If you’re a fan of John Williams’ music, you’ll know how hard this list was to put together. The 90-year-old American composer, whose screen career began in the late 1950s, is still working – he has at least a few projects in the works, including a fifth installment of the IndianaJones franchise.
But what are his high scores, and what makes them so? Here’s a starter for ten, from the heavy hitters the world knows and loves to some who may not be so familiar.
John Williams High Scores
The original blockbuster film, Steven Spielberg’s take on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel is now legendary. And his music too. From the deceptively simple two-note shark motif that stalks the film (and haunts many ocean swims today) to the enthralling swash and loop of the third act, Williams really delivered the goods – and won a Oscar In the process. The music is a big part of this film’s impact, with Williams taking the brunt of the unseen threat beneath the waves – largely unseen due to a malfunctioning shark prop during production.
The best piece? The shark, having been shot and tied to a floating yellow barrel, is chased out to sea by Chief Brody, Captain Quint, and Matt Hooper. Williams’ music for this scene is wiry and windswept, closer to a classic swashbuckler.
the fury (1978)
Williams hasn’t dipped her toe into the horror or thriller genres very often (and never quite completely), but this Brian de Palma-directed entry comes pretty close. By 1978, the composer was used to painting in broad strokes and had already won three Oscars. This score has fantastic breadth and ferocious energy with more than a nod in places to the late Bernard Herrmann. The psychokinetic power scenes (often with grizzly results) are underscored with great zeal by Williams, who just seems to have the best time. Although the original score was recorded in Los Angeles, Williams recorded the soundtrack album with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The best piece? Gillian has a terrifying view of what happened to a young man with similar telekinetic powers who was kidnapped by terrorists. Williams unleashes orchestral power drumming here, in one of many memorable musical moments.
Superman – The Movie (1978)
Williams really helped make us believe that a man could fly with this epic score for Richard Donner’s masterpiece. From the catchy opening title sequence – our first encounter with what is now ubiquitous fanfare and marching – to Americana-infused cues and moments of great humor, Superman really has it all. There is also romance in what is one of the composer’s greatest love themes. Williams recorded the entire score in London with the LSO.
The best piece? After an interview on Lois Lane’s terrace, Superman takes the journalist on a flight she will never forget. A magical musical tale by John Williams, which captures Lane’s childlike wonder as she (literally at some point) falls for the Man of Steel.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Now known as Star Wars: Episode VI – The Empire Strikes Back, it was originally the second film in the now nine-part saga created by George Lucas. Although Williams broke new ground (or perhaps raked in old ground) with his 1977 score for the first film, this sequel saw the composer feel very much at home in the sonic world he had created. This allowed him to return to existing themes and develop them, without forgetting to add what today counts among his best. In his interview with BBC Music Magazine, he even cites “The Imperial March” (written for this film) as probably the piece he is most satisfied with in his film career. Once again, this massive score was recorded in London with the LSO.
The best piece? As the Rebels’ secret base on the planet Hoth is discovered, Imperial forces launch a ground assault. Williams matches the fighters move for move in what is a gripping sequence of orchestral songwriting. May this feat be with you…
The Raiders of the Lost Ark (nineteen eighty one)
The late 70s and early 80s were truly a boom time for John Williams as he settled into a successful working partnership with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The couple reunited for this film, the first of the IndianaJonesseries, envisioned to recapture the romance and adventure of Golden Age Saturday morning soap operas. Everything about this film, including the music, is a tip of the hat (a fedora, of course) to a bygone era. Williams’ main walk is the result of two thematic ideas he had for Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones and it remains one of his most familiar themes. The larger score is a lesson in action writing, with further moments of wonder and romance. “Marion’s Theme” is another of the composer’s greatest love themes. This was also recorded with the LSO.
The best piece? Archaeologist Indiana Jones has foiled the Nazis and deciphered the location of an ancient map room buried beneath the Egyptian sands. Using a staff and pendant, and the rising sun, Indy finds the exact spot to dig for the “well of souls” and the holy ark of the covenant. Williams’ music, for orchestra and choir, is perfectly paced, reaching a thrilling climax as sunlight shines through the pendant in the card below.
