The symphonist of film

John Williams conducts John Williams

(Photo: Jamie Trueblood)

The history of film music would not be the same without him: John Williams. Cinema classics such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter are inextricably linked with his legendary soundtracks. There are unforgettable, radiant themes, an impressive variety of moods and effects, and at the same time the composer’s ever distinctive signature. With his full symphonic sound, John Williams creates a bridge between late Romantic music and the present. He now makes his conducting debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The programme includes some of his most famous scores – and of film music in general.

Imagine if the humming of the lightsabers had been accompanied by contemporary music, or if an electric guitar, maybe synthesizer sounds, had been used to create futuristic and alien-looking sounds. Star Wars would then probably have turned out to be an average science fiction series that would be laughed at today as a product of its time. But Star Wars is a cult epic whose adoration has almost religious overtones. And it is largely thanks to John Williams that this happened. Him and the fact that he and director George Lucas decided on a non-contemporary score.

When the first Star Wars film was made, Hollywood music in the style of Max Steiner or Erich Wolfgang Korngold had long been out of fashion in the cinema. But John Williams dared to rebel. For Star Wars, he drew on the orchestration, style and leitmotif technique of Richard Wagner, the late Romantic who set the standard for multi-part heroic epics. And so the intergalactic coming-of-age story became a space opera, a universally timeless heroic myth.

John Williams dared to rebel when he drew on Richard Wagner’s style and leitmotif technique for the music to Star Wars.

The parallels between Williams and Wagner are hard to ignore. The famous Star Wars main theme, for example, stylistically combines Siegfried’s horn call from the Ring of the Nibelung with a march rhythm from military music. Williams was well acquainted with this: he spent his military service as a conductor and arranger in the music corps of the US Air Force. The main theme is also Luke Skywalker’s motif; the characteristic interval, a heroic rising fifth, is the same as in Siegfried’s horn call. Williams varies and overlays this and many other leitmotifs again and again – such as the furiously stomping theme of the antagonist Darth Vader or the love theme of Han and Leia. In this way, the music not only underpins the film’s plot, but also actively narrates its subtext, in the tradition of Wagner. Williams does the same in Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Superman.

Williams once said that he considered himself very lucky to be able to compose for film. Because without film, there would be no more reason to write this kind of music. Nevertheless, one would not be doing John Williams justice if one called him a pure neo-Romantic. Rather, he is a mediator between tradition and modernity, adept at using 20th century techniques and also capable of breaking the boundaries of tonality. His music for the psychological thriller Images (1972) is reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky or György Ligeti. Williams has also gained extensive experience as a conductor of symphony orchestras, for example as chief conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 to 1993.

Not only a neo-Romantic, but a mediator between tradition and modernity

Virtuosic experimentation on the one hand and the celebration of symphonic tradition on the other distinguishes John Williams from many of his colleagues. And it is undoubtedly due to the complexity of his compositions, which go far beyond mere underscoring, that they are so appealing for performance in the concert hall, with or without a screen.

The trajectory to this unique Williams sound was that of a hard worker at the piano and at the desk: piano lessons since childhood, first composition experience with the school band, conducting with the Air Force Music Corps, jobs as a jazz pianist and studies with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. At the age of 24, John Williams, who still called himself Johnny at the time, came to film. As a studio pianist at Columbia, and later at 20th Century Fox, he was involved in recordings by the great composers of Hollywood's golden age. He played piano in Elmer Bernstein’s The Glorious Seven, Adolph Deutsch’s Some like it hot, Henry Mancini’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Franz Waxman’s Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man. This was followed by orchestration commissions for Deutsch and Dimitri Tiomkin, but also countless composition commissions, especially for television, where he delivered a good 40 scores a year for films and productions of all kinds. These soundtracks, by the way, were entirely dedicated to popular music and were just as successful as his later symphonic works.

John Williams has been nominated for an Oscar 52 times, more often than any other living person.

In 1962, John Williams was nominated for a Grammy for the first time for his very jazz-infused soundtrack to Checkmate (which already features his typical, heroic use of brass). In 1968, his music for Valley of the Dolls earned him the first of 52 Oscar nominations to date, making him the record holder for the most nominated living person. For his orchestration of the musical Anatevka he won the first of five Oscars in 1972. In 1975, he received his first Academy Award for an original composition, for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Williams created the leitmotif of the shark with only two notes – but they marked his definitive breakthrough and the triumph of a successful duo. Since Sugarland Express (1974), John Williams has written almost all the film scores for Steven Spielberg, for a total of 29 films. Steven Spielberg once said: “The only person I have ever had a perfect, intimate relationship with is John Williams”. It is a bond characterised by both intense artistic debate and great trust. For Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. (1982) and Indiana Jones (1984), Williams and Spielberg sat together at least twice a week, Williams played his ideas on the piano, and they discussed tempi and their suitability to the action. Regarding his famous “Raiders March”, John Williams stated: “It seems so deceptively simple to come up with a piece like this – with a few spot-on notes designed to establish a leitmotif identification with the character of Indiana Jones. But I know I worked on the thing for days and days to find something that sounded right. For me, things that seem very simple at the end are not simple at all. They only sound simple after a long, difficult and labour-intensive process.”

“My music only sounds simple after a long, difficult and labour-intensive process.”

John Williams

Williams sees his music as a servant to the film, for example when in E.T. it spirals to lofty heights together with the protagonist’s bicycle. But Spielberg was also guided by Williams’ music in the collaboration – and, for example, edited the chase sequence in E.T. according to Williams’ composition in such a way that the leitmotifs coincide exactly with the image content whose text and subtext they tell.

Talking about Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg said he felt the music was a protagonist with the same status as the characters themselves. This statement can generally be applied to countless scores by John Williams – as can the following anecdote: Williams ireportedly said to Spielberg while working on Schindler’s List: “You need a better composer than me for this film.” - “I know,” Spielberg replied, “but they’re all dead.”

Antonia Goldhammer

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