John Williams

Born 1932

John Williams

Composer • Conductor • Piano


John Williams is one of the most widely recognized and respected composers of the past hundred years, with an incredible catalogue of more than a hundred scores for feature films, as well as several concertos and other large-scale works. His film scores, many of which are among the most popular of all time, have spread his trademark romantic sensibilities and grandiose symphonic style into the living rooms and hearts of hundreds of millions of people.

Williams was born in Queens, New York, into a musical family: his three siblings all took music lessons and his father was a classical percussionist. By the age of eight he had started playing piano, and soon after also began learning trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. In 1948 his family moved to Los Angeles, where Williams studied composition at UCLA. His studies were interrupted in 1951 when he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, and he would arrange and conduct for the Air Force band for the next three years. After being released from his military service Williams returned to New York to study piano at the Juilliard School, and began working as a freelance jazz musician. Recognizing that his true calling lay in Hollywood, Williams returned to the West Coast and began working as a studio pianist, where he played for films includingSome Like it Hot (1959) and West Side Story (1961), and began writing for television.

Although Williams was making steady progress writing for increasingly high-profile films throughout the late 60s and early 70s, his big break would not come until 1974, which marked his first collaboration with director Stephen Spielberg, on the feature filmThe Sugarland Express. The following year they again worked together onJaws, which at the time was the highest-grossing film ever.Jaws cemented the partnership between director and composer – for the rest of their careers Williams would score each of Spielberg’s films, with the exception ofThe Color Purple. These films included many of the classics of sci-fi and action, includingJurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002), which was arranged into a suite in three movements entitled Escapades, and all four of the movies in theIndiana Jones series. He also composed the soundtrack to the 1978 Superman , directed by Richard Donner, starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando.

The second partnership that would come to define his career was with director and producer George Lucas. Williams wrote the music for all six of Lucas’Star Wars films, for which his work is considered groundbreaking. The score of Star Wars, particularly episodes IV, V, and VI is notable for its almost unparalleled use of leitmotifs in film. Not only are specific themes used to introduce characters, a common practice in film music, but they also develop and interact in an overtly Wagnerian fashion over the course of all of each of the episodes. Many of the iconic musical themes from these movies, including “The Imperial March” and “The Force” would become pop culture mainstays, used to represent evil and heroism, respectively, up until the present day.  

Stylistically, Williams is known as much for his romanticism as for his memorable leitmotifs. By the 1970s, the film industry had taken a turn away from symphonic-scale scores to employ smaller ensembles with alternative, often electronic, instrumentations, and also using the popular music and bands of the time. When he burst on the scene, Williams showed that the era of the symphonic score was not even close to dead; it was just entering its renaissance. Williams’ music is heavily indebted to Romantic and 20th century composers, and he has been known to famously, and shamelessly, quote works byMahler, Stravinsky, and Dvorak, to just give a few examples. In this sense he is very traditional compared to many of his contemporaries. Although Williams has been known to incorporate elements of popular and avant-garde music into his works, his strengths lie within the tonal system.

Above: Williams' 80th birthday celebration at Tanglewood: Jessye Norman, John Williams, Steven Spielberg, Yo Yo Ma, Keith Lockhart. Photo by Hilary Scott

Although he is best known for his film scores, John Williams is also a much-revered conductor, and has a large and still growing body of work composed for the concert hall. He began writing concert works in the 60s, with one of his first notable pieces being Essay for strings, written in 1966, the same year he wrote his Symphony. Many of his concert works over the next few decades took the form of concertos, including a cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and theBoston Symphony Orchestra in 1994, conceros for flute (1969) and violin (1976) premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra, and concertos fortuba (1985), clarinet (1993) and trumpet (1996) premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra. Williams has also written fanfares for many occasions, notably the “Liberty Fanfare” for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty, and fanfares for the 1984, 1988, 1996 and 2002 Olympics. As a conductor, Williams has been active for most of his career. In 1980 he was chosen for the prestigious position of conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, which he would hold for 13 years and often use as a platform to popularize pops versions of themes from his own film scores.

Williams holds more Academy Award nominations than any other living person, with an impressive 49, in addition to his 14 honorary degrees from American Universities, over 20 Grammy Awards and a National Medal of Arts. In all of his works from the beginning of his career until well into the 21st century, Williams continues to demonstrate an uncanny sense for melody and orchestration, and a keen eye for maintaining tension and drama. For these reasons he is rightfully ranked among the greatest and most influential of film composers.