John Williams' Inevitable Themes : Deceptive Cadence Perhaps the most recognized contemporary composer in the world, Williams calls retiring "unthinkable." He celebrated his 80th birthday this year by working on the score for Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln.
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John Williams' Inevitable Themes

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John Williams' Inevitable Themes

John Williams' Inevitable Themes

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Of course, Steven Spielberg's latest film "Lincoln" is opening in theaters around the country this weekend. "Lincoln" is also the latest movie score from Mr. Spielberg's longtime collaborator, John Williams, the composer, who's celebrated his 80th birthday this year. John Williams was honored this summer with a gala concert at Tanglewood, where he sat down with our Jeff Lunden to reflect on a remarkable career.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: For well over 50 years, John Williams' music has taken us to galaxies far, far away...


LUNDEN: ...on adventures here on earth...


LUNDEN: ...made us feel giddy joy...


LUNDEN: ...and occasionally scared us to death.


LUNDEN: He might be the most recognized contemporary composer in the world, but John Williams says writing music wasn't what he started out to do. He wanted to be a concert pianist, and studied at Juilliard with renowned teacher Rosina Lhevinne.

JOHN WILLIAMS: I played pretty well. I did hear players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place, who were also students of Rosina's, and I thought to myself if that's the competition, I think I'd better be a composer.

LUNDEN: Williams moved to L.A. where he became a popular session musician, playing piano on movie and television soundtracks.


LUNDEN: Here he is playing from Elmer Bernstein's score for "To Kill a Mockingbird."


LUNDEN: He began getting jobs arranging music and then composing it. He worked at Universal Studios writing TV scores.

WILLIAMS: We had 12 shows a week at Universal that had to be recorded, which meant there were 12 three-hour sessions with orchestra of some kind on the stage every week. Three sessions a day usually. So, I filled one or two of those as a composer and conducted my own work also for seven years. So, it was, I suppose, a graduate program in, if nothing else, how to get things done.


LUNDEN: Williams he learned much of his craft on sound stages from his colleagues.

WILLIAMS: The instrumentalists at that time, as now, were outstanding world-class players. And my advantage was that I'd been playing with them for three or four or five years as a colleague in the orchestra. I would go over to a horn player and say have I got this too high or is this trill a little awkward? Would you rather play it here or there? Just from one friend to another, without any particular professional pressure. And they'd all say, no, put it here, put it there.

LUNDEN: Williams wrote his first film score in 1960 and hasn't looked back. Whether he's writing for Steven Spielberg or George Lucas or Oliver Stone, Williams says his process has always been the same. He writes music the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper, and doesn't begin composing until he's actually seen a rough cut of the film.

WILLIAMS: I, over the years, have always felt more comfortable if I could go into a projection room, look at a film and not really know what to expect. If you read the script first, you form all kinds of preconceptions about how things look, and what the location's like, what the actors are like. And then you may look at what the director's chosen, and it doesn't comport with your conceptions at all.

On the other hand, if I have the luxury of going into the dark projection room and being surprised when the audience is surprised and being bored when they're bored, I think that gives me a sense of what my job is, where I can press the accelerator button if I need to, or support an emotion or don't.


LUKAS KENDALL: John Williams is best known for bringing back the theatrical symphonic film score in the 1970s in "Jaws" and "Star Wars." But he has a breadth and depth of talent and career that really started before there were The Beatles.

LUNDEN: Lukas Kendall is founder and editor of Film Score Monthly.

KENDALL: His themes sound inevitable. They sound like they fell out of his sleeves; they sound like they've always existed. It's extraordinary how you get just two notes for "Jaws" or five notes for "Close Encounters" and have them feel like they've always existed.


STEVEN SPIELBERG: I am probably the only person who can boast that I have collaborated with John Williams for exactly half of his life.

LUNDEN: Steven Spielberg paid tribute to Williams at Tanglewood this summer.

SPIELBERG: This year marks our 40th year of working together, and I have to say, without question, John Williams has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.

LUNDEN: In fact, John Williams spent his birthday working on the score for Spielberg's latest.


LUNDEN: Williams says it takes two to three months on average to compose a film score, going back and forth from his studio to his screening room to make sure everything syncs up properly.

WILLIAMS: These days, I probably will get as much as a minute done or a minute and a half done in a day. It's a good day.

LUNDEN: And at age 80, Williams is having a lot of good days. His energy seems boundless. He's laureate director of the Boston Pops, he's composing new classical work, and his score is filling theaters screening Spielberg's "Lincoln."

WILLIAMS: I'm happy to be busy. I'm happy to have a wonderful family. And I think also, especially for practicing musicians, age is not so much of a concern, because a lifetime is just simply not long enough for the study of music anyway. You're never anywhere near finished. So, the idea of retiring or putting it aside is unthinkable. There's too much to learn.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


SIMON: And you can hear more from Jeff Lunden's conversation with John Williams at And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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