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.
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:
Prologue 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.
Best on line feature you have ever done Empire, please ensure this is always available to listen too, A true master at work. More
Posted by JIm R on Friday February 10, 2012, 21:06
At no point...
...in my life have i come so close to orgasm just from an Empire feature. More
Posted by Swedle on Friday February 10, 2012, 18:27
Final Duel mistake.......
When Luke comes out of hiding, after accidentally revealing Leia's paternity to Vader, he doesn't say "Nooooooo!", he defiantly yells "NEVER!!!" before ending the climactic duel...
Interestingly enough, that bit of music was also used in the final duel in the Lucasarts game Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. More
Posted by jws1272 on Thursday February 9, 2012, 17:56
You should've added 'A Window to the Past' from 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' More
Posted by dimitrifiani on Thursday February 9, 2012, 12:40
Undoubtedly the greatest movie composer of all time. My only gripe with this list is the exclusion of The Lost World's main theme. I believe this is actually Spielberg's favourite piece from all the Jurassic Park music.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb6Xk5p9MpQ& feature=related More
Posted by Ballschin on Thursday February 9, 2012, 12:17
He simply has no equal; nobody else has ever treated every-single film as though it was a first assignment that needed special attention, (unless you knew, how would you know that the guy who did Heartbeeps also did Jane Eyre and, his masterpiece, Superman?) and when he is inspired by what he sees, (most recently by War Horse) we are elated.
Posted by Frank Comiskey on Thursday February 9, 2012, 10:52
The force is with him...
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term 'genius' as "exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability". Although used far too often these days, John Williams REALLY is a genius and I thank him for the many years of great music he has given me (man and boy). Happy Birthday John ...and many more of them. More
Posted by melverley on Thursday February 9, 2012, 09:15
Favorite tunes that dont appear here
Visitor in San Diego (from Jurassic Park The Lost World): Pure adrenaline!!!!
Dartmoor 1912 (From War Horse)
The Battle of Hoth (do I need to tell you???)
Dinner With Amelia (The Terminal)
Sabrina's Theme (just BEAUTIFUL)
Anakin's Dark Deeds (Episode III) EPIC of epic epicness!!!!!!
Where Dreams Are Born (A.I) maybe the most BEAUTIFUL track he's ever written!!! i cant helpto cry EVERYTIME)
Confluence (MEmoirs of a Geisha) perfect... just perfect in allthe extent of the word
THE ENTIRE MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, for me his best album EVER!!!
Exsultate Justi (Empire Of The Sun) aleluyah!!!!
Homesickness (The Terminal)
Am I Beautiful? (Far& Away)
Aunt Marge's Waltz (Azkaban)
A Window To The Past (Azkaban)
Dennis Steals The Embryo (Jurassic Park)
The Trek (JP: The Lost World)
Rescuing Sarah (JP: The Lost World)
Ludlow's Demise (JP: The Lost World)
Jango's Escape (Episode II)
Princess Leia's Theme
Luke And Leia
Battle Of The Heroes (Episode III)
The Battle Of Endor
Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:36
RE: The Best Feature of 2012 so far!
It's been a long time since I posted here. but this feature is so good!!! I can't start to describe how much I love and admire John Williams, how grateful I am to live in his era (although he is 50 years older than me!!) For me it all began when i was 11 and watched Jurassic Park, now i have more than 40 albums and he never fails to surprise and move me. I owe him SO much! and this year he gave us War Horse, a magnificent and perfect album that is 100% Williams, god how I love that soundtrack!!!!
I just can't pick a favorite of his, everything he's done is so close to perfection. man, to think of everything he's done and everything i haven't heard....
I posted a link to this feature on facebook, and i recommended it to everyone, let's all do the same so the whole world knows how lucky we are to have him!!!!!!!
finally: OU VERY MUCH, MAESTRO, FOR YOUR ENDLESS AND RESTLESS TALENT, I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART!!!!!!!!!!!! More
Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:02
The Best Feature of 2012 so far!
Kudos Empire - this truly is a fitting feature for one of Cinema's most important figures.
A film is nothing without it's music and it's Williams who fills that void so beautifully, so emotionally and so wonderfully.
Rarely do pictures move me to tears, but a Williams score can have me sobbing like a 15 year-old girl watching The Notebook. More
Posted by haydonsmovies on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 12:10
Floods of Tears
Having sat and listened to all the excerpts and read this whole blog I am a total mess tears of joy and emotion on my face. The word genius is vastly overused about people with little more than mediocre talent at best, but in John William's case I think it doesn't even come close to describing him. He simply is the one of the greatest musicians and composers alive. More
Posted by mcmikeyboy on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 12:00
The Witches of Eastwick, The Fury, Amazing Stories AND The Mission ?
Dear Empire ... I'm impressed ! More
Posted by Dropje on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:58
One of my favorites must be "The Face of Pan", from the Hook soundtrack. Not very famous but still, simply beautiful. More
Posted by buffy_1008 on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:28
This has to be one of the best features you have ever done Empire, congratulations! Although justifiably, it could just be Williams' music that makes it so great! Happy birthday to one of the greatest composers we'll ever know. More
Posted by magikdethmonkey on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:24
A true poet and a genius
John WIlliams means more to me than any figure in either movies or music. Good feature Empire! More
Posted by mattpbrown on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:17
Wonderful Piece Empire
Written with real heart and knowledge. Big salute to Sir John! More
Posted by Blyman on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:10
Brings tear to the eye
What wonderful nostalgia. Skipping through decades of my emotional development through movies and Williams' music! So glad you mentioned the importance of Home Alone (it's our family's staple Xmas album). By the time we got to War Horse, that's it - I'm in pieces! Only snag is the general oversight of AI. Stored Memories/Monica's Theme is the most beautiful piece he wrote IMO (the slow beginning builds up to hauntingly beautiful & understated climax). And Catch Me If You Can, which has many great cues. But thanks Empire fo collating this for us. Made my day :-) More
Posted by oliraceking on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:04
Soundtrack of us
The importance of Williams as a greatest composer of our times - and I mean OUR - is confirmed simply by the grounds of those tracks. Just close your eyes and listen to them. And you can see the movies right there in your head. It's all you need. More
Posted by Pelle on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 09:24
Posted by artaylor on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 05:43
Here's to another 80 years
Two disappointments were omissions of the last twenty minutes worth of empire strikes back. The reason that film is regarded as the best in the star wars franchise is its finale. The other is the prisoner of Azkaban there are at least twelve tracks worth mentioning. If you ever buy a Williams soundtrack buy these two I promise you its the best things he's done as an entire soundtrack since the first star wars a new hope 35 years ago.
Posted by GrassyNol on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 00:49