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80 Reasons Why John Williams Is The Man
We mark the movie maestro's 80th birthday with a celebration of his classic pieces

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February 8 is John Williams’ eightieth birthday. Williams is indisputably the world’s best-known movie composer, creating cinema’s most memorable themes, imaginative scoring and telling collaborations (his next film with Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, will be their 26th together). The stats speak for themselves: over 140 composing credits, 5 Academy Awards, 3 Emmys. His recent Oscar nods for The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn and War Horse bring his nominations tally up to 47, the most of any living person (and second only to Walt Disney). Yet his significance goes way beyond cold facts and figures: for any movie fan over the past 40 years, he has literally created the soundtracks of our lives and as we have grown up, his music has grown up with us. If he had just given us Star Wars then his place in the pantheon would be assured but factor in Jaws, Superman The Movie, Indiana Jones, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter and his impact on pop culture is incalculable.

To celebrate his auspicious anniversary, we have gathered together in no particular order 80 of his greatest cues to showcase the dizzying scope and seemingly unfathomable depths of his genius. You would need 800 tracks (and counting) to do full justice to his talent so please leave your glaring omissions, favourite Williams tunes and birthday salutations below.

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The Raiders March
First heard in: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

If adventure has a theme it must be Indiana Jones. The story goes that Williams played Steven Spielberg two options for the Indiana Jones theme on the piano and the filmmaker's simple direction was "Why don't you use them both?" The two tunes became the theme and the bridge for the Raiders March, embodying the character's virtues and the film's values to a tee: like Indy, his theme is simple, cocksure determined and direct; like the movie, it combines a pulpy, slightly campy-y parody of '30s adventure music with a warm sincere feel-good dynamic, the tune encapsulating the film's cocksure ability to deliver a good time.

The interesting thing about The Raiders March is that it is a very simple little tune," remembered Williams, "but I spend more time on those bits of musical grammar than anything else. The sequence of notes has to sound just right so that it seems inevitable, like it has always been with us. It was something that I chiselled away at for a few weeks to find the correct musical shape. Those little simplicities are often the hardest things to capture."

Unlike Star Wars, the march doesn't appear over a title sequence at the beginning. Instead Williams dots the theme and the bridge throughout in various guises; the theme is first heard as Indy swings into the Peruvian river and reappears in epic sweep mode during his flight to Nepal and in a triumphant version as Indy climbs onto the sub cheered on by pirates. The bridge, in a comical extended form, underscores his discovery of the snake on a plane — he hates snakes, apparently — and delivers rollicking momentum during the truck chase. Take both tunes as a whole and 31 years later it remains debatably Williams most exciting, exuberant theme, a throwback to movie history that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face in the here and now.

Listen to an excerpt:

Han Solo And The Princess
First heard in: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

If the score for Empire has an emotional centre, then this it. Han and Leia's romance may be charged with fizzy repartee but their true feelings are amplified in this sumptuous love theme helping them to share their first kiss. Yet, when things turn dark, the theme is used to do the heavy lifting, becoming grander and gloomier as Han is lowered into carbon freeze and grandiloquent as Luke and Leia watch the Falcon fly off at the finale. Like much of Williams' romantic writing, it is marinated in melancholy as much as melodrama, all mournful horn and sweeping strings. Listen closely to the first two notes of the main melody: they are the same as Princess Leia's New Hope theme.

Listen to an excerpt:

First heard in: Hook (1991)

It is only 90 second's long but this prologue for Spielberg's Peter Pan Grows Up comedy adventure is a corker. Premiering on the film's teaser trailer — other trailers for the film featured Williams' music for The Witches Of Eastwick — this appetite whetter is a glorious evocation of swashbuckling and skullduggery, shot through with an elegant simplicity yet soaring on high spirits. If the film that followed matched up to this, it would be a masterpiece.

Listen to an excerpt:

Planet Krypton
First heard in: Superman The Movie (1978)

Stately, noble, tinged with doomed majesty, William's motif for Superman's home planet enters the score with the main theme still ringing in the ears, is just under a minute long but immediately takes up space in the memory. Emerging from a state of uncertainty, it starts on a single trumpet and builds to a shattering crescendo. Unfortunately, because Krypton explodes not long after, we only ever hear fragments of it again.

Listen to an excerpt:

Duel Of The Fates
First heard in: Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999)

Rather than leaning heavily on familiar themes, Williams created a whole new series of motifs and cues for the prequels, the most striking and enduring being this rabble rousing choral work that first appeared over the Qui-Gon-Obi-Wan-Darth Maul lightsaber duel. The piece begins with the London Choir singing a powerful chant: Williams adapted an archaic Welsh poem Cad Goddeu in Sanskrit that translates as "Under the tongue root a fight most dread and another raging behind in the head." For Williams, the piece is the "result of my thinking that something ritualistic and/or pagan and antique might be very effective. I just felt the way George staged the duel, on top of that great stairway, the way it's done is so dramatic and so like a great pagan altar, the whole thing seems like a dance or a ballet, a religious ceremony of some kind, probably ending in the death of one of the combatants…"

Yet it's not just the frightening choral work that distinguishes Duel Of The Fates. The repetitive string motif, the main melody that starts on woodwind then transfers up to brass, the thunderous percussion, how it crescendos then stops to regroup — it is a masterwork in organised terror. Williams reprised the theme for Attack Of The Clones as Anakin races to save his mother from Tusken Raiders and it recurs in fragments during the Obi-Wan-Anakin face off in Revenge Of The Sith. It was debatably the best thing to have come out of the prequels full stop.

