to excellent scores for The Fury and the following year's Dracula. The bomb that was Spielberg's 1941 could have ended the run, but Williams was already working on The Empire Strikes Back which would further raise his profile that really established his work from that moment on. It would lead to his being asked to become the Conductor for the Boston Pops, succeeding the orchestra's long-standing leader Arthur Fiedler, a move that seemed controversial at the time but which inadvertently led to a gradual increase and acceptance of film music in first pops concerts and in the concert hall overall. No one at that time would have thought the orchestra would someday be performing original orchestrations to picture for sold out concerts!
The 1980s would be full of both great hits like the now iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980) and E.T., The Extraterrestrial (1982) and some misfires (Yes, Giorgio!; Heartbeeps). Additional Star Wars and Indiana Jones films would continue to be associated with him well into the next century with each new score building on those of the past. There are some interesting subtle works during this time like The River, the moving Empire of the Sun, or the more sublime The Accidental Tourist, Always, or gentle Stanley and Iris. It was the decade of his first music for the Olympics and he worked on both small concert pieces, such as the gorgeous Hymn to New England, and even works like the Tuba Concerto. As the 1990s began, he would end up writing a comedic score for what seemed to be a little holiday movie, Home Alone. He would return to score the sequel as well creating a couple of Christmas choral pieces that have had some life in the concert hall.
While Hook (1991) proved to be an uneven Spielberg film, Williams still managed to provide one of his finest scores of gorgeous themes and action writing. Besides jumping into another Spielberg franchise with Jurassic Park, he also provided scores for other directors expanding his dramatic score catalog with music for JFK, Far and Away, Nixon, Angela's Ashes, The Patriot and more. This included his moving score for Schindler's List and an equally moving, yet often restrained score for Saving Private Ryan. Along the way he wrote an achingly beautiful set of themes for the underrated remake of Sabrina; another interesting dramatic work for Sleepers; and recalled his days working with Mahalia Jackson to provide Gospel/spiritual-flavored bluesy music for Rosewood. A variety of short works for orchestra, more Olympics pieces and concert work also began to appear more often.
As the new century dawned, Williams was tapped to provide the score for yet another blockbuster franchise for Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. With this work, he now provided the soundtrack for yet another generation of young film goers. Of course, there were also a host of Spielberg films to score during this time, many more on the dramatic side; and the three Star Wars prequels also kept him busy. Memoirs of A Geisha was one of the unique highlights of this period. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma would further record several other concert pieces, including a concerto, of Williams work after this as well.
In the last ten years, his output may seem to have slowed from others in the industry, but he still managed to complete the final Star Wars film scores further building on the early scores and creating a massive 9-film, integrated score for a franchise by a single composer.
While this tribute cannot possibly be exhaustive, I thought it would be nice to honor John Williams today on this, another birthday milestone. His music captured my attention as a youth and inspired me, and no doubt thousands of others, to discover classical and film music and even to learn to play an instrument!
For another wonderful tribute, please also check out Roger Hall's site: A 90th Birthday Tribute to John T. Williams --