25 Grammy Awards. Five Oscars. Four Golden Globes. A record-breaking 54 Oscar nominations (the most recent came just this year). Musical scores for over 100 films—plus orchestral works, concertos, Olympic marches, you name it.
John Williams is the most performed composer of our time. But stats alone don’t capture the enduring appeal and impact of his music. You can’t zoom into a galaxy far, far away without hearing the opening chord of Star Wars; his haunting music for Schindler’s List was a threnody to lost lives; Harry Potter’s magic was made believable through his orchestration; and he helped Indiana Jones outwit the bad guys time and time again. John Williams’ music is part of our lives – and will be for generations to come.
It could be argued that Williams is the best friend American orchestras have ever had. His orchestral film scores are many Americans’ first encounter with the sound of a symphony. As cinematic scores took other directions, he put the music of a full orchestra center stage, giving movies scope and scale, grandeur and excitement. All along, he has written concert music for orchestras, often in the form of concertos for such stellar friends and colleagues as Yo-Yo Ma and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Concerts of his music by orchestras nationwide draw enthusiastic sell-out crowds. He was the Boston Pops’ music director for over a decade. Any orchestra that presents Williams conducting his own music—film scores and his more recent concertos—will fill the hall. And at orchestras across the country, he often donates his conducting services at fundraisers and benefit concerts. The League of American Orchestras gave Williams its Gold Baton award in 2006, stating that his “orchestral music for film, television and concert hall is an indelible part of America’s cultural fabric, inspiring millions of listeners worldwide.”
Now 91, Williams announced a while back that he wasn’t writing any more film scores. But he plans to go on composing concert works, declaring that there’s still so much music to make.
Simon Woods: John, it’s great to see you again! I want to start the conversation by asking you to tell me about the very first time you heard an orchestra that was to set you on this path you’ve been on.
John Williams: I remember very clearly going to my father’s radio broadcast of Your Hit Parade. Every Sunday night, an orchestra directed by a man named Mark Warnow did the American hit songs. My father was a member of the CBS Radio Orchestra, and when I was ten years old, in 1942, he took me to a rehearsal at the Hammerstein Theater in New York. That was the first time, I think, that I heard anything resembling an orchestra. It was a large production for radio in those days, probably a 40- or 50-piece orchestra.
In my early teen years, when I was taking music lessons every week in New York, I would go to his rehearsals. I’d sit behind him in the percussion section in the back of the orchestra and listen. I was fascinated watching the trombones and the trumpets—amazed that they would rest for a while and then suddenly they would all come together for some magical reason. As time passed, I noticed the wind section and the string section and the harp and piano and so on, and it piqued my interest. As an early teen, I began examining some of my father’s orchestration books. So that was how I became familiar with the sounds that an orchestra makes.
Subsequently, I think the first orchestra I heard in a concert performance was the Los Angeles Philharmonic, after my family moved to Southern California. The conductor was Charles Munch.
Woods: How amazing.
Williams: I think they played the Franck D Minor Symphony. Following that I heard many orchestras at the Hollywood Bowl. I became, very early on, a lover particularly of brass music and brass playing, and later discovered the French horn, which was always one of my great loves.
Woods: There’s something very appropriate about the fact that you first experienced orchestras from near the brass section, because the brass have always been your friends! That is your signature at least from Star Wars on, right?
Williams: That’s right. I was fascinated by the players, who I thought were wonderful. Sitting as a child that close to the blast of a sforzando and hearing the way the brass all came together. Whether indicated by the conductor or not, the players knew exactly where to play. I was hooked.
Woods: What was the first time you heard something that you had written played by an orchestra?
Williams: I had a neighbor in New York when I was maybe about 10 or 12 years old who played the trumpet. My father explained to me that I had to write the trumpet part a tone higher because of the key the instrument it was in. That was a eureka moment for me—that you had to write for each instrument in its own respective clef or key.
In high school, I remember orchestrating and conducting a little show for a group of student performers, including my late wife. This was in the late ’40s, in North Hollywood, California. So as a youngster, I had occasion to write things and have them be played back to me. It was always a learning process.
The first time I remember writing for a larger ensemble was during my service in the Air Force when I was 19 or 20 years old. I would do arrangements for concert band. We had a 50-piece band, and I wrote arrangements and adaptations and conducted them. It was thrilling for me. We had very good players in the bands, and again, lots of brass. Those were the first significant sounds that I put together.
Woods: Your first experience of conducting, of unleashing the sounds you had written—did that happen simply because it was more practical to conduct your own music? Or did you start as a conductor learning the technique of conducting, separate from conducting your own music?
Williams: Learning conducting for me was purely an act of self-defense! [Laughs.] When I began to write music for films, there were music directors at each studio. They had the authority and responsibility to conduct the works of their composers. I used to sit there for my early television programs and films, watching and listening to these music directors who I could tell had never seen the score before. I squirmed in my seat with my score in my lap, thinking if I could get onto the podium, I could better explain to the orchestra what my intentions were. These notes should be shorter, those longer, that’s too soft, we have to better tune the winds, etc.
Through happenstance, one of the music directors, actually a very good conductor and violinist, couldn’t conduct my score one day. His office called and asked if I could conduct the session. No one asked me if I knew how to conduct or if I ever studied it, but I did know the score very well, and I’d been a pianist in the orchestra for a few years by then, so I also knew the players very well. It went very nicely. It went on that way until I worked in television, where I was composing and conducting scores for hour-long shows, sometimes as much as 20 or 25 minutes a week, which was a lot.
If you could write the music, orchestrate it and conduct it, that was of great value to the music directors in the television department. I began conducting television sessions every week for six or seven years at Universal Studios. That basically describes how I got involved in conducting orchestras. I’ve always found it very pleasurable.
I often think that every conductor should compose to some extent, and that every composer should also try to conduct. They will learn mountains of information about orchestration, balance, performance challenges, notation of bowings, wind articulation, and so forth, that are minor details and not interesting until you put it all together, and then they become very, very important.
I often think that every conductor should compose to some extent, and that every composer should also try to conduct.
Woods: I was thinking about that iconic first chord of the Star Wars Main Title. It’s probably the most famous chord in music since the first chord of the Eroica Symphony. Audiences only need to hear it, and they go crazy! Talk to me about that chord, about how it’s written, and how your learning had led you to be able to create that iconic moment.
Williams: I haven’t looked at it in quite a while. One thing I can tell you about it is the nature of the attack. It was originally preceded by a scale run-up to the top C in the trumpets, but I removed that, and the result was a chord that required a certain kind of attack from everybody in the top register without having followed some preparatory scale up to it. Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra, who recorded the original soundtrack, was a great trumpeter. When he hit the top C, it shook the whole world. He just grabbed it without any preparation or pickup for a big sound. It’s like interrupting the swell of a rubato and attacking without any kind of precedent. It was a shock to hear Maurice play that so brilliantly, so in tune, so confidently, at the extreme altissimo end of the trumpet range. It had a resonance. That may explain it or it may not, I don’t know.
Woods: Changing subjects for a moment: in the last few years, you have had a wonderful relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic. What have they brought to your music that you didn’t know was there?
Williams: The visits to Vienna and Berlin represent such an honor for any musician—to ascend those podiums and be accepted by those groups. What we owe to Germany starting with Bach, and even before him, Pachelbel, Schütz, Telemann—one can feel that tradition and history in those orchestras. It’s thrilling.
I was listening to a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic yesterday, and the sound is so round and full, beautifully in tune, and you sense just the right amount of pressure on the strings. There’s incredible versatility, and great history, great shared unconscious resonance with the past that one feels in those countries as a musician. It is the cradle, really, of orchestral repertoire and performance. Our roots as musicians are so largely located there that the experience of making music with them is unique.
I can only put dots on a paper; it doesn’t become music until it’s interpreted by a great orchestra and has an audience to hear it. Then what’s written on the paper becomes music, becomes a communal act.
Woods: Coming back to this side of the Atlantic, I want to talk about the concerts you’ve done with American orchestras, conducting special evenings of your own music.
Sometimes you’ve brought Steven Spielberg with you, to the great joy of audiences. When you both came to the Seattle Symphony in 2017, we had decided that as the concert was already sold out, we wouldn’t tell the audience that Steven would appear. I remember when you turned to the audience and said, “Please welcome my friend, Steven Spielberg,” and then Steven walked out on stage. That was one of those moments you live for as an orchestra manager: seeing the audience electrified with that once-in-a-lifetime moment.
I know that it’s been very personal for you, going to those orchestras and giving back to them.
Williams: I’ve loved those concerts. They’ve allowed me to work with so many great orchestras, meeting them, getting to know them, and so on. Some years before I was conducting the Boston Pops, I did a few of these concerts and enjoyed them very much. My feeling is that I can only put dots on a paper; it doesn’t become music until it’s interpreted by a great orchestra and has an audience to hear it. Then what’s written on the paper becomes music, becomes a communal act. The orchestra is part of the audience, and the audience surrenders itself to the orchestra for an hour or two or three. As a composer, I feel a great debt to interpreters and performers of my music. They’re partners in the creative process.
In terms of history, as you know, my father was an orchestral musician, and I don’t believe that when he was working in the 1930s and ’40s, orchestral musicians had pension or retirement funds or health plans. So I’ve had great pleasure in being able to do a number of pension fund benefit concerts for orchestras, not asking for a fee, but simply being able to support something for today’s musicians that my father didn’t have. We’ve made great progress, and there’s more to be done. I feel as a composer and a musician that I owe this to my orchestral colleagues. And it’s wonderful that Steven has joined me on any number of occasions. It’s been a great fundraising success whenever we’ve done it. He loves music, by the way.
