This weekend, 5th and 6th September, as part of the Blossom Music Festival (the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra) there will be a blockbuster tribute to the Hollywood composer John Williams. The programme includes many of John Williams’ classics including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Harry Potter, Superman, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and more.
John Towner Williams was born on Monday 8th February 1932 in Floral Park, New York, one of three sons born to Esther (née Towner) and Johnny Williams. His father was a percussionist and played with the Raymond Scott Quintette. His two brothers are also musical – Donald is a percussionist and conductor, and Jerry a studio percussionist.
The family moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and John attended the North Hollywood High School where he graduated in 1950. He moved on to the University of California (UCLA), and studied privately with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
At the age of 20, Williams was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, where one of his assignments was to conduct and arrange music for the Air Force band. Having finished his military service Williams moved to New York and enrolled at the Juilliard School, where he studied piano. While here, he got a job working as a jazz pianist in various night clubs and then went on to studio work. His fellow musicians included Rolly Bundock (bass), Jack Sperling (drums) and Bob Bain (guitar).
John Williams has embraced many genres including film scores, contemporary classical music, post-romanticism and jazz; and has worked as a composer, conductor, and pianist.
Although he is now best known for his work on film music, other works have included the theme music for three Olympic Games (Los Angeles, Atlanta, and the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City), and for NBC’s screening of the Seoul Olympics. Other memorable events have included music for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, and for the inauguration of Barack Obama.
Williams’ oeuvre also includes a number of concert works. Unusually most of his non-film music output consists of concertos for a variety of instruments, along with solo music for piano and guitar. He was the Boston Pops Orchestra’s principal conductor from 1980 – 1993, and is now its conductor laureate. An early work for wind instruments and percussion – the Prelude and Fugue – fused elements of classical music with jazz, and was premiered by Stan Kenton and the Neophonic Orchestra.
With 49 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the second most-nominated individual, after Walt Disney. He was admitted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in 2000, and was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.
In 1958 Williams composed his first film track for the B-movie Daddy-O, followed two years later by his first screen credit in Because They’re Young. His first Academy Award nomination came in 1967 for Valley of the Dolls.
In 1974 he was approached by Steven Spielberg who was looking for a composer to score Spielberg’s theatrical debut The Sugarland Express. A year later Williams was working with Spielberg again on the ominous repetitive theme to Jaws. With this film Williams collected his second Academy Award. Since then, Spielberg and Williams have had a long association with Williams creating scores for all of Spielberg’s feature films except The Color Purple and Bridge of Spies. Williams also worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, in 1976, so providing a link across the changing face of Hollywood.
As Jaws was nearing completion Spielberg introduced Williams to a director friend, George Lucas, who needed a composer for his new space epic film Star Wars. Star Wars was the first film score in which Williams was able to utilise a full-size orchestra. Six films later, the rest is history…. Aged 81, in 2013 John Williams commented “Now we’re hearing of a new set of movies coming in 2015, 2016… so I need to make sure I’m still ready to go in a few years for what I hope would be continued work with George [Lucas]”. The latest in the franchise, The Force Awakens, is due to be released just before Christmas in the UK, and will again feature music by Williams.
Here at Cambridge University Library we have a selection of Williams’ output (principally the music composed for motion pictures), and arranged for a broad range of musical ability. These include: selections from the Star Wars sequence, Jaws, E.T., the Indiana Jones series, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Schindler’s List, the first three Harry Potter films – most notably the main theme “Hedwig’s Theme“, Memoirs of a Geisha, War Horse, and Lincoln. CDs featuring John Williams’ music are also available at the Pendlebury (CD.M.520-521).