John Williams at 90: A Celebration

A reflection on Maestro John Williams’ milestone birthday anniversary

by Maurizio Caschetto

So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten. even by ourselves, so it’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.”

John Williams
Photo © Chris Pizzello

When comes the time to celebrate landmark anniversaries of highly influential people, there is always a huge risk hiding behind the corner. Even the most sincere of tributes may easily turn into a dusty mausoleum of antique memories of greatness, much like the villa where Norma Desmond, the main character of Billy Wilder’s masterful Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevard (1951), lives a reclusive life haunted by her glory days. That may be inevitable with virtually any Hollywood or show business personality, save for one person who devoted his entire life not to the pursuit of success and adulation, but instead to achieve the utmost level of excellence through the gift that either God, Nature or human biology gave him. This very person is of course John Williams, who today, on February 8, 2022 celebrates his 90th birthday.

I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into and drink it and be sustained by it.”

John Williams
A portrait of John Williams in the late 1960s

Why such milestone anniversary is worth of a truly deep and joyful celebration as the one we are seeing today and that will continue well on throughout the year? The most obvious answer would be that it feels dutiful to recognize the work of a lifetime of a true dedicated professional who has been gifted with such a long and prosperous career. That would be enough if we’d been here talking about a regularly talented person. But John Williams is anything but regular when it comes to talent and this is why he transcends the usual practices of homage and honour. His achievements go beyond the success of the many films he worked on and mark instead the uniqueness of a truly gifted and generous musical citizen of the world, who has touched the lives of many peoples around the world across at least two generations, and will continue to do so even when all of us who are here now will no longer walk this dreary world. It really warms the heart seeing orchestras of all leagues around the world setting up tribute concerts and special nights to celebrate the man and his music. Above all arts, music is the one that gets renewed and revivified every time somebody picks up an instrument and start to play it for someone.

Any working composer or painter or sculptor will tell you that inspiration comes at the eighth hour of labour rather than as a bolt out of the blue. We have to get our vanities and our preconceptions out of the way and do the work in the time allotted.

John Williams
John Williams conducting Jaws (1975) Photo © Universal Pictures

A common tribute article would also recap the impressive list of Maestro Williams’ achievements in terms of accolades, awards and honors he deservedly collected over six decades of work; the world-record box office tallies of the films he has been associated with; or the endless amount of recognition and admiration he’s constantly getting from peers, colleagues and fellow musicians. All of those topics would certainly be enough to impress the casual reader, but even more important than that, this 90th birthday is truly a marvelous occasion to sit down and reflect on the significance of Maestro John Williams’ legacy and why he is a beacon for the entire global music community, not just for those working in film and media music. His ongoing pursuit for excellence, his will to push himself further at an age where most of his colleagues are retired or sadly not among us anymore is probably the greatest source of inspiration for anyone working in any creative field. As we write these words, it seems that, as film journalist Jon Burlingame aptly pointed out on Variety, Maestro Williams has not any intention of slowing down. He’s currently at work writing two new film scores, The Fabelmans, for Steven Spielberg, and the fifth chapter of the Indiana Jones adventures, directed by James Mangold and starring Harrison Ford; several concert appearances are planned both in the United States and Europe, including a return to Vienna to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and his first visit to Italy; a “birthday bash” concert gala o take place next June at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. has also been announced, with a line-up of special guests that includes Steven Spielberg, Yo-Yo Ma and Anne-Sophie Mutter; and finally, Deutsche Grammophon just released the recording of last October’s historic concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic and, on June 3, will release the world premiere recording of Williams’ Violin Concerto No.2, which debuted last July in Tanglewood with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

I feel very lucky, and the work that I do doesn’t depend on much. If your vision’s still good, and your hands – I have no arthritis in my hands, and I play the piano very easily – I don’t think there’s any reason to deprive oneself of the fun of working. Music is so rewarding.

John Williams
John Williams conducting the Boston Pops in Tanglewood, 1986; Photo © BSO Archives/Walter Scott

Besides a natural admiration for the sheer energy and stamina he’s still displaying at his age, what really touches deeply about the vitality of John Williams is the pure sense of joy and gratitude he’s constantly communicating. He has lived a life full of success, incredible artistic achievements and personal satisfactions, yet he seems still possessed by the magical spark that we often associate with the creativity and the happiness of childhood. As pianist and Williams interpreter Simone Pedroni said in several occasions, John Williams has always been in touch with what he calls the “spiritual childhood”, i.e. a profound sense of grace and innocence that he’s able to channel into his own compositions. This is why his music associated with child-like wonder and fantasy has always been a true favourite among fans and in many cases sounds really like the most sincere music ever written: the totality of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Hook and the first Harry Potter film; the final ten minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the flying sequence in Superman; the first sighting of the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park, are cherished as some of Williams’ most heartwarming and stirring compositions, but we can find a sense of this spiritual childhood also in the delicate scoring that underscores Liesel’s discovery of the joy of reading in The Book Thief; in the poignant piano accompaniment for David’s final journey in A.I. Artificial Intelligence; or in some of the music enhancing Jim’s epiphanies in Empire of the Sun. These are just a few examples, but they convey immediately how much the music of John Williams is the product of a man who learned to look at the world and into the complexities of human beings while also diving into the vastity of his own soul. Music critics and historians often pondered (and they still do) if being dictated by the necessity of a film in the end is an enormous limit for the creativity of any composer, but this specific quality of John Williams’ music is perhaps the strongest and most shining example of what means to put your own artistry at the service of a medium without losing any integrity, i.e. being a vehicle of pure, unadulterated emotions. And he’s able to do that because he understands where he comes from and learned to value the importance of study, practice and extension of knowledge. It’s the same attitude that allows him to be incredibly apt at putting into music the mythological ideas at the core of the stories he’s called to accompany with his music, be it the “Force” of Star Wars, the terror of the Leviathan in Jaws, or the heroism of a modern Hercules-like figure in Superman. All of this is not just innate talent. It happens because John Williams spent a whole life to improving himself, his own craft and tools, and, in the end, understanding better what makes us human.

