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date: 09 April 2020

Williams, John (Towner)free

  • Christopher Palmer
  • , revised by Martin Marks

(b New York, NY, 8 Feb 1932). Composer, arranger, conductor, and pianist.

Boston Pops conductor John Williams, right, shakes hands with Star Wars character C-3PO at a news conference in this April 30, 1980 photo, in Boston.

(AP Photo)

He learned the piano from the age of eight and after moving to Los Angeles with his family in 1948 studied with the pianist and arranger Bobby Van Eps. He served in the US Air Force (1951–4), orchestrating for and conducting service bands, then moved back to New York, where he studied for a year with Rosina Lhévinne at the Juilliard School and played in jazz clubs and recording studios. After returning to the West Coast he enrolled at UCLA and took up private composition studies with Arthur Olaf Andersen and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, among others. From 1956 Williams was a studio pianist in Hollywood and two years later began arranging and composing music for television, contributing the main title to Checkmate (1960; see Thomas and Burlingame). Through the mid-1960s he composed for several series and worked for Columbia Records as a pianist, arranger, and conductor; he also made a number of albums with André Previn. During this period Williams began scoring feature films, with many of his earliest scores for comedies, such as John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1964), and How to Steal a Million (1966). He also worked on more serious projects with major directors, including Robert Altman (Images, 1972, and The Long Goodbye, 1973). Williams briefly became typecast as a disaster-film specialist, owing to his successful score for The Poseidon Adventure (1972); it contained one of his few popular song hits, “The Morning After,” with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Indicative of his talent at this time are the Americana of The Reivers (1969), the heartfelt English lyricism of Jane Eyre (1971) and the rousing Western style of The Cowboys (1972). Williams later arranged music from each of these three films into popular concert works.

The long and close association of Williams with the director Steven Spielberg began with The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws (1975). In 1977 he scored Spielberg's masterly Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released only a few months after Star Wars, the film that began his similarly close association with director George Lucas. These and following films marked Williams's ascent to a pre-eminent position in Hollywood, as well as the re-emergence and critical approbation of the symphonic film score, dormant for nearly a decade. Within the next six years came music of comparable power for The Fury (1978), Superman (1978), Dracula (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial (1982). Since then, Williams has remained a uniquely famous and popular film composer; he has generally scored two films each year, including every Spielberg film except The Color Purple (scored by Quincy Jones). No less notable are his recent scores for the director Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July, 1989, JFK, 1991, and Nixon, 1995), as well as lighter, more lyrical, and witty projects such as The Accidental Tourist (1988), Stanley and Iris (1990), Home Alone (1990), and Sabrina (1995). He has also composed several signature tunes for NBC and a series of popular Olympic fanfares; by 2016 he had received five Academy Awards from 50 nominations and more than 30 Grammy awards and nominations.

Williams freely acknowledges his stylistic debt to various 20th-century concert composers—among them Elgar, whom he greatly admires—and perpetuates the traditions of film-scoring developed by such composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Miklós Rózsa, as well as arrangers such as Conrad Salinger. His own skill as an arranger, for example in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and Tom Sawyer (1973), owes much to Salinger, as does the poetic feeling for the beauty of sound manifest in all his orchestral work. In the 1980s, in films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Empire of the Sun (1987), Williams steadily expanded his stylistic range, partly by incorporating choral textures (sometimes with text). His unerring dramatic instinct and musical inventiveness are well shown in Spielberg's contrasting projects, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List (both 1993). Moreover, his score for the latter, along with those for Born on the Fourth of July, JFK (1991), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), display his acute response to tragedy and sense of the epic.

Williams is fundamentally a romantic traditionalist, but often blends traditional musical syntax and expression with avant-garde techniques and elements of popular music. More than any of his contemporaries he has developed the ability to express the dramatic essence of a film in memorable musical ideas; likewise, he is able to shape each score to build climaxes that mirror a particular narrative structure. The score to Close Encounters, for example, is built upon a small range of related motivic fragments: a 5-note “aliens” theme, the first four notes of the Dies irae, an ascending tritone, and a related, disguised kernel from the Disney standard, “When you wish upon a star.” These fragments, relevant to the narrative, are interwoven to shape a score with dramatic, emotional, and musical logic, and which moves from a harmonically clouded beginning to a lush and expansive diatonic climax.

Williams has always maintained a steady flow of concert works, mostly written in an advanced but still tonal and intelligibly expressive idiom. Among the early works, his Essay for strings (1966) has been widely played and his Symphony (1966) received an important London performance in 1972 under Previn. He has composed several concertos, beginning with dissonant ones for flute (1969) and violin (begun in 1974, following the death of his first wife, and completed in 1976). More recent concertos are written in simpler idioms, and the bassoon concerto (The Five Sacred Trees, 1995), inspired by the writings of the British poet and mythologist Robert Graves, is personal and reflective. In 1980 Williams succeeded Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a position which enabled him to compose many occasional pieces, as well as to conduct numerous best-selling recordings of works in the classical and film repertories. Although he retired from this position in 1993, he has continued to make frequent guest appearances in Boston and at Tanglewood, as well as with numerous other major orchestras, ranking high among America's most eloquent and representative composers. He was a recipient in 2004 of the Kennedy Center Honors.


