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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:


Chase
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

21 RE: At no point...
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

22 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

23 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

24 Missed one!
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

25 The Greatest
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

26 FLASHMAN
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. More

Posted by Frank Comiskey on Thursday February 9, 2012, 10:52

27 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

28 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 SaiMore

Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:36

29 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

30 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

31 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

32 Great selection
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

33 Hook
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

34 Great Feature
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

35 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

36 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

37 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

38 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

39
that was amazing. thank you empire More

Posted by artaylor on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 05:43

40 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. More

Posted by GrassyNol on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 00:49

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