It can be awe-inspiring to look at a composer’s lifetime of work. We know that JS Bach composed over 1,000 pieces in his 65 years, while Mozart, who lived only 35 years, composed perhaps 600 pieces. Yet we only care about them because of their best work, the melodies that pop into your head as soon as the name is mentioned.
It’s in that spirit that I want to think about John Williams as he approaches his 90th birthday on Tuesday February 8th. He’s still alive, still working, still being paid big fees for his music, because he is often memorable.
Williams has won five Academy Awards:
1-in 1972 for Fiddler on the Roof (“Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score”)
2-in 1976 for Jaws (“Best Music, Original Dramatic Score”)
3-in 1978 for Star Wars (“Best Music, Original Score”) beating his other nominee Close Encounters of the Third Kind
4-in 1983 for ET The Extra-terrestrial (“Best Music, Original Score”)
5-in 1994 for Schindler’s List (“Best Music, Original Score”)
This is his most recent win, almost thirty years ago.
John Williams’ 161st composer entry on IMDB is set to be released in 2023, namely Indiana Jones V.
Let’s stop there, to contemplate what it means to have composed music for 160 films, and the 161st is to be released after your 90th birthday. I can imagine the objection to speaking of this in context with Bach or Mozart. It’s impossible to compare and I’m not for a moment suggesting that we somehow determine who’s better or more important. But it is worth observing that few of us will dent Bach’s 1000 work library significantly, that none of us will hear all of Mozart’s 22 operas performed onstage in a lifetime: yet one could conceivably see all of Williams’ 160 (and counting) films. While Williams may be accused of being derivative (although one might just as easily point accusatory fingers at some of Bach’s pieces), his output is so popular as to be impossible to ignore.
In each of the past five decades there is at least one film that begat a franchise, the brand largely associated with the themes created by Williams.
In the 1970s we saw the first of the Star Wars, Jaws, and Superman films
How well-known are these pieces? Here’s a great demonstration.
We heard similar nervous laughter when the Toronto Symphony played the Jaws theme at a Williams-centric concert.
Oh, and yes that’s another incarnation for Williams, conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra, beginning in 1980 for over a decade.
In the 1980s the Indiana Jones series began. In the 1990s Home Alone & Jurassic Park each started a franchise. Since 2000 we had the Harry Potter films.
In addition there are many more scores every bit as ubiquitous, so popular that if you think about it you might even remember the main theme. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. ET the Extra-terrestrial. Hook. Schindler’s List.
And I’m not mentioning the subtler scores to films that didn’t achieve pop culture status. JFK, Munich, Lincoln, Minority Report, Catch Me if you can, War of the Worlds, Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun.
Yes Williams has been around a long time. Among his credits on IMDB you can see credits for TV as well, such as episodes of Wagon Train, 44 episodes of Bachelor Father in 1960 (over 60 years ago, when he was a young composer identifying himself as “Johnny Williams”).
But in addition, IMDB includes another 281 credits for “Music Department”, as for example the 1960s TV show “The Time Tunnel” (29 episodes), Lost In Space (126 episodes), Wide Country (28 episodes), Checkmate (70 episodes), or Amazing Stories (45 episodes), all instances where Williams wrote a show’s theme music. And that 281 also includes instances where another composer uses Williams’ music, as in a Star Wars or Jurassic Park spinoff.
I may be alone in this sentiment, but if it weren’t for Williams, I wouldn’t be able to stand the Star Wars films. He’s the reason I bother, and he manages to elevate the material, more heroic than Luke or Leia.
Over time one sees a change in the role of music. Mozart may have been a success yet he was still a glorified servant, buried in a pauper’s grave. Rossini with his brilliant taste got rich giving audiences what they wanted, one of the smartest of all composers. Liszt and Rachmaninoff too managed to use their virtuosity to make money. In the 20th century we see music begin to specialize more and more, between popular and artistic, music created pragmatically to please and yes, to make money.
While you may quibble when I call it “the music of our time” Williams’ music is a success. He’s been making a living as a composer and conductor for more than half a century. No it’s not the only music we have, not by a long shot. But the big star of 1965 (Beatles?) or 1975 (Supertramp?) or 1985 (Madonna or Bruce Springsteen?) or 1995 (Mariah Carey?) rarely stayed prominent for very long. Taylor Swift or Kanye may be rich and influential now, and there will be others who come along in future. But Williams has been a huge success in each of those decades. You might say “not the 60s” but no, he was huge in television rather than film and perhaps most importantly, has been growing in influence with each passing decade.
And the 90 year old John Williams is still working, and deserving his big fee: because his film scores are always good.
As a closing thought –as much for context as for the pure fun of it—here’s a five minute clip of John Williams conducting a medley of Oscar winners. No this isn’t Bach or Mozart. But it’s fun to see Williams conduct his own themes without any cinematic distractions.