The Genius of John Williams, Part One

If you were to try and name America’s greatest composer, you could name some amazing individuals. Leonard Bernstein. Aaron Copland. Charles Ives.

But as great as these composers are, none of them have had the impact on the public at large as an individual who has been actively composing for nearly 50 years and has left an indelible mark on American culture and popular culture on a global scale.

John Williams.

From humble beginnings as jazz pianist, he eventually worked with some of the greatest film composers of the 1950’s–Bernard Hermann, Alfred Newman, and Franz Waxman–and wrote his first film score for a lamentably awful crime film, Daddy-O. (Here’s a sample of one of the songs from the film–understandably, nobody will claim credit today for the songs–but it’s Williams’ name on the credits, so he takes the blame.)

Going on to write for television, he composed the memorable theme songs for The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants and even scored the first episode of Gilligan’s Island.  Eventually segueing into film full time, Williams adapted the music for Fiddler on the Roof and won his first Oscar.  Eventually, he would team up with director Steven Spielberg and begin to leave his indelible mark on the musical landscape, virtually reinventing the modern film score and creating a body of work for the six Star Wars films that totaled more than 14 hours of music.

Unlike many film composers, however, Williams also branched into concert works and actual symphonies, chamber pieces, and more.  As the conductor of the Boston Pops for nearly 20 years, he continued conductor Arthur Fiedler’s mission of bringing classical music to the masses and exposing generations of young people to the brilliance and beauty of the orchestra.  His themes for several different Olympic games as well as his theme for NBC Nightly News continue to leave their mark on the musical landscape.  Composing in nearly every style, for nearly every genre of film, Williams, unlike any American composer before him, has become part of the cultural zeitgeist that will live for as long as anyone hears his now familiar scores.

This appreciation of his genius is my simple attempt to honor a man whose musical work I have long admired–my attempt to highlight and familiarize others with some of the best examples of his work.  Whether in film, television, the concert hall, or the Olympic stadium, Williams is a true master of the symphonic work and leaves behind a rich legacy honoring that genius.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971).  Working with violinist Isaac Stern, his adaptations broadened and added a whole new life to the song score, as evidenced in the opening titles for the film, featured after the famous prologue, “Tradition.”  On his second nomination, Williams won his first Academy Award for this brilliant adaptation.

Jane Eyre (1971).  Before breaking it big into film, Williams returned to his television roots to write the score for an adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Susannah York and George C. Scott.  This score is easily one of his best, highlighting his romantic side–sweeping strings, beautiful piano work, and subtle emotion highlighting the struggles of the two main characters.

[ JOHN WAYNE AND THE COWBOYS POSTER ]

The Cowboys (1972).  One of his first original film scores, this shows that Williams is a master of the western idiom, borrowing from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo (as has every composer of Western film music since), but also imbuing it with an original, robust brassiness.  With only a handful of films in this genre in his oeuvre, it’s a shame he didn’t do more Westerns.  This is a suite of themes from the film.

Jaws (1975).  The film score that made “John Williams” become known outside of Hollywood and his second collaboration with Steven Spielberg.  One of film’s most recognizable musical motifs–the rampaging shark’s rhythmic, swelling two-note figure–won the composer his first scoring Oscar. Williams’ score is one of the key elements of the film’s gut-wrenching success, a shrewdly manipulative orchestral work that in one bar makes you feel the fun of hanging out at the beach, the horrors of being eaten alive the next. There is not a lot of melody here–mostly motifs that evoke emotional responses–but that doesn’t diminish the power of the composer’s use of two simple notes.  Today’s film composers wish they had created something this amazing.  Out of two notes.

Midway (1976).  For his next big film score, Williams went from the motifs of Jaws to the military marches of Midway.  Highlighting the greatest battle in the Pacific during World War II, the film was an all-star event and Wililams music is big enough to match the moment and the film.  It’s interesting to compare his subtle work on Jaws with the militaristic march of Midway, but clearly Williams has a little John Philips Sousa in him as well.  This served as the end title music for the film.

Star Wars (1977).  When a little space adventure that nobody expected to become the biggest film of all time opened in 1977, not only did director George Lucas launch the modern age blockbuster, he also helped bring about the rebirth of the big orchestral film score.  Lucas had originally intended for the movie to be tracked with his favorite symphonic classical pieces, including a few Golden Age film scores, but buddy Steven Spielberg convinced him to hire John Williams for the job.  Williams brilliantly brought back the idea of leitmotif, which was a hallmark of the operas of Richard Wagner and the works of composer Gustav Holst.  Leitmotif gives each character a theme that will be heard throughout their character arc and in Star Wars gave hero Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, and the rest, recognizable, memorable themes that helped shape the emotional response to their adventures.  The most memorable leitmotif in the film is the Skywalker Theme–which most of us know as the music that blasts the theater when the words “Star Wars” appear on screen, appearing in this track as part of the End Titles.  Here, we hear the Trumpet Fanfare which is the theme for “The Force,” Luke’s theme, and Princess Leia’s theme.  Hard to believe it now, but this music changed the face of film scores forever, and was voted the Best Film Score of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005.

This is just the beginning.  Part Two continues looking at the genius of America’s greatest living composer.

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