UNIVERSAL CITY, California — At the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, as film production ground to a halt and recording studios closed, legendary Hollywood composer and conductor John Williams found himself without a film for the first time in his nearly seven-decade career. to worry about.
This, in Williams’ highly ritualized world – mornings spent studying film roles and improvising on his Steinway; a turkey sandwich and a glass of Perrier at 1 p.m.; afternoons devoted to revisions — was initially disorienting.
But in the months that followed, Williams began to enjoy his freedom. He had time to compose a violin concerto, immerse himself in scores by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, and take long walks on a golf course near his home in Los Angeles.
“I welcomed it,” Williams said in a recent interview. “It was an escape.”
Now the movie industry is back in action, and Williams, who turned 90 on Tuesday, is back at the piano working out earwigs — pencil, paper, and stopwatch in hand.
But Williams, whose music permeates popular culture to a degree unsurpassed by any other contemporary composer, is at a crossroads. Tired of the limitations of film – the deadlines, the need for brevity, the competition with always blaring sound effects, the work that takes half a year – he says he will soon be giving up on film projects.
“I don’t really want to make more movies,” he said. “Living six months at my age is a long time.”
In his next phase, he wants to focus more intensely on another passion: writing concert works, of which he has already produced several dozen. He has visions of another piece for a longtime collaborator, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and he plans his first proper piano concerto.
“I am much happier, as I have been in this Covid time, working with an artist and making the music the best it can be in your hands,” he said.
But the legacy of his more than 100 film scores — including the “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and “Harry Potter” franchises — looms large, not to mention his brass bands, themes, and celebratory anthems for NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ‘, ‘Sunday Night Football’, the Olympics and the centenary of the Statue of Liberty.
“He wrote the soundtrack to our lives,” said conductor Gustavo Dudamel, a friend. “When we listen to a melody by John, we go back to a time, to a taste, to a smell. All our senses go back to a moment.”
Williams’ music harks back to an era of Hollywood blockbusters, when crowds gathered in theaters to be transported. He excelled at creating shared experiences: instilling the same fear in every member of the audience about a looming shark, and evoking a common excitement when watching spaceships take off.
The pandemic has robbed Hollywood of some of that magic. But Williams’s admirers say his music, with its cross-cultural and generational appeal, is an antidote to the isolation of the moment.
“We need him now more than ever before,” said Hans Zimmer, another famous film composer.
Williams — a fixture in the industry since the 1950s, with 52 Academy Award nominations, second only to Walt Disney, and five Oscars — recognizes that he may be the last of a certain type of Hollywood composer. Grandiose, complex orchestral scores, rooted in European Romanticism, are becoming increasingly rare. In many movie studios, synthesized music is all the rage.
“I feel like I’m on the edge,” he said, “and change is happening.”
Born in New York, Williams became interested in composing as a teenager, captivated by the orchestral scores and books that his father, a jazz percussionist, had brought home.
After working as a studio pianist in Hollywood in his twenties, he found work as a film and television composer and made his feature film debut at age 26 with “Daddy-O,” a street racing comedy.
In the 1970s, Williams’ work caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, then an aspiring filmmaker who was looking for someone who could write like a previous generation of Hollywood composers: Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Herrmann.
“He knew how to write a tune and he knew how to support that tune with compelling and complex arrangements,” Spielberg recalled in an interview. “I hadn’t heard of such things since the old greats.”
The two began a collaboration that spanned half a century and spanned more than two dozen films, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Jaws,” for which Williams’ two-note ostinato became a cultural phenomenon.
“When everyone came out and said ‘Jaws’ scared them out of the water, it was Johnny who scared them out of the water,” Spielberg said. “His music was scarier than seeing the shark.”
In 1974, when he was 42, Williams suffered what he called “the tragedy of my life” when his first wife, actress Barbara Ruick, died suddenly.
“It taught me who I was and the meaning of my job,” he said, adding that the next few years were difficult, as he struggled as a single parent of three with a busy career. “Star Wars”, which premiered in 1977, brought a new level of fame and marked the beginning of a four-decade project that spanned nine films, dozens of musical motifs and more than 20 hours of music.