(selective list)

Film scores

Diamond Head (dir. G. Green), 1963

John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (dir. J.L. Thompson), 1964

How to Steal a Million (dir. W. Wyler), 1966

Fitzwilly (dir. D. Mann), 1967

Valley of the Dolls (dir. M. Robson), 1967

Heidi, 1968 [television]

The Reivers (dir. M. Rydell), 1969

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (dir. H. Ross), 1969 [adaption of score by L. Bricusse]

Fiddler on the Roof (dir. N. Jewison), 1971 [adaption of score by J. Bock]

Jane Eyre (dir. D. Mann), 1971 [television film]

The Cowboys (dir. M. Rydell), 1972

Images (dir. R. Altman), 1972

The Poseidon Adventure (dir. R. Neame), 1972

The Long Goodbye (dir. R. Altman), 1973

The Paper Chase (dir. J. Bridges), 1973

Tom Sawyer (dir. D. Taylor), 1973

Cinderella Liberty (dir. M. Rydell), 1974

Conrack (dir. M. Ritt), 1974

Earthquake (dir. M. Robson), 1974

The Towering Inferno (dir. J. Guillermin), 1974

The Sugarland Express (dir. S. Spielberg), 1974

Jaws (dir. S. Spielberg), 1975

Family Plot (dir. A. Hitchcock), 1976

The Missouri Breaks (dir. A. Penn), 1976

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. S. Spielberg), 1977

Star Wars (dir. G. Lucas), 1977

The Fury (dir. B. DePalma), 1978

Superman (dir. R. Donner), 1978

Dracula (dir. J. Badham), 1979

1941 (dir. S. Spielberg), 1979

The Empire Strikes Back (dir. I. Kershner), 1980

Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir. S. Spielberg), 1981

E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial (dir. S. Spielberg), 1982

Monsignor (dir. F. Perry), 1982

Return of the Jedi (dir. R. Marquand), 1983

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (dir. S. Spielberg), 1984

The River (dir. M. Rydell), 1984

Empire of the Sun (dir. S. Spielberg), 1987

The Witches of Eastwick (dir. G. Miller), 1987

The Accidental Tourist (dir. L. Kasdan), 1988

Always (dir. S. Spielberg), 1989

Born on the Fourth of July (dir. O. Stone), 1989

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (dir. S. Spielberg), 1989

Home Alone (dir. C. Columbus), 1990

Presumed Innocent (dir. A.J. Pakula), 1990

Stanley and Iris (dir. M. Ritt), 1990

Hook (dir. S. Spielberg), 1991

JFK (dir. O. Stone), 1991

Far and Away (dir. R. Howard), 1992

Jurassic Park (dir. S. Spielberg), 1993

Schindler's List (dir. S. Spielberg), 1993

Nixon (dir. O. Stone), 1995

Sabrina (dir. S. Pollack), 1995

Sleepers (dir. B. Levinson), 1996

Amistad (dir. S. Spielberg), 1997

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (dir. S. Spielberg), 1997

Rosewood (dir. J. Singleton), 1997

Seven Years in Tibet (dir. J.-J. Annaud), 1997

Saving Private Ryan (dir. S. Spielberg), 1998

Stepmom (dir. C. Columbus), 1998

Star Wars: Episode I, the Phantom Menace (dir. G. Lucas), 1999

Angela's Ashes (dir. A. Parker), 1999

The Patriot (dir. R. Emmerich), 2000

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (dir. S. Spielberg), 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (dir. C. Columbus), 2001

Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones (dir. G. Lucas), 2002

Minority Report (dir. S. Spielberg), 2002

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (dir. C. Columbus), 2002

Catch Me If You Can (dir. S. Spielberg), 2002

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (dir. A. Cuarón), 2004

The Terminal (dir. S. Spielberg), 2004

Memoirs of a Geisha (dir. R. Marshall), 2005

Munich (dir. S. Spielberg), 2005

Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (dir. G. Lucas), 2005

War of the Worlds (dir. S. Spielberg), 2005

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (dir. S. Spielberg), 2008

A Timeless Call (dir. S. Spielberg), 2008

The Adventures of Tintin (dir. S. Spielberg), 2011

War Horse (dir. S. Spielberg), 2011

Lincoln (dir. S. Spielberg), 2012

The Book Thief (dir. B. Percival), 2013

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams), 2015

The BFG (dir. S. Spielberg), 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. G. Edwards), 2016

Dear Basketball (dir. G. Keane), 2017

The Post (dir. S. Spielberg), 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. R. Johnson), 2017

