Before Shark Week, there was Jaws and that music. “F to F sharp. With those two notes, composer John Williams ensured that venturing into water would never feel safe again.”1 Meet John Williams who used a lot of instruments to introduce a mechanical shark and the rest is history.
Rarely have six basses, eight celli, four trombones and a tuba held more power over listeners. Especially in a movie theatre. John Williams’s score for Jaws ranks as some of the most terrifying music ever written for the cinema. The music of Jaws was as responsible as filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s imagery for scaring people out of the water in the summer of 1975. Its sheer intensity and visceral power helped to make the film a global phenomenon; Spielberg compared it to Bernard Herrmann’s equally frightening, indelible music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Williams viewed Spielberg’s thriller about a giant Great White shark terrorising New England beachgoers as a chance for music to make a major contribution. First to come—and the only music that Williams demonstrated for Spielberg prior to the recording sessions—was the shark motif. “I played him the simple little E-F-E-F bass line that we all know on the piano,” and Spielberg laughed at first. But, as Williams explained, “I just began playing around with simple motifs that could be distributed in the orchestra, and settled on what I thought was the most powerful thing, which is to say the simplest. Like most ideas, they’re often the most compelling.” According to Williams, Spielberg’s response was: “Let’s try it.” Jaws not only became the highest-grossing film of its time; it propelled John Williams into the front rank of modern film composers. He won his second Academy Award for the score as well as a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and BAFTA’s Anthony Asquith Award for film music. As Spielberg later put it: “I think the score was clearly responsible for half of the success of that movie.”2
(By permission: Limelight Arts Media Pty Ltd (c))
In a career that spans five decades, John Williams has become one of America’s most accomplished and successful composers for film and for the concert stage. Williams has composed the music and served as music director for more than one hundred films. His 40-year artistic partnership with director Steven Spielberg has resulted in many of Hollywood’s most acclaimed and successful films, including Schindler’s List, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, four Indiana Jones films, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Munich, Hook, Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Empire of the Sun, The Adventures of Tintin, and War Horse. Williams has composed the scores for all of George Lucas’ Star Wars films, the first three Harry Potter films, Superman: The Movie, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Memoirs of a Geisha, Far and Away, The Accidental Tourist, Home Alone, Nixon, The Patriot, Angela’s Ashes, Seven Years in Tibet, The Witches of Eastwick, Rosewood, Sleepers, Sabrina, Presumed Innocent, The Cowboys, and The Reivers, among many others. Williams has received five Academy Awards and 50 Oscar nominations, making him the Academy’s most-nominated living person and the second-most nominated person in the history of the Oscars. He also has received seven British Academy Awards (BAFTA), 22 Grammys, four Golden Globes, five Emmys, and numerous gold and platinum records.3
On January 10, 1977, during the final days of the Ford administration, John Williams began writing music for Star Wars, a forthcoming sci-fi adventure film created by George Lucas. More than forty-two years later, on November 21, 2019, Williams presided over the final recording session for The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and ostensibly last installment of the main Star Wars saga. Williams scored every film in the series, and there is no achievement quite like it in movie history, or, for that matter, in musical history. Williams composed more than twenty hours of music for the cycle, working with five different directors. He developed a library of dozens of distinct motifs, many of them instantly recognizable to a billion or more people. The Star Wars scores have entered the repertories of the most venerable orchestras around the world. When, earlier this year, Williams made his début conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, several musicians asked him for autographs. Williams is a courtly, soft-voiced, inveterately self-effacing man of eighty-eight. He is well aware of the extraordinary worldwide impact of his Star Wars music—not to mention his scores for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the “Indiana Jones” movies, the “Harry Potter” movies, the “Jurassic Park” movies, and dozens of other blockbusters—but he makes no extravagant claims for his music, even if he allows that some of it could be considered “quite good.” A lifelong workhorse, he resists looking back and immerses himself in the next task. In the coronavirus period, he has been at home, on the west side of Los Angeles, focusing on a new concert work—a concerto, for