Recommended registration: Raiders of the Lost Ark – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
AND the extra-terrestrial (1982)
It may be Steven Spielberg’s greatest cinematic achievement…until Schindler’s list. It’s certainly one of the most popular films he gave the world, with its heartbreaking story about the unique bond formed by a human boy and a stranded alien. John Williams’s mission was to convince the public to take an interest in ‘ET’, although the composer allows us to feel a certain trepidation at the beginning with moments of worry and unease. The pair’s bond is underscored by what is by all accounts a love theme, and Williams hints at a more central theme that literally takes flight.
The best piece? After saving ET, a small group of brave kids on bikes are chased by government officials. The young alien helps them evade capture by lifting their bikes off the ground and flying them into the forest, where his family is waiting to take him home. This grandiose finale is probably one of the most memorable moments in cinema. The pacing of these scenes was so crucial, musically, that Steven Spielberg ended up cutting his film to Williams’ music.
Schindler’s list (1993)
Williams often says he was tasked with scoring Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winner. Seeing a cut of the film for the first time, Williams told his longtime friend and collaborator “Steven, you need a better composer than me for this movie.” Spielberg’s response was, “I know, but they’re all dead.” What the composer created for the film was subtle and beautiful, and won him a fifth Oscar. Williams recorded the score with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman. Its main theme has since been part of the repertoire of many violinists.
The best piece? The film’s epilogue sees surviving “Schindler’s Jews” parade past his grave in Israel, accompanied by the actors who played them. Each leaves a stone on the grave, as Williams’ main theme unfolds. A simple and moving ending.
We’ve named the theme from Schindler’s List one of the best pieces of violin music as well as one of the saddest pieces of classical music of all time.
Recommended Recording: Schindler’s List – Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
This intimate, contemporary family drama may seem like a surprising entry into Williams’ filmography, but the composer has proven he has more to him than big-boned blockbusters time and time again over the years. In many ways, this score is a breath of fresh air, as the composer focuses on hot strings, woodwinds, lead guitar (performed by Christopher Parkening), electronics, and just a touch of sparkle. The film was directed by Chris Columbus, with whom Williams had worked on Alone at home (1990) and would return for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001).
The best piece? Isobel steals her young daughter away from her sleep for a late night horseback ride through the snow. It’s a special moment for the dying mother and one that her daughter will never forget. Williams underscores gently with floating strings, keyboard, and a plaintive theme for Isboel on oboe.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
It’s not often that a composer of Williams’ status seeks out a project, but that was apparently the case with this film. The composer had read Arthur Golden’s novel and when he learned it was being adapted for the screen, he sought out director Rob Marshall to see if he could score it. How could Marshall refuse? Williams’ music for the film is rich and intoxicating, with the composer using Japanese instruments and musical forms in his more familiar Western palette of orchestral sounds. It’s not pastiche at all, but well documented and beautifully applied. The violin solos were again performed by Itzhak Perlamn and the cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.
The best piece? Sayuri’s Geisha formation is shown in montage, and Williams creates a captivating musical accompaniment. Koto, cello, shimmering strings, oboe and percussion intertwine and tell their own story, with Sayuri’s theme at its heart. The percussion sections are particularly impressive.
Recommended registration: Memoirs of a Geisha – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The book thief (2013)
It is true that John Williams considers very carefully the projects he undertakes these days. A look at his last decade on screen shows that he composed only films directed by Steven Spielberg and the last trilogy of star wars movies. An entrance stands out, however, and The book thief (directed by Brian Percival) has a valuable score. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, it’s a project Williams really wanted to take on and once again he dug deep, composing music rich in pathos, color and with a handful of humable themes. The piano is the central voice of the score, and Williams surrounds it with harp, strings and woodwinds for sumptuous effect.
The best piece? After surviving a terrible bombardment, Liesel emerges from the rubble of Himmel Street and sees his best friend Rudy being dragged from what remains of his home. Terrified to see his lifeless body, she gives him the longed-for kiss, before collapsing. Williams’ thick layers of string fall just short of melodrama, perfectly judged, as Liesel is carried to safety, cheating death.
We named John Williams one of the greatest film composers of all time.
Our Favorite John Williams Recordings
John Williams – The Berlin Concert
John Williams in Vienna