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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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Wild Signals
First heard in: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

Not content with having the most famous two-note motif in movie history — the E and the F of Jaws — Close Encounters also gave Williams the most famous five note sequence as well. Few films have music more integrated into the fabric of their plot than Spielberg's UFO epic, the screenplay built on the notion that mankind and aliens communicate through lights, colour but mainly music.

"I don't know where that idea came from," Spielberg told DVD documentarian Laurent Bouzereau. "I just thought it would be really cool to have aliens and humans communicating by what reaches us quicker than anything else which is the passion of music and my own love of music was sort of a part of that too."

It was Williams key musical task to give form to Spielberg's inter-galactic greeting. The composer's initial idea to was to have seven or eight notes, perhaps echoing When You Wish Upon A Star, the song from Pinocchio that Spielberg used to sum up the film's optimism. Yet the director was adamant that the signal should only be five notes, "more like a ding dong, it's not a melody, not even a phrase," according to Williams — this was to prove a challenge for the composer.

"It was very difficult to make the signal have any kind of musical sense," recalled Williams. "I remember writing maybe 250, 300 of these things. I had a few meetings with Steven to play him all of these little themes and we could never figure it out. We were never able to say 'Eureka! This is exactly the one we want!" I thought we'd examined everything; maybe three hundred examples of the five note variations within the scale and Steven said, "Oh there must be more. We'll call this friend of mine who is a mathematician to ask him how many five-note combinations within the twelve-note scale there are. Steven's friend rang us back an hour or so later and he said, 'Approximately 134,000'."

In frustration, the pair landed on one of the initial 300 variations. This was all done before Williams had seen a frame of film or even read a script and the notes — B flat, C, A flat, (octave lower) A flat, E flat as heard at Devil's Tower — were recorded a year before filming commenced. Even though, it is barely a melody, the theme works well in its full-blown orchestral version that plays over the end of the movies as it does in this stripped down synthesizer-mothership conversation. In the 35 years since the movie came out, it has became a by-theme for any kind of alien activity and has been referenced in culture as diverse as Moonraker — it is the sound of a door code at Drax' s Laboratory — Monsters Vs. Aliens and ITV's happily defunct Heartbeat.

Listen to an excerpt:

First heard in: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

As all the plot strands of E.T. converge towards the end— E.T.'s need to get home, the government's desire to nab him, Elliott is caught in the middle — Williams draws on all his thematic material and intelligently weaves it to tell the story musically. The score flits between the menacing brass motif that has stood in for Keys and co. and a theme we have previously heard more playfully — as Elliott lays out Reese's Pieces for E.T. — now been ramped up into a full urgent, belting orchestration. The piece also showcases Williams at hitting visual sync points with his music — listen out for the musical sting that accompanies the cut to the Govt. henchman. The urgent theme also gets a lovely piano reprise as the end credits roll.

Listen to an excerpt:

Love Theme
First heard in: Superman The Movie (1978)

The theme representing the romance between Superman and Lois Lane was originally planned as a full-blown song, Can You Read My Mind, for Margot Kidder to sing. It even got to the stage where lyrics were penned by Bond lyricist Leslie Bricusse until Donner nixed the idea, turning it into a voiceover during the in-flight courtship scene. This was A Good Thing because a) Bricusse's lyrics were awful ("You can fly/You belong in the sky") and b) it remains one of Williams most gorgeous love themes, by turns bittersweet and high flying, starting with a gently rocking figure and closing in contemplative mood.

Listen to an excerpt:

Final Duel
First heard in: Star Wars Episode VI Return Of The Jedi (1983)

Williams had only flirted with choral passages in the first two Star Wars flicks — the heavenly voices that greet the Falcon's arrival at Bespin — but went the full hog for the operatic ending of Jedi. Williams not only creates a new diabolical all male choir motif for The Emperor, but for the moment where Luke comes out of hiding to duel with Vader ("If you will not turn to the dark side, then perhaps she will." "Noooooo!"), Williams unleashes a devastating choral statement that gives the duel even further mythic resonances. Slower and richer than Duel Of The Fates, it was proof that vocal arrangements could work in the Star Wars musical universe, something Williams explored to great effect in the prequels.

Listen to an excerpt:

Jurassic Park B Theme
First heard in: Jurassic Park (1993)

To counterpoint the grace and beauty of his A motif, Williams created a rousing adventure theme for the theme park. Heard in its most dramatic statement as the InGen helicopter arrives at Isla Nublar, it is a classic adventure tune, a brass fanfare augmented by timpani and crashing cymbals. Less pulp-y than Raiders, less formal than Star Wars, it is the only music suitable for being chased across a pasture by 65 million year old outsized chickens. It is astonishing to think that Williams composed the diametrically opposed music for Schindler's List straight after.

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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