The Music of John Williams

14 Apr

With a career spanning over six decades, John Williams has composed some of the most popular, recognizable, and critically acclaimed film scores in cinematic history, including those of the Star Wars series, JawsClose Encounters of the Third KindSupermanE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, Hook, the first two Jurassic Park films, Schindler’s List, and the first three Harry Potter films. Williams has won 24 Grammy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, five Academy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards (with 51 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the second most-nominated individual, after Walt Disney). Williams also composed the score for eight of the top 20 highest-grossing films at the U.S. box office (adjusted for inflation). Despite this awesome CV, or perhaps as a contributory factor, Williams has a style and approach almost unlike any other film composer. While skilled in a variety of 20th-century compositional idioms, Williams’s most familiar style may be described as a form of neoromanticism inspired by the late 19th century’s large-scale orchestral music—in the style of Tchaikovsky or Richard Wagner’s compositions and their concept of leitmotif—that inspired his film music predecessors. Williams is associated with a who’s who of history’s greatest film-makers, including Steven Spielberg, for whom Williams composed music for all but three of his feature films. However it is another cinematic legend – George Lucas – for whom he reserved perhaps his greatest achievements in the form of the soundtrack to Star Wars, which was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Williams’ scores for the Star Wars saga count among the most widely known and popular contributions to modern film music, and utilize a symphony orchestra and features an assortment of about fifty recurring musical themes to represent characters and other plot elements: one of the largest caches of themes in the history of film music.The scores are primarily performed by a symphony orchestra of varying size joined, in several sections, by a choir of varying size. They each make extensive use of the leitmotif, or a series of musical themes that represents the various characters, objects and events in the films. The scores utilize an eclectic variety of musical styles, many culled from the Late Romantic idiom of Richard Strauss and his contemporaries that itself was incorporated into the Golden Age Hollywood scores of Erich Korngold and Max Steiner. The reasons for this are known to involve George Lucas’s desire to allude to the underlying fantasy element of the narrative rather than the science-fiction setting, as well as to ground the otherwise strange and fantastic setting in well-known, audience-accessible music. Indeed, Lucas maintains that much of the films’ success relies not on advanced visual effects, but on the simple, direct emotional appeal of its plot, characters and, importantly, music. Lucas originally wanted to use tracked orchestral and film music in a similar manner to 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself a major inspiration for Star Wars. Williams, however, advised to form a soundtrack with recurring musical themes to augment the story, while Lucas’s choice of music could be used as a temporary track for Williams to base his musical choices on. This resulted in several nods or homages to the music of Gustav Holst, William Walton, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky in the score to Star Wars.

Star Wars was one of the film scores that heralded the revival of grand symphonic scores in the late 1970s. One technique that particularly influenced these scores is Williams’ use of the leitmotif, which was most famously associated with the operas of Richard Wagner and, in early film scores, with Steiner. A leitmotif is a phrase or melodic cell that signifies a character, place, plot element, mood, idea, relationship or other specific part of the film. It is commonly used in modern film scoring as a device for mentally anchoring certain parts of a film to the soundtrack. Of chief importance for a leitmotif is that it must be strong enough for a listener to latch onto while being flexible enough to undergo variation and development along the progression of the story. The more varied and nuanced the use of leitmotif is, the more memorable it typically becomes. A good example of this is the way in which Williams subtly conceals the intervals of “The Imperial March” within “Anakin’s Theme” in The Phantom Menace, implying his dark future to come. Also important is the density in which leitmotifs are used: the more leitmotifs are used in a piece of a given length, the more thematically rich it is considered to be. Film music, however, typically needs to strike a balance between in terms of the number of leitmotives used, so as to not become too dense for the audience (being preoccupied with the visuals) to follow. Williams’ music of Star Wars is unique in that it is relatively dense for film scoring, with approximately 11 themes used in each two-hour film, of which about 90% is scored.

Each score can be said to have a “main theme”, which is developed and repeated frequently throughout the film, often to unusual extents (such as the frequency in which The Imperial March is revisited during Empire Strikes Back). Besides the main theme and a handful of other principal themes, Williams forged several smaller motifs for each episode, which are generally not as memorable and at times interchangeable. A main theme for the franchise exists as well (which is the music of the main titles), but a main theme does not exist to represent a particular trilogy. Instead, each trilogy (and to a lesser extent, each film) has its own style or soundscape. Williams’ use of his themes in Star Wars is at times romantic rather than strictly thematic, the themes sometimes being used randomly because their mood fits a certain scene, rather than for a narrative purpose. For instance, the theme for Luke Skywalker is also used as the main theme for the entire franchise, as well as a generic “heroic theme” in conjunction with various characters without any connection to its namesake. Princess Leia’s Theme is used for the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars, which has little to do with her character even though she is present in the scene. Yoda’s Theme appears several times during the Cloud City sequences in The Empire Strikes Back. The concert piece “Duel of the Fates” is used several times throughout the prequel trilogy, appearing over the entire final battle in The Phantom Menace (as opposed to just the lightsaber duel for which it was written); Anakin Skywalker’s search for his mother in Attack of the Clones; and the unrelated Yoda and Darth Sidious’s duel in Revenge of the Sith. Williams’ original composition for the Geonosis Battle Arena in Attack of the Clones, a variation on the Droid Army March, was used for the Utapau assault in Revenge of the Sith.

Multiple uses of other main themes are more thematic. The Rebel Fanfare is applied to the Millennium Falcon throughout the original Star WarsThe Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. It is also used for R2-D2’s heroics during the opening action scene in Revenge of the Sith. Kylo Ren’s secondary theme, meant to evoke his more conflicted side, but since he quickly makes his allegiances clear, its generally used in tandem with his fanfare to evoke his menace, instead. The Emperor’s theme is used in The Last Jedi when Supreme Leader Snoke tortures Rey. Even the melodic connections between some of the themes sometimes do not represent a straightforward dramatic purpose, such as the connection of “Across the Stars” to Count Dooku’s motif and the Battle of Geonosis in Attack of the Clones. In fact, Some of Williams’ themes are written from the outset purely to convey a certain mood rather than evoke a character or setting, such as the Throne Room music of the original Star Wars or the Pursuit motif from The Force Awakens. Williams’ Star Wars catalogue remains one of the largest collections of leitmotifs in the history of cinema, although – for comparison – it still falls short of Wagner’s use of leitmotifs in the Ring Cycle or even Howard Shore’s work on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. Both works feature many more themes for a similar or shorter running time; and use the themes more clearly and with more nuance, where Williams prefers to write fewer themes (to allow him to focus on them better) and use them in a more straightforward manner and sometimes, solely for their romantic effect. Williams was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl’s Hall of Fame in 2000, and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2016. He’s also not done yet: in the next few years there’s the small matter of scoring Star Wars Episode IX and Indiana Jones 5

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4 Responses to “The Music of John Williams”

  1. Calmgrove April 14, 2019 at 8:40 am #

    I do hope you will dedicate a post to Howard Shore (namechecked here) in as much loving detail as you’ve done for Williams. And I’m pleased you’ve clarified how it is that echoes of other composers’ works (Holst, Walton etc) crop up in the score for Episode IV, the original film in the franchise.

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