‘I played the shark theme to Spielberg and he said, “you can’t be serious!”’ – John Williams on composing Jaws

29 August 2022, 20:25 | Updated: 29 August 2022, 21:27

I played the shark theme to Spielberg and he said, ‘you can’t be serious’ – John Williams on composing Jaws
I played the shark theme to Spielberg and he said, ‘you can’t be serious’ – John Williams on composing Jaws. Picture: Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The film music legend, composer of Star Wars, Schindler’s List and Superman, spoke to Classic FM in an exclusive interview in his 90th birthday year.

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Just two notes, to encapsulate a film’s title character – John Williams’ famous ‘da, duh’ theme to Jaws (1975) earned the composer his second Oscar and has become one of the most memorable themes in film history.

But when he first composed it, director Steven Spielberg thought he was having him on.

In an exclusive interview for Classic FM (watch here on Global Player) in his 90th birthday year, Williams explained: “Initially...I did a score for Robert Altman called Images, which was all about Japanese sounds and shakuhachi and percussion and so on, and that’s the music that Steven [Spielberg] thought he should have...for Jaws. Something with that complexity and all of that dissonance and so on.

“And I thought that that was a crazy idea, that this was a simple adventure thing and I need to find some musical theme or idea that might represent the shark or might represent our primordial fear – like we fear snakes. We fear beasts of the sea,” Williams told Andrew Collins, host of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM.

“And he came to my room at Fox Studios, and he said, ‘What are you going to do for the shark?’ and I played E, F, E, F, E, F, D, F and so on.

“And he said, ‘You can’t be serious?’ I said, ‘Well, I think when the basses and celli of the orchestra, maybe supported by tympani or contrabassoon [play it], you might be convinced that this is scary enough. Er, let’s try it.’”

Watch the interview on Global Player >

John Williams conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the 'Imperial March'

“At that time, I had no idea that, that it would have that kind of impact on people,” the composer added of his iconic adventure-thriller score. “Steven and I had a little laugh about it.”

Read more: John Williams needed a clarinettist on ‘Jaws’, so Spielberg volunteered

Williams is the most Oscar-nominated person alive today, and his long-lasting collaboration with Spielberg has produced some of most beloved films of the last half-century. And today, Williams’ music has taken on a life beyond the screen – his themes are heard in concert halls across the world, played by leading orchestras from the Vienna Philharmonic to the London Symphony Orchestra.

In the interview, which was recorded at Hollywood’s iconic Amblin Studios, Williams also spoke of the long-lasting power of music. “I’ve often said that music for musicians is like oxygen, you know, it’s what, what sustains us,” the composer mused.

“We can think of music as a living thing,” he added. “Once it’s released from the composer’s pen, it’s out there, it’s alive. Whatever Tchaikovsky has written, whatever Schoenberg has written is still alive and with us. They’ve created something that doesn’t go away, and, and I want to be grateful for all of us, if I can put it that way, for music itself.

“You and I are talking. Right now, we’re in Los Angeles, and you’re from Great Britain. What has brought us together? Music. That’s the reason we’re together in this room, not because of airplanes or of cameras or any of your technology, but music.

“What little I can possibly contribute with my little scores, is nothing compared to the work of Bach or Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, any of the great colossal geniuses that developed the music that in our Western sphere, that we hold so dear to our hearts as one of the foundations of our culture.”

Listen again to ‘John Williams at 90: A Classic FM Exclusive’ on Global Player – and watch our interview feature here.