the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, which will have its première next year. In February, I visited Williams in his bungalow office on the Universal Studios back lot—part of an adobe-style complex belonging to Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company. Spielberg’s office is nearby. The two men first worked together on The Sugarland Express, in 1974, and have collaborated on twenty-eight films to date—all but four of Spielberg’s features. At a tribute, in 2012, Spielberg said, “John Williams has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.” It is, however, Star Wars that anchors the composer’s fame. Williams poured himself a glass of water in the bungalow kitchenette, settled into a chair in front of his desk, and addressed the topic of the Star Wars cycle. He is a tall man, still physically vigorous, his face framed by a trim, vaguely clerical white beard. “Thinking about it, and trying to speak about it, connects us with the idea of trying to understand time,” he said. “How do you understand forty years? I mean, if someone said to you, ‘Alex, here’s a project. Start on it, spend forty years on it, see where you get’? Mercifully, I had no idea it was going to be forty years. I was not a youngster when I started, and I feel, in retrospect, enormously fortunate to have had the energy to be able to finish it—put a bow on it, as it were.” In the mid-1970s, when Williams formed links to the young blockbuster directors Spielberg and Lucas, he was already well established in Hollywood. He was, in a sense, born into the business; his father, Johnny Williams, was a percussionist who played in the Raymond Scott Quintette and later performed on movie soundtracks. Williams worked several times with Bernard Herrmann, perhaps the greatest American film composer, celebrated for his scores for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver. Williams, who sometimes joined his father at rehearsals, told me, “Benny liked the way my father played the timpani. ‘Old Man Williams isn’t afraid to break the head,’ he’d say. Benny was a famously irascible character, but in later years he was always very encouraging to me. One time he got irritated was when I arranged ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ ‘Write your own music,’ he said.” The Williamses moved from the New York area to Los Angeles in 1947, when John was fifteen. A skilled pianist, he won notice for organizing a jazz group with classmates from North Hollywood High; a brief piece in Time referred to him as Curley Williams. In 1955, he went to New York and studied at Juilliard with the great piano pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne. “It became clear,” he says, “that I could write better than I could play.” He composed his first feature-film score in 1958, for a race-car comedy called Daddy-O. Because of his skills as a jazz stylist and as a song arranger, he specialized at first in such comedic fare—other assignments included Gidget Goes to Rome and Not with My Wife, You Don’t!—but he branched out into Westerns and period dramas. Recordings of two of his scores, for The Reivers and The Cowboys, fell into the hands of the young Spielberg, who was working as a writer and as a television director. When Spielberg undertook his first major theatrical film, The Sugarland Express, in 1974, he informed the studio that he wanted to collaborate with the composer of The Reivers. Williams told me, “I met what looked to be this seventeen-year-old kid, this very sweet boy, who knew more about film music than I did—every Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin score. We had a meeting in a fancy Beverly Hills restaurant, arranged by executives. It was very cute—you had the feeling Steven had never been in a restaurant like that before. It was like having lunch with a teen-age kid, but a brilliant one.” After Sugarland came Jaws. As Spielberg happily acknowledged, Williams’s two-note double-bass ostinato played a crucial role in that movie’s colossal success, particularly when mechanical-shark malfunctions left it to the composer to evoke the murderous beast at full power. Williams went on, “One day, Steven called me and said, ‘Do you know George Lucas?’ I said, ‘No, I have no idea who he is.’ ‘Well, he’s got this thing called “Star Wars,” and he wants to have a classical’—his term, he didn’t say Romantic—‘classical score, and I’ve convinced George he should meet you, because he admired the score for Jaws.’ I came out here one night, to Universal Studios, and met George.” As Williams remembers it, Lucas had been entertaining the idea of using preexisting classical works on the Star Wars soundtrack. The composer argued for an original score, in which newly created themes could be manipulated and developed to best serve the drama. Lucas, through a representative, says that he never intended to use extant music in the film. What’s not in doubt is that the director wanted a soundtrack with an old-Hollywood atmosphere, in keeping with the film’s reliance on chivalric swashbuckler tropes. When Williams set to work in the second week of January 1977—he gave me the date after consulting an old diary—he fell back on the techniques of golden-age Hollywood: brief, sharply defined motifs; brilliant, brassy orchestration; a continuous fabric of underscoring. The film-music scholar Emilio Audissino has described the Star Wars score and others by Williams as “neoclassical,” meaning that they draw on a sumptuously orchestrated style associated with such Central European émigrés as Steiner and Erich Wolf-gang Korngold. “Neoclassical” is a better label than “neo-Romantic,” since Williams is so steeped in mid-twentieth-century influences: jazz, popular standards, Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland, among others. When he writes for a Wagnerian or Straussian orchestra, he airs out the textures and gives them rhythmic bounce. The Imperial March, from The Empire Strikes Back, for example, has a bright, brittle edge, with skittering figures in winds and strings surrounding an expected phalanx of brass. The nine Star Wars scores make use of a vast library of leitmotifs—more than sixty of them, according to the scholar Frank Lehman. I showed Williams a copy of Lehman’s “Complete Catalogue of the Musical Themes of ‘Star Wars,’ ” which left him a bit nonplussed. (“Oh, wow,” he said, paging through it. “How exhausting.”) Talk of leitmotifs leads inevitably to the topic of Richard Wagner, with whom they are inextricably associated. Williams leaned back in his chair and smiled ruefully. “Well, I saw the ‘Ring’ at the Hamburg Opera, years ago, and found it somewhat inaccessible, mostly because I didn’t know German,” he said. “I don’t really know the Wagner operas at all. If Mr. Hanslick were alive, I think I’d be sitting on the side of Brahms in the debate.” (The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick campaigned for Brahms and against Wagner in the late nineteenth century.) “People say they hear Wagner in ‘Star Wars,’ and I can only think, It’s not because I put it there. Now, of course, I know that Wagner had a great influence on Korngold and all the early Hollywood composers. Wagner lives with us here—you can’t escape it. I have been in the big river swimming with all of them.” Wagnerian or not, Williams’s leitmotifs have had an uncanny effect on audiences, stretching across generations. In the recent Star Wars movies, citations of the themes for the Force, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader bring listeners back not only to earlier moments in the cycle but to earlier moments in their lives. I felt this vividly when I saw The Rise of Skywalker at the Uptown, in Washington, DC; I had seen the first film there forty-two years earlier, when I was nine. Williams nodded when I told him this: he has heard many stories like it. “It’s a little bit like how the olfactory system is wired with memory, so that a certain smell makes you remember your grandmother’s cooking,” he said. “A similar thing happens with music. Really, at the root of the question is something about our physiological or neurological setup we don’t understand. It has to do with survival, or protection of group identity, or God knows what. Music can be so powerful, even though it wafts away and we chase it.” Williams’s most vivid memories of the first Star Wars score involve the recording sessions, with the London Symphony: “That fanfare at the beginning, I think it’s the last thing I wrote. It’s probably a little overwritten—I don’t know. The thirty-second notes in the trombones are hard to get, in that register of the trombone. And the high trumpet part! Maurice Murphy, the great trumpet player of the L.S.O.—that first day of recording was actually his first day with the orchestra, and the first thing he played was that high C. There was a kind of team roar when he hit it perfectly. He’s gone now, but I love that man.” John Gracie, another longtime British trumpeter, remembers calling Murphy and asking how things were going at the new job. “Oh, all right,” Murphy answered. “We’re recording the music for a film with a big bear in it.” After Star Wars, Williams emerged as the musical magus of the Hollywood blockbuster, his indelible themes glinting through high-tech spectacle. They were the product of long, solitary labor. “One of the things I have felt, rightly or not, was that these tunes or themes or leitmotifs in film at least need to be pretty—not accessible, but succinct,” he said. “Eighty or ninety per cent of the attention is focussed elsewhere. The music has to cut through this noise of effects. So, O.K., it’s going to be tonal. It’s going to be D major. The tunes need to speak probably in a matter of seconds—five or six seconds.” After casting another quizzical glance at Frank Lehman’s catalogue of leitmotifs, Williams went on, “Whether I’ve been as successful with the new ones as with the old ones, I don’t know. What I can tell you is that these genuine, simple tunes are the hardest things to uncover, for any composer. When Elgar or Beethoven finally finds one—I hope you’ll pardon me if it sounds like I’m comparing myself to these people, but it might illustrate the point—in both cases, they understood what they had. Things that may seem more interesting, more harmonically attractive, don’t quite do the job. And so you end up—as a film composer, at least—not always doing what you initially set out to do. People assume