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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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Main Theme
First heard in: Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (1977)

Early on during the Star Wars recording sessions at Anvil Studios in Denham, George Lucas took a break during proceedings to phone a friend. The friend he called was Steven Spielberg, who had recommended the composer to Lucas following Jaws. As the London Symphony Orchestra played the now familiar themes for the first time, an excited Lucas held the phone out towards them for half an hour to share in the excitement.

What Spielberg was listening represented a seismic change in movie music — in soundtrack terms there is Before Star Wars and After Star Wars. Eschewing Lucas' idea to score the movie 2001-style with existing classical music — as temp tracks, Lucas employed Stravinsky, Miklos Rozsa's Ivanhoe (for the main title), Bruckner's Ninth Symphony as Luke's theme and Dvořák's New World symphony for the medal ceremony— Williams created sweeping themes in a then defunct Hollywood tradition, grounding the otherworldly characters and settings in a familiar musical landscape.

The subsequent 90 odd minutes of music not only brought Williams his third Oscar and the biggest selling non pop soundtrack of all time, it ushered in a renaissance in large scale orchestras in general and a Wagnerian leitmotif approach in particular that sees a phrase or melody signify a character, place or idea ("dramaturgical glue" as Williams calls it). As such what we now know as the Star Wars theme initially started life as a motif for Luke Skywalker — we hear a particularly warm rendition the first time we meet him down on the farm, a triumphant version when he pulls the grapple hook from his belt to swing across the Death Star and an urgent anxious version as he zeroes in on the Death Star exhaust port. Six films later, the fanfare is more widely perceived as a statement representing the whole saga, kick-starting each film with an intense burst of orchestral energy. The theme became so popular that Meco's disco version hit number one on the Billboard chart and has been covered in styles as diverse as reggae (Ska Wars), baroque, skiffle (courtesy of Mark Kermode) Japanese Shamizen and by lounge lizard Nick Witter.

Listen to an excerpt:

Marion's Theme
First heard in: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

"A cross between Dark Victory and the love scene from Casablanca" is Spielberg's description of the music to represent Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). It remains one of the loveliest of Williams' gentler themes — receiving its best rendition during the movie as Marion tries to find a place to kiss a battered and bruised Indy — but gets a sweeping rendition as the action moves to Cairo and a melodramatic airing as Indy watches Marion get blown up (don't worry, she's alright). It is perhaps too delicate than the character herself would like but it is a tender moment of beauty in a score dominated by boys-y bravado.

Listen to an excerpt:

First heard in: Jaws (1975)

It is a major part of any film composer's job description to provide music for a montage sequence. In Jaws' case, this means a sequence juxtaposing a ferry-load of Fourth of July holidaymakers arriving in Amity with Brody and Hooper's frantic attempts to make the beaches safe. In contrast, Williams gives us a refined but light-hearted classical piece of Americana (it sounds more New England than Wild West), starting with a stately string melody before giving away to bright brass and woodwind flourishes. On the original soundtrack, the cue was named Promenade and given an uncharacteristically black humoured subtitle — Tourists On The Menu.

Listen to an excerpt:

Let There Be Light
First heard in: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

It remains one of the most effective openings in movie history. Simple white titles appear over a black background. Slowly, we hear an ethereal, shimmering noise that changes pitch as it increases in volume, reaching a crescendo as seemingly the whole ensemble delivers one great big orchestral hit as the screen goes to black to a few frames of white to the middle of sandstorm. It might feel like an obvious shock tactic but as a way of getting the audience's undivided attention from the get-go, it works a treat.

Listen to an excerpt:


First heard in: The Sugarland Express (1974)

While the likes of Duel had been done by Universal contract composer Billy Goldenberg, Spielberg turned to his vast soundtrack album collection to find a composer for his debut feature film. He felt The Sugarland Express needed big broad symphonic music so was immediately drawn to Williams' work and invited the composer to see the picture.

As was soon to become the norm for their working partnership, Williams persuaded the director that a different musical direction was needed. Rather than something big and bold, Williams felt the small scale story of a young Texan couple (Goldie Hawn, William Atherton) going on the run from a cavalcade of cops to pick up their young son from adoptive parents needed something more intimate and human. To help locate the film in its Southern state, Williams used the harmonica as the primary voice in the composition and enlisted the celebrated Belgian harmonica maestro 'Toots' Thielemans' to be his musical conduit. The theme in the movie is simple, folksy and direct, less ornate than the concert arrangement below, and might not stand at the forefront of the Williams-Spielberg collaborations. But Sugarland remains important in the composer's pantheon for the start of a beautiful, enduring and still creatively exciting partnership.

Listen to an excerpt:

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Have Your Say
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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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