You can fly.
You can fight evil.
You can mount adventures, study magic, con the FBI, save the innocent, lead a nation. All these things and more are made possible by one man’s practice of a special art: John Williams, film composer.
Williams is the composer who, more than any other, has defined movie music over the last five decades, in films from “Jaws” and the “Star Wars” series, to the “Indiana Jones” franchise, “Superman,” “Jurassic Park,” “E.T. the Extra-terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List,” “Catch Me if You Can,” the first three installments of “Harry Potter,” and “Lincoln.” The titles of all the films scored by the onetime jazz pianist would take up half the space of this article. Suffice it to say that Williams has been nominated for more than 50 Oscars, though he has somehow managed to win only five.
Williams’s importance to music goes way beyond awards and accolades. At a moment in film history when music had lost sight of its role, he restored and recharged the art form.
Bringing Back Feelings
In the 1960s, when Williams first made the scene, film music was undergoing a significant change; popular song had made inroads into what was previously symphonic terrain. From its inception in the early talkies, “movie music” meant lush Romantic scoring, orchestral music with the harmonic character of late 19th-century classical scores.
The earliest film composers, such as Max Steiner (“Gone With the Wind”) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) were students of the last Romantic-era composers of Europe. This older style fit the new art of motion pictures for good reason: Moving images convey information, including characters’ emotions. But it cannot instill those feelings in the viewers. Music can.
Consider the scene in “Gone With the Wind” in which Scarlett, after scrounging food from the war-ravaged ground of Tara, looks up to the sky and says, “I’ll never be hungry again.” Steiner’s music at this point soars with renewed purpose and heroic overcoming. Try watching the scene with the sound off. You can still read Scarlett’s emotions on Vivian Leigh’s face, but you don’t feel them yourself. Without music, emotions stay on the screen.
Music as a link to characters’ feelings began to slip away with the arrival of rock. The Simon and Garfunkel songs used in “The Graduate” give cultural context to the story, but the emotions felt by the audience likely have more to do with what they were feeling when they first heard “The Sound of Silence.” Ennio Morricone’s innovative beat-driven, guitar-heavy music for Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” suggested the emptiness of a denatured American West, but we never really knew what Clint Eastwood was feeling.
Enter John Williams. Following a stint as jazz pianist “Johnny Williams” and an early attempt at composing a Broadway musical, Williams turned to film. His orchestrations for the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) won him Oscar No. 1, and then came the John Wayne western “The Cowboys” (1972), a full-blooded score that placed Williams squarely in the Steiner-Korngold ring. The overture is still a favorite on symphonic pops programs.
Before the ‘70s were out, Williams would produce two iconic scores: “Jaws” and the first “Star Wars” feature. The former showed what power can be had in a two-note motif when given to the right instrument (the double basses, in this case), while the latter, arguably the best-known film score in history, sparked the revival of symphonic movie music.
Williams’s technique combines arching melodies, which suggest his early Broadway ambitions, with harmonies that exhibit the Romantic alteration of the scale called “chromaticism.” It’s not a difficult concept: Chromatic notes are the ones not included in the familiar “do-re-mi” scale, the notes in between do and re, re and mi, and so on. Williams employs these conservatively at times, extensively at others.
The main theme of “Star Wars” is chromatic only once, at the important return from the middle section to the famous opening. On the other hand, the cue known as “Luke and Leia,” from “Return of the Jedi” (1983), is chromatic to the point of mystery, which fits exactly the secret that the title characters are about to learn. Luke and Leia discover they are brother and sister, and we feel it.
“Hedwig’s Theme” from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001) conjures magic with chromatic notes that suggest another world, while “Lincoln” (2012) maintains a foursquare, non-chromatic folksiness, except during the chromatic chaos of Lincoln’s dream.
Perhaps most poignant of all Williams’s themes is that for “Schindler’s List” (1994), a project he at first declined, telling director Steven Spielberg he didn’t consider himself accomplished enough to address the film’s noble theme. For one of the few times in his career, he was mistaken.
The music of John Williams, on screen or off, is a reminder that to move forward in art, we don’t necessarily have to abandon the past. Sometimes, a return reveals more than a rejection.
Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He is the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).