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Hollywood composer John Williams turns 90

Sabine Oelze
February 7, 2022

From "Star Wars" to "Jaws," movie fans know and love the US composer's soundtracks. Williams holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a living person.

John Williams in front of an image of himself conducting.
Composer John Williams is a Hollywood legendImage: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/picture alliance

As the German edition of "Rolling Stone" magazine once wrote about composer John Williams: "It's not that he needs the films; the films need him."

The American composer took home his first Oscar in 1976 for the iconic soundtrack to the movie "Jaws," proving his worth early on.

Williams is a master of creating musical suspense.

Although the "Jaws" theme — commonly known as the "shark motif" — consists of only two alternating notes, it creates a feeling of imminent danger likely to give the listener goosebumps.

With his compositions, Williams always ensures the action on screen is underscored by an effective musical accompaniment — often with surprising twists.

John Williams in front of an orchestra in L.A. in 2018.
Williams has been guest conductor for a number of prominent orchestrasImage: Paul Hebert/AMPAS/ZUMA/picture alliance

Inspired by Richard Wagner

The complexity of his compositions can be heard in the scores for George Lucas' cult science fiction series "Star Wars." Williams' music underscores the space epic and has become so well-known that it is now even performed by the world's top orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic.

Whether announcing the appearance of Darth Vader in the "Imperial March" or underlining the drama in the "Battle of Hoth," "Star Wars" fans will recall how Williams' powerful compositions underscore the action in the films.

In the "Star Wars" music, as well as in other scores, Williams frequently uses motifs — every significant character and important scene is given its own musical theme.

For this approach, Williams drew inspiration from another master of epic orchestral works: Richard Wagner. The 19th-century composer was the master of creating leitmotifs around specific characters in his opera cycle "Der Ring des Nibelungen." Wagner used hundreds of leitmotifs in his works, each associated with a specific character or situation.

John Williams smiles, holding an Oscar he won for "Schindler's List" in 1994.
John Williams has been nominated for more Oscars than any other living personImage: NewsBase/AP/picture alliance

No need to read the script

Williams' approach to movie composition is unusual. He never reads the scripts, but rather watches the finished film before beginning to compose its music. He even writes down the notes by hand.

Although Williams is perhaps best known for the music in the "Star Wars" trilogy by director George Lucas, he has most often worked with director Steven Spielberg. The Hollywood director and the composer have collaborated on 28 films.

At the 2016 event for the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award that was presented to Williams, Spielberg praised the composer's work and his ability to harness the power that lies in music as it relates to film.

He compared Williams' complex compositions to the work of Debussy and Stravinsky and described the connection between director and composer as "a perfect marriage."

"Without John Williams, bikes don't fly and neither do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes," Spielberg said in his tribute to the composer. "There is no Force, dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe," the director added.

Hollywood just happened

Williams was born in New York in 1932. The son of an orchestral musician, he studied piano at the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan and worked as a jazz musician.

As a young musician, he didn't set out to write film scores, he once told BBC Music Magazine. He was more interested in playing the piano and, in his own words, was "pretty good" at it.

He claims his Hollywood career came about by chance: "I just put one foot in front of the other," he said. While performing on film scores by other composers as a session musician, he started composing his own scores, gaining recognition for his versatility in different music genres.

A record number of Oscar nominations

William's work is not only limited to film scores. Featured as a guest conductor for numerous orchestras, Williams also composed the 2002 Olympic anthem "Call of the Champions" for the Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the music for the swearing-in ceremony of US President Barack Obama in 2009. The composer has also created original works for famous classical musicians, such as violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

With 52 nods from the Academy to date, Williams currently holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a living person, and the second most-nominated individual after Walt Disney.

The list of Hollywood films for which he has composed soundtracks is notably impressive, including "E.T.," "Superman," the first three films of the Harry Potter series and "Schindler's List," among many others.

With the music for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," Williams earned his 52nd Oscar nomination in 2020.

He has won the prestigious award five times since 1972, for "Fiddler on the Roof," "Jaws," "Star Wars," "E.T." and "Schindler's List." 

An important milestone

John Williams' 90th birthday will be duly celebrated. Over the next months, orchestras, film and music associations are planning numerous tributes to mark the milestone.

In October 2021, Williams conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of his well-known compositions. That appearance was "a great honor and privilege" for him, he said at the time.

The compliment is now returned by the well-wishers: as a special gift, the album "John Williams: The Berlin Concert" will be released in honor of his birthday on February 7. It was created in cooperation with star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.


This article was translated from German.