John Williams: an A to Z Introduction

John Towner Williams is one of the most successful composers of all time. Born on the 8th February, 1932 (making him 87 years old) in Flushing, Queens he started studying music (piano) from a young age. This is no doubt attributed to the fact his father was a musician – a jazz drummer and percussionist in the CBS Radio Orchestra and the Raymond Scott Quintet.

At the age of 16 he and his family moved to Los Angeles – three years later he premiered his first original composition, a piano sonata. He started at the University of California, but was drafted into the US Air Force in 1951. In addition to his assignments, he conducted and arranged music for the U.S. Air Force band.

Williams completed 3 years of military service before moving back to New York to work as a jazz pianist. He also studied at the Juilliard School, hoping to become a concert pianist. In a 2012 interview, Williams said that at Juilliard he heard “players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place […] and I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the competition, I think I’d better be a composer!'”

He returned to LA to become a movie studio musician, playing piano on films such as Some Like it Hot (1959) – the same year his first big screen movie score was released for the movie Daddy-O (‘O’ in my A to Z blogging).

In 1967 he received his first Academy Award nomination for Valley of the Dolls (‘V’ in my A to Z blogging). His first Academy Award win was for Fiddler on the Roof (‘F’ in my A to Z blogging). As of 2018, Williams had received 51 Academy Award nominations, making him the living person with the most nominations.

As well as his Oscars, Williams has received three Emmy Awards and more than 20 Grammy Awards. In 2004, he was a Kennedy Centre honoree and was given a National Medal of Arts in 2009.

Still to retire, Williams has worked on over 100 films. He’s known for writing scores that often feature recurring musical motives (which you can read more about in my ‘J’ post for A to Z).

Steven Spielberg, then just a novice director, met Williams in 1974 and asked him to write music for The Sugarland Express. For their next collaboration, Jaws, Williams created a frightening composition that convincingly expressed the approach of the shark and established an emotional response to the film. His score was pivotal to the huge success of Jaws (and earnt him his first Academy award for Best Original Score).

He followed this with the music for Spielberg’s Star Wars in 1977 (‘S’ in my A to Z blogging). This became the best selling score-only soundtrack of all time and won him another Oscar. Throughout the years, Williams’ longtime collaboration with Spielberg earned him two more Oscars for his scores to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (‘X’ in my A to Z blogging) and Schindler’s List.

“I have to say, without question, John Williams has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.” – Steven Spielberg

In addition to his film scores, he was written other music, including music for TV series, such as Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants (‘L’ in my A to Z blogging), concert pieces and themes for several Olympic Games. He also works regularly as a conductor, holding the position of conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 until he retired in 1993, although he is still a laureate conductor for the Pops. He’s also conducted the London Symphony.

Williams had intended to retire and his output became sporadic in the 90s, however the lighter workload and a few hilarious references on The Simpsons seemed to renew interest in his music. He doesn’t seem to be slowing down even now.

To finish, here is one of John Williams’ most recent compositions, new Star Wars music to accompany Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – the new rides opening at Disney Parks later this year.


19 comments on “John Williams: an A to Z Introduction

  1. Giggling Fattie

    March 29, 2019 at 10:27 pm

    This was VERY helpful, AJ! He sounds like such an amazing talent! I can’t wait to be exposed to his music through your posts

    • I hope you enjoy them, GF. I’ve used music that isn’t necessarily my favourite (for quite a lot of the alphabet I had a few movie scores to choose from) to showcase different styles and eras. But my very favouritest ones I had to use =)

      • Giggling Fattie

        March 30, 2019 at 10:50 pm

        Oooo okies! I’m glad that the favourites are in there though hehe. I hope the posts will identify which ones are your favourites!

  2. I can only imagine a life fulfilled by doing one’s passion. Sigh.

    • Wouldn’t it have been marvellous, Jacqui? You really would ahve a chance to reach the top ofyour chosen career like he has!

  3. Ooh, what a wonderful choice of themes! I am a major film music fan – at one stage I could listen to a piece of music and, if it was by a composer I’d heard before, could usually pick the composer, even if I hadn’t heard it before. That may still be the case, haven’t tried in a while. John Williams is a favourite, along with the classic composers of the golden age of Hollywood, such as Korngold and Rosza. I remember how surprised I was the first time I read the credits of an episode of Lost In Space and found the music was by “Johnny Williams”!

    • If you listen to music by a particular composer long enough you’ll start to pick up phrases and note combinations they reuse – John Williams definitely has a “style” and you can hear repeats of cues if you listen carefully enough. I hope you enjoy my posts, Sue (I do pay homage to his TV days but not with Lost in Space, and I have made mention of his early years as Johnny *grin*).

  4. Yes, they do repeat stuff – Miklos Rosza even used the exact same tune for the chariots entering the arena in Ben Hur, and in Quo Vadis. But true, it doesn’t have to be exactly the same tune to be recognisable.

    I’m looking forward to some chats with you about this wonderful composer and I’m intrigued to think how you will fit in X!

  5. Film composition is fascinating. (I took a class on it in college. It’s a different animal than symphony composing.) John Williams is definitely one of the great film composers.

    • Your college system sounds fun – you get to do some fascinating subjects (it’s a very different system to the Aussie uni one).

  6. Visiting from the A-Z, and I’m excited to find out you’re doing a series with John Williams. I love the man’s music!

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