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8 February 2022, 13:01 | Updated: 8 February 2022, 15:59
Even if you haven’t heard his name, you will have heard his music. Over his seven-decade career, John Williams has written the soundtracks to Jaws, Star Wars, Harry Potter and more, delighting generations of movie-goers past, present and future.
John Williams is the man behind the music to many of the world’s greatest films and soundtracks. Thanks to his decades-long collaborations with some of Hollywood’s greatest directors including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Williams has scored some of the most iconic musical moments in modern cinema.
Born in New York on 8 February 1932, Williams moved to Los Angeles with his family at the age of 16. The son of a percussionist, Williams was exposed to music from a young age and cut his teeth in the U.S. Air Force, playing piano and brass and conducting and arranging music for the Air Force Band.
After his service, Williams enrolled at Juilliard, set on a career as a concert pianist but changed course to study composition. On graduating, he found employment as an orchestrator in L.A.’s film studios, working with the likes of the film composer greats that preceded him: Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman and more.
Read more: John Williams’s ten best movie soundtracks
John Williams’ first screen credit for composition came in 1960 for Because They’re Young, and his stylistic versatility put him on the radars of Hollywood’s greats. His career skyrocketed from that point onwards, with his first Academy Award nomination arriving in 1967 for Valley of the Dolls.
To this day, he has racked up a whopping 52 Academy Award nominations, holding the record for the most Oscar nominations for a living person. He has also been nominated for six Emmy Awards, 25 Golden Globes and 71 Grammy Awards, winning 25.
With so many accolades to his name and his legacy as one of the world’s greatest film composers, here are ten of the best themes John Williams has ever written for the big screen.
Over 30 years after its initial release, the 1990 comedy film Home Alone remains a yuletide favourite for millions. When eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left at home alone over the Christmas period, he single-handedly defends the family home from burglars Harry and Marv with the assistance of cling film and feathers, toy cars, Christmas ornaments and a pet tarantula.
The title theme is a thoroughly festive affair complete with celeste, pizzicato strings and jingle bells that are purely evocative of reindeer and Santa’s sleigh. The encroaching terror of burglary is conveyed by a switch to the minor key, and eerie string glissandos swoop and stretch over the steadily chugging melody.
The true artistry of this theme lies not only in its ability to convey all the main themes of the film’s storyline in just a few minutes of music, but in Williams’s backwards writing of the entire soundtrack. ‘Somewhere in my Memory’ is teased in extracts and earworms throughout the film, and it isn’t until the final moment when Kevin is reunited with his family on Christmas Day that we hear the full theme in its entirety.
At the time of the film’s release in 1982, E.T. was a marvel of animatronic achievement, but despite all its expressive abilities and Spielberg’s artful direction, it was going to take a very special soundtrack to achieve the kind of endearment for the creature that would ultimately take this film to the heights of its success.
Enter: John Towner Williams, heartstring-puller extraordinaire. With some kind of inexplicable soundtrack sorcery, Williams makes the bug-eyed, misshapen and wrinkled form of E.T. the most loveable member of the cast, uniting us all with Elliott’s need to protect the alien at all costs.
The flying scene in particular is one of the most momentous, as Elliott and his friends race to return E.T. home on their bikes. As Elliott arrives at a cliff edge, E.T. miraculously makes the bike – and the music – soar through the air. John Williams’s sweeping strings and woodwind runs make it sound almost as if the music is the force suspending the duo on their bike as they cycle in front of the moon.
The soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan is one of Williams’s most beautiful and subtle. His 16th collaboration with Steven Spielberg, the film is a graphic portrayal of the Second World War set during the invasion of Normandy.
Wanting to preserve as much of the horror of the war as possible, Williams and Spielberg agreed to leave music out of the fighting scenes, using the soundtrack instead to allow the audience time to reflect after the fact.
Williams’s orchestration for this film is a moment of beauty, masterfully using the warmth of orchestral strings, solemnity of the brass, military drums and poignant horns. A wordless choir joins for ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ which, as Spielberg himself said, “will stand the test of time and honour forever the fallen of this war and possibly all wars.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film to follow the great adventurer Indiana Jones on his daring escapades around the world, and features one of the most instantly recognisable themes ever written for film.