it’s what you wanted to write, but it’s what you needed to write.” I asked him whether he had any personal favorites among his Hollywood scores—especially the less renowned ones. He told me, “Years ago, I did a film called ‘Images’ for Robert Altman, and the score used all kinds of effects for piano, percussion, and strings. It had a debt to Varèse, whose music enormously interested me. If I had never written film scores, if I had proceeded writing concert music, it might have been in this vein. I think I would have enjoyed it. I might even have been fairly good at it. But my path didn’t go that way.” In truth, Williams has built up a fairly large body of concert pieces. His new violin concerto, for Mutter, is eagerly awaited, because his first effort in the form—completed in 1976, just before the music for Star Wars and Close Encounters—is one of his most formidable creations. It was composed as a memorial to his first wife, the actress and singer Barbara Ruick, who died in 1974, of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Since 1980, he has been married to the photographer Samantha Winslow.) The language of the concerto leans toward Bartókian, mid-century modernism, though it is shot through with lyrical strains. Williams excels at the concerto form; he has also written a harmonically adventurous Flute Concerto and a Romantically tinged Horn Concerto, one motif of which carries a pensive echo of the Star Wars title theme. Williams is devoted to the orchestra as an institution. He guest-conducts regularly at orchestras across America, often letting himself be used as a fund-raising tool. “Wherever you go, orchestras are playing better and better,” he told me. “These institutions are at the core of artistic life in so many cities. I wish you would hear politicians bragging on that a little bit.” Early in Williams’s career, film composers received scant attention as creative figures. Now scholars like Lehman specialize in the field, and online fan sites chronicle minutiae. Williams is delighted by that attention, yet he wishes that concert composers also got their due. “I’ve heard a few pieces by a young American composer, Andrew Norman, who is very good,” he said. “Might there not be a bigger audience for his work, too? I would love to see that.” As it happens, the admiration is mutual: Norman has said that he first felt the pull of orchestral music while watching his family’s VHS copy of Star Wars. If Williams looks at the contemporary-music world with a certain wistfulness, others have looked to him with kindred feelings. An unexpected friendship arose between him and the composer Milton Babbitt, who was long a leader of the diehard modernist camp in American composition, taking a combative stance toward neo-Romantic trends. In the years before Babbitt’s death, in 2011, the two composers frequently wrote letters to each other. “How or why Milton had any interest in me whatever, I don’t know,” Williams said. “But I loved receiving his letters, in his tiny handwriting. He was very interested in Bernard Herrmann, and asked me questions about him. One time, I had written this little quartet, for the Messiaen combination of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Milton heard it because it was played at Obama’s Inauguration. He rang me up and said, ‘I liked the little thing you did.’ He was on another plane of thought. I have a book of his where he talks about ‘concatenations of aggregates.’ But the funny thing is that he originally wanted to be a songwriter. He wanted to compose musicals. We both adored Jerome Kern, and often spoke of this. He famously said that he’d rather have written one tune by Jerome Kern than the rest of his oeuvre. That was the world I came out of, too, so we had lots to talk about.” Toward the end of our conversation, Williams said, “I don’t want to take up too much of your time.” I took this to be a signal to wrap up, but I had to ask about a pattern that connoisseurs have noticed in his most recent Star Wars films: the timpani has an unusually prominent role in climactic scenes. In a memorable sequence in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, as Luke Skywalker confronts his latest nemesis, Kylo Ren, an obsessive four-note ostinato in the orchestra is banged out at full volume on the timpani—a ricocheting gesture that disrupts the blended orchestral texture. As it happens, these parts were played by Williams’s brother Don, a veteran percussionist in Hollywood orchestras. I wondered whether there was any message hidden in this starring role for the Williams family instrument. Williams laughed and said, “Well, partly it’s a practical issue. Because of the tremendous noise of the effects in these films, I have gone for a very bright trumpet-drum preponderance. But maybe there’s some other element to it—I don’t know. It has been an extraordinary journey with these films, and with my entire career as well. The idea of becoming a professional film composer, never mind writing nine Star Wars scores over forty years, was not a consciously sought-after goal. It simply happened. All of this, I have to say to you, has been the result of a beneficent randomness. Which often produces the best things in life.”4