Interview: John Williams at 89, the man behind the best (and most hummable) film scores
The composer tells Richard Morrison about his decades-long career — including the time he helped out a struggling LSO with ‘some sci‑fi film’
He left it late, but in January this year John Williams added another achievement to a body of work that includes more than 100 film scores, dozens of symphonic works and 52 Academy award nominations. Just a few weeks shy of his 88th birthday he made his conducting debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in the ornately gilded Golden Hall of the Musikverein.
The concert, filmed and recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and released next week, was remarkable for several reasons. According to Williams, this venerable orchestra had never played a note of his music before. It certainly made up for lost time, delivering extracts from more than a dozen of Williams’s greatest scores, including Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Harry Potter films, Jurassic Park, ET, Jaws and Schindler’s List.
And the Viennese musicians weren’t the only ones venturing into unfamiliar territory. “Although I’ve done a lot of concert work in America, I had never conducted publicly in Europe before,” Williams admits, speaking down the phone from his Los Angeles home. “And I never really intended to. It always seemed a long way from California. When this invitation came, however, I thought, ‘Well, if I’m ever to conduct a concert in Europe in this lifetime, I’d better get on with it.’ And there’s no greater honour than being invited to conduct in the Musikverein.”
Was Williams aware of the history of the hall as he walked out on to that famous platform? After all, in his remarks from the conductor’s podium he referred to his soundtracks for the Star Wars films — all nine of them — as “a nice round number”, a remark clearly picked up by the Viennese audience as an allusion to the number of symphonies written by Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Bruckner.
“Absolutely,” he replies. “For any composer, to visit Vienna is a spiritual journey. It’s as much of a Mecca as we musicians have. Especially if, like me, you revere Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler. Just the chance to breathe the same air as Haydn — one of the purest, most instinctive talents in the history of music — was more than I could resist.”
Which of those composers would Williams most liked to have met? “Oh, Beethoven of course,” Williams says. “I still read through his scores for the pleasure of what I hear in my head, and for the beauty I find in their craftsmanship. And I think he might have been interested in film if he’d lived 200 years later, though he probably would have been horrified by having his music drowned out by the noise of spaceships flying past.”
How much do film directors help or hinder the process? Another knowing chuckle down the line. “Directors will always talk about what they think they want musically,” Williams replies. “And I always listen to them. But usually when I get to the piano and start to work, those ideas are pretty much gone. It’s always better for me to respond to the visual material — the film that’s actually being shot — than to verbal instructions.
“And of course there’s huge variety in that species of humanity called film directors. Some are very musical. Others are suspicious of using music at all.”
Where does Steven Spielberg, the director with whom Williams has collaborated for 46 years, sit in that spectrum? “Oh, with Steven there can’t be enough music,” Williams exclaims. “He always wants more and more. It’s rather touching in its way. He will come to a recording session that ends at a certain hour, the musicians will be packing up, and Steven will say, ‘Where are they going? Why are you stopping? Haven’t you got anything else you can play?’ He just loves the process so much.”
Williams admits to being a “child of Hollywood” — his father, a jazz drummer, moved the family there in 1948, and Williams began his career playing piano in Hollywood orchestras throughout the 1950s. Yet some of his most famous scores for Spielberg were recorded not in Hollywood, but in Britain, with the London Symphony Orchestra at Denham or Shepperton studios.
“I was introduced to the LSO by my dear friend André Previn, when he was the orchestra’s principal conductor, and of course the LSO players were whizz kids at sight-reading, so we made many recordings together,” Williams recalls.
In fact, the story is more dramatic than that. In 1976 the LSO — in desperate financial difficulties — asked Previn if he could write another film score so the orchestra could make some money by recording it. Previn said he was too busy, but offered to phone a friend who was writing a score for “some sci-fi film”.
The friend was Williams, who said he would hire the LSO as long as the orchestra could squeeze in 18 sessions in the next month. The orchestra agreed, as long as some sessions could begin at 11pm, after its regular concerts were over. And thus was the soundtrack to Star Wars recorded.
With most work in Hollywood suspended during the pandemic, Williams might be forgiven for taking a well-earned break from composition. Not a bit of it. He’s spending his time finishing a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter, who also features in the Vienna concert playing virtuoso arrangements of his soundtracks (“Harry Potter meets Paganini,” Williams quips). Astonishingly, it will be the 19th concerto or quasi-concerto he has written for the concert hall.
“I think of my work outside film as being part of my own musical self-education,” he says. “And believe me, the road to being harp-savvy enough to write a harp concerto is a long one. But it’s also nice to write something that doesn’t require the approval of a studio boss. And, you know, even if I wasn’t being paid I would always want to write music. The greatest thrill of my life has been hearing my music played, almost immediately, by wonderful orchestras. It’s something I wish every composer could experience.”
He’s not so far away from his tenth decade. Does he ever contemplate hanging up his quill? “Never,” he says. “I will press on. Music isn’t a profession. It’s my oxygen. Take that away and I’d really be in trouble.”