John Williams and contemporary film music

Audissino, Emilio and Zacharopulous, Konstantinos (2016) John Williams and contemporary film music. In: Film Narratives and Compositional Techniques: An Investigation of Contemporary Film Music. Palgrave, Basingstoke UK. (Submitted)

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There seems to be the idea that everything has been written on John Williams, because he is such a widely famous film composer. Yet, this is not true at all, since academic studies of his work are rather exiguous – recent contributions are one book in German focussing on his collaboration with Steven Spielberg – Peter Moormann, Spielberg-Variationen: Die Filmmusik von John Williams (Berlin: Nomos, 2010); one introductory edited book in French – Alexandre Tylski (ed.), John Williams. Un alchimiste musical à Hollywood (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2011); and one book in English – Emilio Audissino, John Williams's Film Music. 'Jaws,' 'Star Wars,' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Note that in the Scarecrow Series ‘Film Score Guide’ ( which features such household names as Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, but also lesser famous composers as Michael Danna, Ilan Eshkeri, and Zbigniew Preisner, there is no John Williams entry. Moreover, when discussed critically if not academically, the take on Williams’ work is often oversimplified if not prejudiced. His popularity is seen as something that comes from his lucky association with popular films and directors – Russell Lack, Twenty Four Frames Under. A Buried History of Film Music (London: Quartet Books, 2002); his music is seen as ideologically manipulative and reactionary – Neil Lerner, ‘Nostalgia, Masculinist Discourse and Authoritarianism in John Williams' Scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, in Off the Planet. Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Philip Hayward (Eastleigh: John Libbey Publishing, 2004); his style is defined as superficially bombastic – Star Wars is called ‘just a cheap march’: Ennio Morricone in Sergio Miceli and Ennio Morricone, Comporre per il cinema. Teoria e prassi della musica nel film (Roma-Venezia: Biblioteca di Bianco e Nero/SNC, 2001); the success of his melodies is explained in terms of his stealing from the classics – Norman Lebrecht, ‘John Williams. The Magpie Maestro,’ in La Scena Musicale, 20th November 2002: On the other hand, the stylistic influence of Williams’s work on contemporary scoring has also been overstated by fans and favourable critics. The use of big orchestras and dense sound textures is actually the only thing that contemporary mainstream Hollywood composers such as Hans Zimmer seem to have inherited from him, certainly not Williams’ leitmotivic, symphonic, and classical-Hollywood sounding style.
This chapter aims at defining Williams’ contribution in its fair terms. John Williams is a singular case as his importance goes far beyond the musical/narrative merits of his music. Williams has been a pivotal figure also in terms of film history. His scores have been seminal in reviving the musical style of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and during his parallel career as the conductor of the world-famous Boston Pops Orchestra, he was instrumental in proving that the best of the film-music repertoire deserved a place in the concert programmes. Williams can be studied as a composer – as any film composer can be studied – but also as the restorer of a piece of Hollywood’s past and as the foremost promoter of film music in concerts. Bringing the film music of the Classical Hollywood period back to the general attention has probably been his most seminal legacy. For this reasons, the chapter is co-authored. The film historian Emilio Audissino will survey Williams’ career in terms of his revival of the musical style and repertoire of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The musicologist Konstantinos Zacharopoulos will investigate Williams’ style in terms of the strategies used to structure his famous ear-catching themes.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: Film and television
Depositing User: Emilio Audissino
Date Deposited: 17 Feb 2016 11:28
Last Modified: 11 Nov 2016 11:47

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