Listen to an excerpt:

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Your Comments

freaking Lapti Nek is here but no Battle of the Heroes? Can we please stop pretending that the Prequel soundtrack is no good just because RLM doesn't like the films? More

Posted by NeoBrowser on Saturday May 4, 2013, 10:57

2 RE: RE:
Thank you sir. Your kind words will keep me sane when I get locked up for libel! More

Posted by Rob on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 11:22

3 RE: RE:
L: Rob Or more likely Darth Tax-eVader * .gif]ee what I did there?! *for humorous purposes only and in no way shape or form was it meant as a slander on his character. Just mediocre wordplay is all.ote]   py07.gif]py07.gif]   ert of Mirth, I salute you More

Posted by JIm R on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 11:10

4 RE: RE:
Or more likely Darth Tax-eVader * .gif]ee what I did there?! *for humorous purposes only and in no way shape or form was it meant as a slander on his character. Just mediocre wordplay is all. More

Posted by Rob on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 10:51

5 RE:
L: howie71taylor A master composer and what a back catalogue. Did you know Tottenham Hotspur FC walk out to "Duel Of The Fates" for every home game? sp; rry dress up as Darth Maul ? More

Posted by JIm R on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 09:41

6 A true genius
Just about every film he's been involved in has been improved greatly by the soundtrack, sometimes subtle but always worthwhile. A great old fashioned genius, long may he reign as King of the soundtracks. Excellent article :) More

Posted by jamiecfc on Monday February 13, 2012, 15:13

7 Indy's Very First Adventure - The Last Crusade
Cracking cue ploughs along with the train chasing Indy all the way! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 11:10

8 Departure of Boba Fett
Fantastic cue ending in four huge blasts from the whole orchestra - gob-smacking! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 10:59

9 Short Round...
There's a moment in Temple of Doom's end credit music that literally has the Raiders March & Short Round's theme playing AT THE SAME TIME and perfectly complementing each other - how ingenious is that?! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 10:46

10 Gasps of astonishment...
I once played Temple of Doom's Mine Car Chase to a friend of mine - a grade six flautist - she ran out of the room gasping!! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 10:39

11 RE: We're gonna need a bigger list...
With any subjective list, the temptation is to point out anything that's missing, as opposed to what's there. So, let's get mine out of the way now: - Throne Room / Medal Ceremony from A New Hope? Lapti Nek from ROTJ is there but not this glorious piece of pomp and circumstance?! However, this article is one of the best that Empire has ever produced. Very deep research and clear evidence of passion and understanding of Williams' entire career. The temptation would be to go for the obvious, and I reckon I could come up with 80 highlights from Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones alone. Full credit for going beyond the obvious though, and here's another one - the original Lost In Space TV show had a theme tune from John Williams, although then he was still Johnny! My version of the ET soundtrack has Escape / Chase / Saying Goodbye in a beautiful 15min single track that I happened to be listening to when I started reading the Empire homepage today. I'd recommend that everyonMore

Posted by BelfastBoy on Sunday February 12, 2012, 11:19

12 We're gonna need a bigger list...
...but this is a magisterial survey. Superb work by Ian Freer and (presumably) team. I've been here hours, reliving old favourites and making a few rewarding new discoveries too. Thank you to John Williams for so many of the great tunes of my lifetime - and crucially, many happy returns! More

Posted by Dextraneous on Sunday February 12, 2012, 01:01

13 Thank You Empire
What an amazing feature, fitting tribute to someone as massively talented as John Williams More

Posted by james dean on Sunday February 12, 2012, 00:54

14 Wow
the man is amazing.....I will be testing my friends More

Posted by Paddy Kieran on Saturday February 11, 2012, 21:41

15 Thank you so much
Delighted to see The Towering Inferno titles and the Empire asteroid chase on here. Brilliant, thanks. More

Posted by Schnorbitz on Saturday February 11, 2012, 20:10

16 Amazing Feature for an Amazing Man
Ian Freer hats off to you, this is the best feature Empire's ever done, online or off, and I salute your encyclopaedic knowledge of the great man. And what a man. His music has lifted me so high, so often. Magic from start to finish. More

Posted by BondVsPredator on Saturday February 11, 2012, 14:44

17 RE: 80 Reasons Why John Williams Is The Man
Awesome feature Empire! It is a tribute to the Maestro that you can list so many great tracks and there are still bucket loads more that immediately come to mind: the main theme from "Jane Eyre" and the "Lowood" theme; "Cadillac of the Skies" from "Empire of the Sun"; "Dorinda's First Flight" from "Always"; the Main Title from "Dracula"; the "Call of the Crystal" from the last Indiana Jones monstrosity (that we shall mention no further). I bought the double cassette of Star Wars in 1977... then the double fold out LP... then I was hooked. Thanks John Williams for a lifetime of hummable tunes that work for just about every occasion in life! More

Posted by mellowwellowmann on Saturday February 11, 2012, 11:26

18 Thank You
I really enjoyed this. so many memories, so many wonderful pieces of music! More

Posted by orazzak on Saturday February 11, 2012, 10:06

19 A Humble Genius
Having had the pleasure of meeting him many years ago, he was most humble when I thanked him for the joy he he brought to my life. He said it was his pleasure. From Star Wars to War Horse, no one has brought more to the world of film music than John Williams, and may he continue to produce masterpieces for many years to come. Thank you Empire for THE BEST FEATURE EVER!! More

Posted by ddumbell on Saturday February 11, 2012, 04:26

A master composer and what a back catalogue. Did you know Tottenham Hotspur FC walk out to "Duel Of The Fates" for every home game? More

Posted by howie71taylor on Saturday February 11, 2012, 03:32

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