John Williams at 90: creating the soundtrack to our lives

John Williams
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File
Composer John Williams poses on the red carpet at the 2016 AFI Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

It’s virtually impossible to have lived a life without hearing John Williams’ music. From some of the best loved films of the last century to the opening of the Olympics, his music is firmly part of our experience. He’s seen six decades in Hollywood, composed three trilogies of “Star Wars” films over the span of 40 years, and he’s the most Oscar-nominated living human. And at 90, he’s still at it.  

Former music director of the Colorado Symphony and John Williams buff Brett Mitchell talked with CPR’s Karla Walker, and explained why Williams’ music sticks with us. “He really understands how to create themes — very memorable, very singable themes. And as John will be the first to tell you, it’s the hardest part of what he does. To come up with these short little ideas” — here, Mitchell hums “Indiana Jones” — “takes 90 percent of the time that he spends on a project.”

Related: 5 pieces you probably didn't know were John Williams

Williams has been nominated for 52 Academy Awards, but even being the most nominated living person doesn’t guarantee a win; he’s only brought home five Oscars, four of which were for best original score. 

“I find it remarkable, some of the scores he wrote that weren't even nominated for best score, like the entire ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy,” Mitchell says. “‘Jurassic Park’ was not even nominated for best score… you can ask yourself ‘my gosh, I mean, how is it possible that this man who has inspired and influenced millions if not billions of people across the planet, that he's only won four Oscars for best original score?’“

In fact, the last time Williams won an Oscar was in 1994 for "Schindler's List," the Academy Award Best Picture by William's long-time collaborator, Steven Spielberg. When Spielberg did the spotting session with him (to decide where to place the music), Mitchell says," John was understandably very moved and said, 'I just need five minutes.'"

Regardless of awards, John Williams’ music is ubiquitous and beloved. “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “Superman,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “ET” — his music has helped define the sound of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

As for how Williams has created legendary film scores for over 60 years? “I think that what John would tell you is that it is a six-day-a-week job,” says Mitchell. “Whether he's working on a specific project or not, he writes music every day. It's a muscle like anything else, and if you don't flex it, if you don't work it everyday, it will go away. And if you sit there waiting for the muse to strike, you may be sitting there for an awfully long time.”

John Williams — the composer, pianist and maestro — turns 90 on February 8. CPR Classical invites you to “Williams at 90,” a celebration of his life, legacy and impact on the world.

Tune in for “Williams at 90”

  • Friday, February 4 - 3pm
  • Saturday, February 5 - 10am & 8pm
  • Sunday, February 6 - 12 pm & 6pm
  • Monday, February 7 - 8am & 5pm
  • Tuesday, February 8 -1pm & 8pm
  • Wednesday, February 9 - 6pm
  • Friday, February 11 - 11am
  • Sunday, February 13 - 1pm
  • Monday, February 14 - 8pm
CPR Classical - the soundtrack to your life

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