George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” said Williams was the franchise’s “secret sauce.” Though the two disagreed at times, he said Williams didn’t hesitate to try new material, including when Lucas initially rejected his score of a well-known scene where Luke Skywalker stares at a desert sunset.
“Usually with a composer you have huge egos and you want to discuss everything, and ‘I want it to be my score, not your score,'” said Lucas. “None of that existed with John.”
Williams’ career as a conductor also took off. In 1980, he was chosen to succeed Arthur Fiedler as leader of the Boston Pops. Over the next 13 years, he worked to promote film music as an art and befriended leading classical artists.
In 1993, when he was working on ‘Schindler’s List’, he mentioned the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. “I hear a violin,” he said, according to Perlman. To this day, Perlman added, that film’s painful theme remains the only piece audiences specifically ask for at its concerts.
Perlman said Williams had a knack for conveying the essence of disparate cultures: evoking Jewish identity in “Schindler’s List,” or Japanese traditions in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
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“His music has a fingerprint,” he said. “When you hear it, you know it’s John.”
Williams’ concert works, more abstract than many of his film scores, have been less embraced. But Ma, for whom Williams has written several pieces, said curiosity and humanity anchored his works. In 2001, just before starting a recording session of “Elegy,” a piece for cello and orchestra, Ma recalled Williams telling him that he had written the music in honor of two murdered children.
“I see him as a total musician, someone who has been through everything,” said Ma. “He knows all the ways music can be made.”
In his studio on the back lot of Universal Studios Hollywood, Williams is surrounded by memories: a miniature bust of Beethoven, vintage movie posters chosen by Spielberg and, on a coffee table, a yellow bumper sticker that reads “Just Say No.” A dinosaur model, a nod to ‘Jurassic Park’, watches over the piano.
At 90, he’s astute and energetic, but soft-spoken, and looks much the same as he has for the past two decades: black turtleneck, fuzzy eyebrows, and a wispy white beard.
This year he is completing what he expects to be his last two films: “The Fabelmans,” loosely based on Spielberg’s childhood, and a fifth installment in the “Indiana Jones” series.
“The Fabelmans” was particularly emotional, he said, given its importance to Spielberg. On a recent day, he said, the director wept as Williams played several scenes on the piano.
Williams said he expected “The Fabelmans” to be the couple’s last film collaboration, though he added that it was hard to say no to Spielberg, who he considers a brother. (Spielberg, for his part, said Williams had promised to keep scoring his films indefinitely. “I feel pretty safe,” he said.)
Towards the end of his film career, Williams makes time to pursue some old dreams, including conducting in Europe. His works were once considered too commercial for some of the major concert halls. But when he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2020, players asked for photos and autographs.
The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter said she was disappointed that there had been skepticism about his music.
“Everything he writes is art,” said Mutter, for whom Williams wrote his second violin concerto, which premiered last year. “His music, in all its diversity, has contributed greatly to the survival of so-called classical music.”
And his colleagues say he helped establish the legitimacy of film scores. Zimmer, who wrote the music for “Dune,” said he is “the greatest composer America has had, end of story.” Danny Elfman, another film composer, called him “the godfather, the master.” Dudamel made comparisons with Beethoven.
Williams is more modest and describes himself as a carpenter. “I don’t know if it’s a passion,” he said of composing, “as well as an almost physiological necessity.”
He said he still gets a kick out of people telling him that his music has been shaping their lives: he was delighted several years ago when Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, said he’d pushed for “Star Wars” in to play his bar mitzvah, over his parents’ objections.
Williams said he tries not to fixate on age, even as hundreds of ensembles around the world – in Japan, Australia, Italy and elsewhere – give concerts to celebrate his birthday. And he said he fears not death; he sees life as a dream, at the end of which we awaken.
“Music has been my oxygen,” he said, “keep me alive, interested and engaged and satisfied.”
Williams recalled a recent pilgrimage to St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach once worked as a cantor. He listened intently as a pastor described the efforts to protect the great composer’s remains during World War II; he marveled at the dedication to preserving Bach’s legacy.
As he left the church, he paused. An organist filled the large room with the hymn-like theme from ‘Jurassic Park’.
Williams beamed at the pastor.
“Now,” he said, “I can die.”