The ‘Raiders March’ theme from the film was written over several weeks, with Williams aiming to write something that was ‘theatrical and excessive’ rather than anything too serious. The result is an astounding theme, with its fanfares and militaristic rhythms for percussion, lower brass and piccolo.
One of the hallmarks Williams is best loved for is his seemingly effortless ability to write exactly what each film calls for, and ‘Raiders March’ is a prime example. It’s hard to imagine any other theme fitting the fearless adventurer quite as well as this one.
Picture this: it’s 1993 and dinosaurs have been extinct for about 65 million years. Can you imagine the sheer awe and wonder you might feel if you arrived on an island to find full-sized, living, breathing prehistoric beasts? Well, observing from a safe distance, of course.
That feeling is exactly what John Williams’s theme to Jurassic Park perfectly encapsulates. Introduced when three visitors to a park full of cloned dinosaurs first lay eyes on a gigantic Brachiosaurus, the main theme is a rich and swelling melody first played by the strings before surging to a crescendo with full orchestration, triumphant brass melodies and sublime choral harmonies that mimic the spine-chilling reverence of a dinosaur sighting.
Over the past 50 years, Clark Kent and his superhero persona have appeared in many different guises on the movie screen and in music. Of all the remakes and spin-offs, however, one theme reigns supreme.
John Williams’s title theme to the 1978 Superman is as emblematic as the character himself. Based on a major triad, the fanfare theme teases its arrival by first descending in pitch, before its second iteration culminates in the satisfying moment when the entire orchestra unites in a rhythm that, if it had words, would be bellowing out “Superman!”
Read more: John Williams: Superman the Movie
With nine films made over four decades making up the complete Star Wars saga, and around 60 to 70 musical themes throughout the 18-plus hours of music, this is the crème de la crème of John Williams’s work and one of the biggest and most impactful film scores in history.
There’s no way Williams could have predicted the enormity the franchise would grow into when he sat down to score the first film, but somehow his magnificent main theme brings the starbound series to life even now, as it approaches the 50th anniversary of its release.
The iconography that opens each Star Wars film is so widely recognised it has been used to parody everything from celebrity announcements to Rick Astley’s hit single ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. The scrolling yellow text disappearing into its starfield background is triumphantly announced by a forceful and layered brass fanfare with the power to knock you back, winded, into your seat.
This theme has everything a dramatic space opera like Star Wars could possibly need: militaristic marching drums and fanfares, soaring violin melodies that Williams would later develop into the love theme between Anakin and Padme, the dark threat of the Sith, ancient enemies of the Jedi, and the sparkling tones of high woodwind and percussion that launch the entire theme into outer space.
Read more: What makes the Star Wars soundtrack so good?
When Steven Spielberg first approached John Williams to score the historical drama Schindler’s List, the composer was apprehensive. “You need a better composer than I am for this film,” he humbly told the director. “I know. But they’re all dead!” came the response.
Nevertheless, Williams agreed to write the music and, wow, what a tearjerker. The score for the film, which tells the story of Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, employs Jewish themes and melodies, with performances from Jewish musicians. Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman plays the emotive violin solo in the title theme, its beautiful yet melancholic character the perfect homage to a powerful story.
Although John Williams only scored the first three films in the Harry Potter series, his ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ appears in all eight.
Full of magic and mystery, the theme perfectly depicts the wonderful wizarding world with its flying cars, talking letters and moving staircases, and its darker moments hint at the lurking threat posed by the villain known as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
It takes a special type of talent to be able to write a theme so iconic that the audience instinctively knows who it represents without even looking at a screen. Of course, John Williams can do it.
The ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars, often known as ‘Darth Vader’s Theme’, is a terrifying march. The constantly repeating rhythm played by snare drums and strings creates a sense of inescapable impending doom, while the trumpet melody and its dotted rhythms represent a dark imitation of regal themes.
Darth Vader wouldn’t be anywhere near as intimidating without Williams’s score and orchestration. This really is as good as thematic film music gets.