Let’s go back to talking about music this week, and we do it in a sumptuous way, an adjective that is well suited to John Williams, today’s protagonist. As a matter of fact, this composer, conductor and pianist, known above all for the magnificent soundtracks of some of the most famous films of all time, turns 90.
John Williams – training
Born in New York on February 8, 1932, John Williams, the son of a CBS radio percussionist, discovered his passion for music very early on. Before he was ten, he was already playing piano, trumpet and trombone! As a teenager, the musician founded his first jazz group and began writing his first personal compositions on the piano. A budding talent, Mozart style!
John Williams lives only for his art and spends his time composing piano pieces. It is also as a pianist that he thinks he is earning a living, imagining that the composition is not profitable.
In 1948, Williams moved with his family to Los Angeles; it is in the city of angels that he improves in music by taking courses at UCLA. The artist is fortunate to be supervised by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian composer who particularly exercises his talent for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer company. Then comes the time for young John’s military service. Instead of the machine gun, he mainly wields the drumstick while working as an arranger for the US Army bands.
At the end of his military service, with his experience and his talent, Williams joins the prestigious and elite Juilliard School of Music in New York. He thus perfected himself alongside his teacher Rosina Lhevinne who encouraged him to concentrate on composition. The young man works in parallel as a jazz pianist to finance his studies.
John Williams’ many talents
After his brilliant studies, John decides to return to Los Angeles where he manages to find a job for Twentieth Century Fox. The composer was then only 24 years old and grows together with renowned musicians from the golden age of Hollywood such as Franz Waxman and Lionel Newman. In this place he finds himself in the heart of the film world and meets many actors, singers, producers, composers. Well surrounded, he starts many collaborations as an arranger. He also meets actress Barbara Ruick, who will become his wife.
One of his first assignments was to provide the instrumental accompaniment to the song by Marilyn Monroe in Someone likes it hot in 1958. He also worked as a pianist for Henry Mancini or Jerry Goldsmith on great 60s classics.
In addition to his career as a composer, he regularly replaced conductor Arthur Fielder, who had fallen ill, to conduct the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1980 he will become its principal conductor and takes the opportunity to diversify his repertoire.
The musician then composed primarily for television in the 1960s before entering New Hollywood and its upheavals of the early 1970s. In fact, at the time, the release of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider marked the end of the omnipotence of Hollywood’s golden age studios and the beginning of a new, more author-centric era. In this way directors such as Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma but above all Steven Spielberg and George Lucas emerge, who will play a leading role in John Williams’ career.
In 1968 John Williams got his first Oscar nomination for Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls. The musician then begins what will be an incredibly prosperous and prolific period.
In 1971, Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof bestows Williams his first Oscar for Best Film Music. The composer then becomes a safe bet in Hollywood. His grandiloquent and operatic style of him draws the attention of directors and it is with this in mind that he composed most of the music for disaster films of the 70s such as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake or The Infernal Tower.
Meeting with Steven Spielberg
Impressed by his work, the very young Steven Spielberg called him to compose the music for his first feature film, Sugarland Express. This feature film marks the beginning of one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of cinema, a collaboration that continues today, more than 40 years later.
We tell you an anecdote about it. In 1975, Steven Spielberg was facing some problems directing Jaws. In fact, since the mechanical shark intended for filming was unusable, the director had to revise his script and find a way to suggest the presence of the shark without physically having it there. This is where John Williams’ role comes in. The musician in fact writes a tense and distressing score that marks the spirits, particularly during the shark attacks, which contributed in large part to the enormous success of the film at the time. Jaws music immediately becomes a great classic and earns its composer the 2nd Oscar and his first Golden Globe.
The two men never split up, and so Spielberg again hires Williams for his next film in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The two men worked closely, with Williams composing the music while Spielberg writing the script. It was during the preparation of this film that the director recommended John to his friend George Lucas, then in full swing of his Star Wars.
The film was therefore a phenomenal success and consecrated Williams among the greatest composers in the world. His symphonic music with epic accents fits perfectly into the world of space opera and goes down in the history of cinema. He is again logically awarded an Oscar and thus raises his third gold statuette in 1978.
John Williams, the king of the box office
Williams then flew from success to success in the 1980s. He once again won the supreme award in 1983 for a new Spielberg masterpiece, ET the Extraterrestrial. He also signs the memorable music of the Superman saga, the melody of which is still in the minds of viewers around the world. The 80s are therefore marked by the music of John Williams with 3 episodes of Star Wars, Superman and another great saga of Spielberg and Lucas, Indiana Jones. John Williams becomes, together with his friends Spielberg and Lucas, the emperor of the box office with this succession of blockbusters.
The composer, however, is sometimes unfaithful to the two directors, offering his services to Oliver Stone (Born July 4th, JFK) or Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent). The 90s were less prolific for the musician but his successes were not lacking.
He again wrote a score that remains in everyone’s memory in 1993 with the gigantic success Jurassic Park, again for Spielberg. The artist also received his fifth statuette for his magnificent music for Schindler’s List in 1994. We also owe him the music for the hits of the diptych Maman j’ai ératé avion in 90 and 92. Late 1990s , John Williams resumes his work for George Lucas by putting to music the new Star Wars trilogy that began in 1999 with The Phantom Menace.
An all-round composer
The 2000s were also synonymous with success for the musician with the composition of a new great saga of worldwide success, Harry Potter. He also remains associated with all of Spielberg’s films (Catch Me if you can, Munich, War of the Worlds, Tintin, Lincoln, etc.).
We want to make a special mention for the soundtrack of Memories of a Geisha in 2005, in which Williams shows all his mastery by entrusting the character of Sayuri with the cello of the talented Yo Yo Ma: a legendary combination.
This exceptional career earned John Williams a record Oscar nomination with a whopping 49 mentions (38 times for best film music, 6 times for best original song and 5 wins). With Spielberg’s various projects for years to come and the new Star Wars saga started by J.J. Abrams, there is no doubt that the name and especially the music of John Williams will resonate in our heads for a long time to come.
In addition to film music, John Williams has tried many musical styles. After writing jazz works in the 1950s, the composer took up more classical music. Since the 1970s he has written many concert pieces. Among his works he mainly prefers the concert genre (for flute and violin, for cello, for clarinet and tuba, for trumpet, for bassoon …).
Blessed with an unlimited musical culture, John Williams particularly introduced the symphony orchestra, drawing inspiration from the greatest classical music composers such as Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky or Wagner. Like the latter, he uses the leitmotif to identify characters and situations. With him, music plays a fundamental role in every production: interacting with the images, it prepares the viewer for every action.
His unique orchestration is capable of creating a favorable atmosphere for each event and taking our breath away.