Woods: Steven’s father was a subscriber at the LA Phil for years, wasn’t he?
Williams: I think he must have been. Earlier in his life when they were living in Philadelphia, they were subscribers, I believe, to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Steven was taken there as a child frequently by his parents. His mother was a very good amateur classical pianist, and he can’t get enough of the orchestra. Whenever we go out and do these concerts, he gets a childlike thrill from meeting the orchestra and accepting the audience’s applause when he arrives. It’s something we’ve done for a number of years, and I hope we can continue.
I’ve had great pleasure in being able to do pension fund benefit concerts for orchestras, not asking for a fee, but simply being able to support something for today’s musicians.
Woods: The greatest tribute I’ve seen him pay to you is when he shows a sequence from one of his movies without the music, and he critiques it hilariously. Then he says, “Now we’ll hear what John brings to this.” And it’s breathtaking, because it does remind us of just how much the music can totally transform a scene.
Williams: It is quite amazing what music can contribute to films. It’s difficult for any of us to really analyze how this audio-visual thing works. But the orchestras are partners in making these films. Steven recognizes this. As most directors do.
Let me point out that years ago, the actor and comedian Danny Kaye performed with dozens of American orchestras and contributed his time and raised a lot of money for them. Nobody else in the intervening decades from the Hollywood community and the movie industry dedicated themselves to recognizing and contributing to our orchestras until Steven came along. It’s part of his general philanthropic nature, combined with his love for music: he recognizes what the orchestra is.
As we make films, an orchestra is a partner, like the actors and writers. They contribute in all manner of ways. Tempo and melodic identification, textures of all kinds, and period references and allusions. Steven is perhaps the most senior person in the Hollywood community who’s been an active supporter of symphony orchestras since Danny Kaye. That makes him quite precious in our musical circles.
Woods: What comes now for you? You said you’re done with writing film music. It’s hard to believe that, but I’ll take you at face value. So, what remains to be done as a composer? What do you still want to get down on paper?
Williams: At my age, Simon, I find it a little bit dangerous to think too far ahead. That sounds very negative, I suppose. But I can start with the here and now. The here and now is that I’m writing—or attempting to write—a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax. All I can say about it is that, given the great canon of piano and orchestral repertoire, it takes temerity or chutzpah to attempt this! [Laughs.] But I’m doing it.
At this point in life, you don’t know what kind of energy you’re going to have a year or two from now. I have to live in the present, contribute what little I can, and enjoy making music, which is such an important part of human life. Human experience would be empty without music, even though we’re not conscious of our need for it and our reliance on it. I have the greatest set of opportunities anyone could have to look forward to. I have to write every day for an hour or two at least, to feel like my breathing is right and things are balanced in life. What a gift to be able to have that joy in music.
We’re sitting on the shoulders of Mozart and Haydn. We still have to do what we humbly can.
Human experience would be empty without music, even though we’re not conscious of our need for it and our reliance on it.
Woods: You’ve mentioned Bach and Mozart and Haydn, but I’m curious: what music from the past is the most personal to you? The work that after a lifetime in music still resonates with you in a deep way, the music that you would take to a desert island?
Williams: I have the experience that so many musicians do. When I was a youngster, I loved jazz, I loved Stravinsky, I loved Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and so on. I still do. But now I read scores, mostly Beethoven, some Haydn, some Mozart, and so on. I think of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony as being such a glorious gem. I will use a word, and probably regret it, but it’s simple music. It’s tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic. But it still seems to me the greatest music we have. My tastes have become quite simple.
I’m writing every day, and when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about what the next passage is going to be, or the next hurdle to overcome. I will listen to other music and often think, well, it’s so much better than what I write. Why would I want to do that? [Laughing.] What we already have is so miraculous. Harvey Sachs has written a new book about Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was talking about the process of composition, and as I recall, he basically says, and I’m paraphrasing, that you work as hard as you can possibly work and put every bit of knowledge you have into your work, and when you’ve finished all of that, some kind of providential gift might emerge in the piece that is beyond anything that your meager talent would have anticipated. And that’s the thing that lights the music. It’s the spiritual element that most of us with our limited abilities, can’t put there.
I also believe in that. What he’s saying is that we do the best work as hard as we can, do as much self-correcting and editing as possible to get things as beautifully made as they can be. And after the fact, you may be gifted by some aspect of spirituality in the music that you might not have anticipated.
Woods: John, the love that you have poured into your art and craft over so many decades is a constant source of joy to musicians and orchestras and audiences. On behalf of all of us, a sincere thank you to you for everything that you have done for music. It is really a remarkable achievement, and it couldn’t be a greater honor than to sit with you today and talk about it.
Williams: Thank you, Simon. It’s been a pleasure.