Harry’s Wonderful World [and generally for all his pop works]

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            While John Adams, Phillip Glass, John Corigliano, and a host of others vie for the mantle of successor to Aaron Copland, in point of fact, the average American has probably heard more music for symphonic orchestra by John Williams than all of the others put together.  He stands alone in his position as the most successful and most admired film composer of the last thirty years or so.  Over four-dozen Academy Award nominations (five won) and some twenty-two Grammy wins speak for themselves.  His music is so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget just how much of it we know and experience.  While there have been any number of film composers who have experimented in various styles of writing for films, it is he who is most responsible for the rebirth of the great symphonic film music style that had prevailed in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s.  Symphony orchestras perform his music on the concert stage simply because it was written for symphony orchestras—on Hollywood sound stages.  His peripatetic musical talent is not confined to Hollywood, by any means, though.  He spent the eighties as Arthur Fiedler’s successor as conductor of the Boston Pops, and guest conducts almost everywhere.  Also active as a composer of concert music, he has written over a dozen concertos for solo instruments and orchestra, as well as several chamber music works.

            He was classically trained as a pianist, having studied at the Juilliard School with the formidable Rosina Lhévinne, mentor of generations of top concert pianists.  Subsequently, he soon joined the New York commercial scene as arranger, pianist, and composer before moving to Los Angeles.  There he continued his career, making an early appearance as a composer with contributions to television series like “Gilligan’s Island” and “Wagon Train” in the late 1950s.  As his career developed, he began to write film scores by the dozens it seems--movies you know, but probably have forgotten about.  You may remember:  Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure, The Cowboys, and The Towering Inferno. Somewhat more recent films include:  War Horse and The Book Thief. He is most renowned for the Star Wars films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and such, but his work has encompassed much more, including such compositions as the theme to the NBC nightly news. But there is no doubt that it is his association with the film directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg--begun in the 1970s—that has produced his most notable scores. 

          His symphonic style owes much to the music of many great composers; Gustav Holst comes to mind—and he personally has singled out Edward Elgar.  Other than a masterful technical prowess in orchestration, his success as a composer is surely his remarkable talent to imagine just the right music for an infinitude of human emotions—from the terror in the simple, two-note, shark motive in Jaws to the soaring spaceship music of Star Wars.  He scored more of the Harry Potter films than anyone else, and his adroit conjuration of the magic of those tales is just perfect in the minds of countless fans. 

            Oh, yes, remember Henry Mancini’s sinister, low jazzy piano theme to “Peter Gunn?” That was the young Williams, himself, at the piano.  That tells it all.         

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan