Meet John Williams

Composer John Williams with glasses and jacket.

Very few film composers can claim to be a household name; John Williams is perhaps the exception to the rule. For over 50 years, his distinctive sound has accompanied countless big screen landmarks and blockbuster favourites. From Jaws to Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, his list of iconic themes is unmatched in the history of cinema.

Williams was born into a musical family. His father Johnny Williams was a celebrated percussionist, performing with the Raymond Scott Quintette before, in the 1940s, relocating to California where he worked as a session musician for Columbia Pictures.

Born in 1932, the junior Williams started taking piano lessons when he was just seven years old and, by the time of the family’s move to the west coast, he was already considered a talented jazz pianist. In 1955, following a four-year stint of military service during which he worked with the US Air Force Band, Williams studied at New York’s acclaimed Juilliard School where his talent for composition flourished.

Making his feature film debut in 1958 with B-movie crime drama Daddy-O, Williams honed his craft in Hollywood as a session player (like his father) and orchestrator. By the mid-1960s, he was an established TV and film composer and received the first of his 52 Academy Award nominations for his work on Valley of the Dolls (1967).

His score for the 1969 Steve McQueen vehicle The Reivers brought Williams to the attention of Steven Spielberg. Collaborating for the first time on Sugarland Express in 1973, the duo would go on to develop an unprecedented partnership that has seen them work together on 32 films to date. Whilst a significant part of his legacy will be defined by this affiliation, Williams’s career has seen him work with a slew of Hollywood directing legends, including Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman.

However, if Williams were to be remembered for one project alone, it is likely most would turn to Star Wars. Defining a whole era of popular culture, his themes and melodies for the franchise have inspired multiple generations. Influenced by the sweeping, grand musical stylings of classic Hollywood composers such as Erich Korngold, his award-winning and enormously popular compositions catapulted Williams to the forefront of American music in the late 1970s. 40-plus years on, his timeless themes continue to enchant, and one suspects they will resonate in a galaxy far, far away…

Composer profile by Alex Prideaux
© Philharmonia Orchestra/Alex Prideaux

The Philharmonia performs E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial live on 31 March at the Royal Festival Hall.

Enjoy John Williams’s Academy Award®-winning score performed live by the 80+ players of the Philharmonia, as you watch the film on the Royal Festival Hall’s huge screen.

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