We are living in a world where we’re standing on shoulders that are unmatchable, especially in music. I mean the masters that have lived before are almost unapproachable in their inspiration and their technique. So we just have to work harder and contribute what we can. Life is so quixotic. I never would’ve imagined that I’d have the opportunities I’ve had. And young people can’t possibly imagine how far and how high their efforts can reach. All they can do is continue to work as hard as they can, learn as much as they can and not stop working. The process is the process. The joy of it is doing the thing itself.”

John Williams
John Williams at the piano in the early 1990s

The uniqueness of John Williams is also demonstrated by the vastity and the diversity of his output. While he’s often and comprehensibly singled out for his blockbuster film scores and the fame that such movies brought to him, any serious connoisseur and admirer of Maestro Williams will be quick to point out that he isn’t just the man who writes music for space battles in galaxies far far away, rollicking globe-trotting archaeologists, red-caped superheroes or bespectacled wizards flying on brooms. Williams himself often recognized the importance of these projects for his career and the opportunity that they gave him (being appointed as music director of the Boston Pops in 1980 is probably the most crucial consequence), but it would be unfair to reduce his immense contribution to music just to that. Williams wrote astounding orchestral scores for some of the all-time greatest box office hits beloved by millions of people, but he composed also an impressive amount of diverse works spacing in any genre (jazz, Americana, even avant-garde); he wrote a lot very fine music for television during the 1960s; penned superb adaptations for such film musicals as Fiddler On The Roof and Goodbye, Mr. Chips; and composed a great deal of concert stage music that has grown extensively especially over the last two decades with new major works, including a Violin Concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter, (who became a true muse in this phase of his career). In the last few years, the Maestro also had the bravery to return to musical worlds that he likely considered closed chapters of his artistic life: the three scores for the Star Wars sequel trilogy showed a composer brimming with a youthful spirit and a renewed sense of joy and adventure, as beautifully exemplified by the music he wrote for the character of Rey. And finally it must be noted how important has been the long-awaited recognition of his music in the temples of European’s classical tradition and seeing such revered orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic paying him honour and tribute. Even a fraction of these achievements would be enough to make anyone feel special, but what John Williams has done and continues to do is already guaranteeing him a place among the all-time musical greats.

I don’t think you leave music. You might end up your very last day in life singing the first song your mother taught you. Music, I always say that it’s three things: It’s the composer, and it’s an orchestra or a singer, and the listener. And what music is, is the stuff in-between, the spirit [of] the three participants who lean on each other. It is the power that music can transport between or connect between people, a nexus of some kind. Music is a nexus. It’s a conduit. It’s a connection. But the connection is the thing that will, if we can ever evolve to the point if we can still mutate, if we can still change and through learning, get better, we can master the basic things of governance and cooperation between nations.”

John Williams
John Williams conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein, January 2020; Photo © Dieter Nagl/Deutsche Grammophon

This quote above, taken from an interview Williams did with CBS Sunday Morning in 2019, sums up perfectly why today, February 8, is a special day not just for the composer himself and his milestone anniversay, but it’s a joyous day for the entire world. As The Legacy of John Williams is trying to do from day one of its inception, all of John Williams’ fans, admirers, connoisseurs and students are united by this man’s amazing ability of giving a concrete sense of what Leonard Bernstein called “the joy of music”. John Williams still inspires and indeed gives joy to billions of people around the world, even when they’re not aware of him and they’re watching Star Wars or Indiana Jones adventures, or in the quiet of their living room listening to his records, or as part of an orchestra playing his music. Today we celebrate the precious gift that John Williams continues to give us every day, making us feel connected with each other, as part of the same family of human beings that, despite all differences, are feeling united by music. So, in a true Beethoven-ian spirit and with a sonorous Williams fanfare in the background, let’s raise our glasses and sing a hymn of joy to Maestro John Williams.

The Legacy of John Williams sends their most heartfelt and sincere wishes to Maestro John Williams for his 90th birthday. Thank you, Maestro, for enriching our souls and for continuing to be the soundtrack of our lives.

Illustration by Gianmaria Caschetto © 2022

John Williams: 90 Tracks for 90 Years, a selection of 90 film pieces by John Williams, curated by editor Maurizio Caschetto:

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