Television series and themes

1958–60: Episodes of Bachelor Father; Checkmate [also title theme]; General Electric Theater; Gilligan's Island; Tales of Wells Fargo; Wagon Train; Wide Country

1961–3: Alcoa Premiere

1963–5: Kraft Suspense Theater

1965–8: Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants

1985: The Mission Theme and others, NBC News

1988: The Olympic Spirit, NBC Sports

Other works

Orchestral and choral

Essay, str, 1966

Sym., 1966, rev. 1972

Jubilee 350 Fanfare, 1980

America … the Dream Goes On (A. and M. Bergman), male v, chor, orch, 1981

Fanfare for a Festive Occasion, 1981

Pops on the March, 1981

Esplanade Ov., 1982

Olympic Fanfare and Theme, 1984

Celebration Fanfare, 1986

Liberty Fanfare, 1986

A Hymn to New England, 1987

We’re lookin’ good (A. and M. Bergman), 1987

Fanfare for Michael Dukakis, 1988

To Lenny! To Lenny!, 1988

Fanfare for Ten-Year-Olds, 1989

Winter Games Fanfare, 1989

Celebrate Discovery!, 1990

Fanfare for Prince Philip, 1992

Sound the Bells!, 1993

Satellite Celebration, 1995

Variations on “Happy Birthday,” 1995

Summon the Heroes, 1996

Seven for Luck (R. Dove), song cycle, s, orch, 1998

Air and Simple Gifts, vn, vc, pf, cl [composed for President Barack Obama inauguration]


Fl Conc., 1969

Vn Conc., 1976

Tuba Conc., 1985

Cl Conc., 1991

Cel Conc., 1994

Bn Conc., “The Five Sacred Trees,” 1995

Tpt Conc., 1996

Hn Conc., 2003

Conc. for Vn and Va, 2009

Hp Conc., 2009

Ob Conc., 2011

Other instrumental

Pf Sonata, 1951

Prelude and Fugue, wind ens, perc, 1968

A Nostalgic Jazz Odyssey, 1971

many suites adapted from film music

Principal publishers: Colgems, Fox Fanfares, H. Leonard, MCA Music, Warner Bros.


  • CBY 1980
  • I. Bazelon: Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music (New York, 1975), 193–206
  • D. Elley: “The Film Composer: John Williams,” Films and Filming, xxiv (1977–8), no.10, 20–24; no.11, 30–33
  • T. Thomas: “John Williams,” Film Score: the View from the Podium (South Brunswick, NJ, 1979, 2/1991 as Film Score: the Art and Craft of Movie Music), 324–40
  • F. Karlin and R. Wright: On the Track: a Guide to Contemporary Film Scoring (New York, 1990, 2/2004)
  • The Cue Sheet, viii/1 (1991) [John Williams issue]
  • K. Kalinak: Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Madison, WI, 1992), 184–202
  • J. Burlingame: TV's Biggest Hits: the Story of Television Themes from “Dragnet” to “Friends” (New York, 1996)
  • Film Score Monthly, ii/1 (1997) [Star Wars issue]
  • T. Scheurer: “John Williams and Film Music Since 1971,” Popular Music and Society, xxi/1 (1997), 59–72
  • D. Adams: “The Sounds of the Empire: Analyzing the Themes of the Star Wars Trilogy,” Film Score Monthly, iv/5 (1999), 22–5
  • R. Dyer: “Making Star Wars Sing Again,” Boston Globe (28 March 1999); repr. in Film Score Monthly, iv/5 (1999), 18–21
  • J. Buhler: “Star Wars, Music, and Myth,” Music and Cinema, eds. J. Buhler, C. Flinn, and D. Neumeyer (Hanover, NH, 2000), 33–57
  • N. Lerner: “Nostalgia, Masculinist Discourse, and Authoritarianism in John Williams’ Scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters with the Third Kind,” Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema, ed. P. Hayward (London, 2004), 96–108
  • M. Cooke: A History of Film Music (New York, 2008), 456–66
  • P. Moormann: Spielberg-Variationen: die Filmmusik von John Williams (Baden-Baden, 2010)
  • J. Williams: “Star Wars,” The Hollywood Film Music Reader, ed. M. Cooke (New York, 2010), 233–44
  • R. Rodman: “John William’s Music to Lost in Space: The Monumental, the Profound, and the Hyperbolic,” Music in Science Fiction Television: Tuned to the Future, eds. K. Donnelly and P. Hayward (New York, 2013), 34–51
  • E. Audissino: John William’s Film Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Return of Classical Hollywood Music Style (Madison, WI, 2014)
  • T. Schneller: “Sweet Fulfillment: Allusion and Teleological Genesis in John William’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” The Musical Quarterly 97, no. 1 (2014), 98–131
  • F. Lehman: “Scoring the President: Myth and Politics in John Williams’s JFK and Nixon,” Journal of the Society for American Music, ix/4 (2015): 409–44