The Genius of John Williams

People who know me, especially my students, know that John Williams is a composer that I admire greatly.  Because of his longevity (b. 1932) he has had the opportunity to work with many of the great, legendary composers of the 1950’s-60’s that worked in Hollywood, including:— Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther, Peter Gunn), Bernard Hermann (Psycho, Vertigo), Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard), and Alfred Newman, famous for composing the iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare and being the father of David Newman and the uncle of Randy Newman.

As a young boy sitting cross-legged on the floor watching TV in my pajamas, I remember leaping up amazed, jumping up and down in front of our “color” TV set as the new theme for the 3rd and final season of the television show, Lost in Space danced its way into our living room.  I didn’t know, or care who wrote it, all I knew was that I loved it.  It was exciting, adventurous—capturing musically all that my three brothers and I thought Lost in Space was supposed to be.  Later on as an adult, I had an “ah ha” moment when I learned that that theme was composed by “Johnny” Williams.

Today, now a composer in my own right, I still eagerly await the latest film that’s been scored by John Williams.  In my opinion (and I understand that there are many who would vehemently disagree with me) he is one of the greatest composers western civilization has ever produced.

I am not alone in this opinion. Gustavo Dudamel, another one of my living heroes, agrees with me. He is the conductor of the “the most important orchestra in America,” and he bubbled this about John Williams. “He is the “Mozart of our day.” Quoted in “The Los Angeles Times,” Dudamel gushed: “I cannot tell you how inspired I felt when I held his score in my hands for the first time, stunned by the beauty of his writing,” “He’s a genius.” “Even my 4-year-old son, Martin, sat in the sound booth cheering. You cannot imagine … utter joy for his father.”

Williams uses a myriad of musical techniques to achieve the powerful affectation his music has upon audiences, many of them might be sub-conscious on his part.  However, he has said often that he deliberately gives quite a bit of time and effort to the composition of his main themes—those seemingly simple 4 to 8 bar melodies.  Once perfected, he can build upon them, developing them in dramatic fashion throughout a film—even over the course of a film franchise’s life such as Star Wars.

I offer to you another musical technique that John Williams is a master at using in his music: building blocks that evolve over time.  Building blocks that evolve over time in music is a bit like musical legos. They may be comprised of the same rhythm, or a ratio of the same rhythm, but perhaps the pitches have been changed.

The opening to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 is a classic example of this—four pitches that sound like an ominous knock on the door.  Yet, Beethoven makes them sound even more ominous by presenting them again, a second time, but this second time we hear them, they are presented down a whole step.  That seemingly small, insignificant motive will be transposed and changed ways that seem unimagineable the first time we hear it.  It becomes a building block that Beethoven utilizes to build his entire first movement upon.  It even returns later in the symphony.

I offer you the following observation about building blocks that evolve over time in the music of John Williams:
“Luke’s Theme” from Star Wars is like Beethoven’s 5th, another iconic musical phrase and not just in American culture. All over the world, this phrase is equated with rescue and heroism. It’s triplets, it’s “pure,” open 4ths and 5ths tell us musically that Luke is a hero.  These “hero” intervals of the octave, 4th and 5th are ubiquitous in Williams’s work. Think about the major themes to Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and his music for the Olympic Games—all made up of 4ths and 5ths and octaves—all a musical metaphor for the “hero.”

Another interval Williams uses in his film themes (leitmotifs) to describe to his audiences a quality about the characters they represent is the major 6th. So many of Williams’s themes that are associated with women are characterized by this interval of the major 6th. “Marion’s Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark uses it, but the most famous of these “feminine” themes is “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars.



But, it is in “Across the Stars, Love Theme from Episode II” that we hear the true genius of how John Williams composes his themes in part by using building blocks that evolve over time.

This theme is, of course, the leitmotif that represents the doomed love of Anakin, the young Darth Vader and the sadly beautiful and sybylline Princess Padmé Amidala.  This is another feminine theme in that it begins with the interval of a 6th, but unlike “Leia’s Theme” or “Marion’s Theme,” this opening 6th is minor.  The sadness of that minor 6th interval tells us that somehow, subliminally, we should “have a bad feeling about this” — and we do.

But there’s also something else about this theme that is very familiar, mesmerizingly familiar—its rhythm.
Yes, it is slower, notated in a different meter and missing the triplets of the pickup notes, but when we hear it, we recognize that the rhythm of the love theme for Padme and Anakin is essentially the same rhythm as “Luke’s Theme.” 

So, what? What has John Williams done here?  In my opinion, he gleaned building blocks from both Luke’s and Leia’s theme from episode IV, He “borrowed” Luke’s Theme’s rhythm and Leia’s interval of the 6th from her theme, made it minor to reflect sadness, and then combined them to create a love theme for the characters who would become their parents—Padmé and Anakin.  Thus, Williams was able to work retroactively with building blocks that evolved backwards in time from the perspective of the story’s timeline. “Luke’s Theme” and “Leia’s Theme” sound as if they were developed from the “Love Theme” of Padmé and Anakin.  Of course we know that just the opposite is true; the Love Theme was developed with building blocks that evolved backwards in time, in fact, all the way back to 1977 when the music was first composed for A New Hope, what we now know as Episode IV.

Building blocks that evolve over time. It’s one reason why I agree with Dudamel that Williams is today’s Mozart.  What do you think?