John Williams is 85 tomorrow

John Williams is 85 tomorrow


norman lebrecht

February 07, 2017

Happy 85th birthday to the most successful film composer of all time.

I have not always been an unqualified admirer. Fifteen years ago, I attacked him for eclecticism.

But beside many of today’s film composers he sounds like a classic.

Read my original assessment here.


  • William Osborne says:

    Williams is truly in a class by himself. Even composers like Horner and Desplat are a distant second. Not even the old European refugee masters match him.

    His brass writing and sense of heraldry are especially notable. I think that’s also one reason he has had such a good working relationship with the LSO. Their sense of heraldry is without comparison — probably something that stems out of the British brass band tradition.

    Williams seems to be most known for his march-like themes, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, etc. but it is some of his lesser known music that shows the variety of his skills such as the Ballroom Scene from the Witches of Eastwick:

    He may not reveal any new depths of the human soul, but his craftsmanship is incomparable. I suspect that not long after his death, orchestral film scores will largely be a matter of history.

  • Ross Amico says:

    An odd piece to share when you are supposedly lauding someone on a milestone birthday. In any case, there are some factual errors in it, even if we are to ignore the typos. Nino Rota dipped into his score for “Fortunella” for “The Godfather,” not “8 ½,” as you suggest.

    Also, Bernard Herrmann’s contribution could hardly be reduced to “an effect.” I’m surprised that in an article in which Williams’ eclecticism is on trial that one of the most original voices in the medium would be so easily dismissed.

    If it comes down to “Star Wars,” I would argue that the eclecticism was intentional and ideally suited to the tone of a film that cribbed freely from the western, the swashbuckler, the serial, and the samurai film to create something fresh. (Granted, seven films later that can be hard to see.)

    Also, try to remember that Williams works within the Hollywood system, wherein “temp tracks” are the norm, especially now, when so many filmmakers edit on their computers. Many composers have voiced their frustration with being brought in to score a particular scene after the film has already been cut to suit another piece of music. While hardly the most egregious example, there’s a scene in “Jurassic Park,” with an ailing Brachiosaurus, which was obviously temped with some of Patrick Doyle’s music for “Henry V.”

    Williams frequently evokes a particular sound when he approaches his subject matter (to take two fairly recent examples, Vaughan Williams for “War Horse” and Copland for “Lincoln”), but like some of the Golden Age composers you cite, he never really sounds like anyone else. He could allude to Vaughan Williams or Copland or even Korngold (and there’s no questioning the man loves his Prokofiev and William Walton), but in the end, he truly never sounds like anyone more than himself. If you needle-dropped on any of his scores in the presence of anyone at all familiar with his “sound,” I am sure he would be easily identifiable.

    While Williams may not “reveal any new depths of soul,” as it’s put in the comment above, I would argue there is plenty of soulfulness in his music, especially when the pace of a film allows everyone a moment to breathe. Granted, there are fewer and fewer of those moments! If anything, I would he deserves respect for having done his job so well in an industry that increasingly views its output as product and does its best to tamp everything down to the lowest common denominator.

    Are we really to the point now where we are measuring artistic success, or even craftsmanship, by the number of Oscars one has accumulated recently? Has not the award itself lost much of its luster since Williams’ alleged heyday?

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      Please allow me to offer a standing ovation in response to your comment. I miss the name Wagner in it, but I think that composer’s influence on Mr. Williams is self evident. As for the Oscars: I have adopted to respectfully borrow from Christian liturgical terminology in calling Oscar Night the Feast of the Annunciation…

    • Lucas Richman says:

      Nicely stated, Ross!

  • Cubs Fan says:

    The contributions that JW has made to film and TV scoring is incredible. His greatest gift is the ability to spin out good, and even great, tunes score after score, something that completely eludes more “respectable” modern composers. His concert works are excellent, too. As much as I enjoy his work (Dracula is my favorite score of his) I can’t agree that the European refugees can’t match him. There are stunning scores by Steiner, Waxman, and Korngold that are as good as it gets. And don’t forget the often unmentioned and ignored musicians who make these composers, including Williams, sound so great: the orchestrators.

    • Ross Amico says:

      To CUBS FAN:

      Hear! Hear! And let’s not forget, Williams himself started out in the business as an orchestrator and as a session pianist, apprenticing with many of the greats. He worked as an orchestrator on “The Guns of Navarone” (Dimitri Tiomkin), and that’s him playing the piano on the soundtrack to “The Big Country” (Jerome Moross).



      (P.S. Thank you for all you yourself have done for American music.)

    • Mikey says:

      Williams’ scores “pre-orchestration” are so highly detailed that the orchestrator ‘s work is all but done for him. Williams has worked with pretty much the same orchestrator for 40 years.

      And if you want to get an idea of how true this is, then just listen to any of the many serious concert works he has produced: they all STILL sound like Williams, both compositionally and the orchestration.

      I find Mr. Lebrecht’s dismissive review of Williams within the context of a “happy birthday” post to be of the utmost poor taste. But then, those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize.

  • John McLaughlin Williams says:

    You could have simply said Happy Birthday, and left it at that.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I am sure you could run this site much better than I can conduct Tristan.

      • Mikey says:

        Since you apparently don’t know who John McLaughlin Williams is, I can assure you that were he to take the time or interest to do so, yes, he could probably run this blog far better. There are a lot of things about which you write with such authority that Mr. McLaughlin Williams can do considerably better than you.

        • John says:

          Oh Mikey, if there’s nothing worth saying, you can be counted on to say it!

          (One might ask why you bother with Slipped Disk if you think it’s so badly run.)

          • Iain Scott says:

            Norman’s assessment is wrong but this is his site and in amongst the posts you dislike or disagree with there’s many good things. Also where else will you get those headlines?

  • Jorge Grundman says:

    I’n sure he is one if the best. But I ‘m completely sure he is not the best one. What about Mancini, Morricone or Max Steiner? What about John Barry, Rota cnd Tiomkin?

    In any case my HAPPY BIRTHDAY for the composer of Sabrina soundtrack

  • Rachelle Goldberg says:

    I was privileged to attend a Concert a few years ago at the Carnegie Hall in New York. The Concert was given by the String students of the Perlman programme, in was in fact a Gala Concert. John Williams appeared as guest conductor and conducted Schindler’s List .The solo violin part was divided up in the first violin section. It still sounded amazing. William Osbourne comments are very valid but I would question his opinion when he state he ie John Williams may not reveal any new depth of the human soul. I don’t believe that anyone could fail to be moved by the music of Schindler’s List. Listening to a performance of the score and also performing it myself still affects me.

  • harold braun says:

    One of the greatest living composers,a fine conductor,and a humble,great mensch.
    God bless you,Mr.Williams.Happy birthday,and many happy and fruitful creative years in good health!Thank you for countless hours of pleasure.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    Not a fan; but he will always have my respect for helping to bring back symphonic film scoring (“Star Wars”) when Hollywood was still obsessed with “pop” soundtrack scores in the late ’60s through mid ’70s. It could be argued he therby helped revive the careers of other traditional film composers like E. Bernstein and Goldsmith– both of whom I enjoy more.

  • Keith Morellas says:

    John Williams is well regarded for his works going back to the 1950’s. he and Bernard Herrmann were both great composers but today the spotlight belongs to John Williams for all his great achievements. At least John Williams is talented enough to make a villain with 2 notes. Happy Birthday Williams!!!!