Music

The story of John Williams’ first film score

John Williams' first film score was not composed in Hollywood for Spielberg or Lucas. It was composed in a little building in a small province in Canada over 60 years ago.

Whether you are a a devoted cinephile (a person who who lives, eats, breathes and dreams cinema) or if you are just a casual movie-goer or even if you haven’t been to a movie since Netflix began sending DVDs through the mail two decades ago, at one point, you have heard the music of John Williams.

Who among us has not whistled the Indiana Jones Raiders march while leaping over a puddle of water on a rainy day or hummed Darth Vader’s Imperial March theme when we see that costume on display in the weeks leading up to Halloween? And of course, who hasn’t gone “Da-dum” while looking out over a blue ocean while sitting on a white beach during the months of summer?

So even if you may not be familiar with the name John Williams, you have heard his music. Williams is the composer behind some of the most recognisable film scores and themes ever written. His credits include every Star Wars movie, Superman, the Indiana Jones series, The first three parts of the Harry Potter series, Jaws, E.T., the Home Alone movies, the first two Jurassic Park instalments and Schindler’s List just to name a few.

READ MORE: The Top 10 Film Scores of John Williams

Williams has composed the scores to half of the highest-grossing movies of all time and he’s even worked in TV. In the 1980s he composed the themes for NBC news, which they still play every Sunday morning as the theme music to Meet the Press. There is also his music for the Olympics, which represents the drive, determination and heart of athletes all over the world.

However, Williams’s first musical film score composition was not composed for Steven Spielberg or George Lucas in Hollywood. It was composed for a provincial government official in a small fishing island located at the very end of Canada.

In March 1952, John Towner Williams, then only 20-years-old and enlisted in the Air Force, was stationed at Pepperell Air Force Base in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, where he was assigned to the 596th AF Band because of his ability to organise sheet music. Williams conducted performances with the The Northeast air Command Band in St. John’s, often in a gazebo overlooking top of Quidi Vidi Lake.

When the then premiere of Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood, invited a European film crew, North Atlantic Films, to come to the province to create promotional films showcasing the charms of the province, his government needed an individual to provide music for the film. Because Williams was able to do this, on the recommendation of his Air force commander, he was chosen to write and record a musical score for the film that was to be titled You Are Welcome.

Williams had fallen in love with many of Newfoundland’s folk melodies, so in preparation for this job, he visited the local library, the St. John’s AC Hunter Public Library (which still remains the province’s biggest and busiest library and ironically, contains a number of John Williams CDs). With a library of local folk melodies, Williams then went to work. He recorded the score in a studio for Atlantic Films on Prescott Street, located in the heart of the city – downtown.

Newfoundland is known for its vibrant music scene. Many of the province’s musical style and melodies derive from the sounds of Ireland and Celtic areas. One only has to listen to segments of Williams’ Jaws score to recognise elements of Newfoundland’s music. Two decades after he left St. John’s, the flavour of the province’s local music still presented itself in Williams’ writing. When Williams was chosen to score the Ron Howard Irish epic Far and Away in 1992, once again, he touched upon the sounds and style of Newfoundland.

Matt Schrader is an Emmy-award winning former journalist and the writer and director of 2016’s Score: A Film Music Documentary. He feels the connection is a very interesting one. “I’m of the opinion that a composer’s environment influences a tremendous amount of his or her evolution,” Schrader told me earlier this year. “That evolution is part of why classical music, instrumental music and film music are so interesting and exciting,” he continues.

“They’re rapidly building off of each other. There are people who would swear they hear hints of The Beatles in John Williams’ music, or Chopin or Wagner. I don’t know if that is the inspiration or not, but assuming John studied these at some point, it takes a brilliant musical mind to be able to transform these breakthroughs into a new sound. You see that evolution take place through the centuries of classical composers who apprenticed for another composer and so on. There’s a lineage of this incredibly advanced musical communication and expression, and film music is now driving the next evolution.”

READ MORE: Close Encounters of the Third Kind In Concert – Event Review

Marc David is the current Music Director of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and he is not surprised either of the lasting influence this little area had on Williams’ later output. “Newfoundland with its strong musical heritage and physical setting definitely offered the ideal environment to spark the young composer’s creative inspiration,” he also told me this year.

With that inspiration sparked, Williams was discharged from the Air Force in 1955 and then of course, the young composer made his way to New York where he was accepted into the prestigious school of Julliard of music. He started in where else? The piano class. The piano is to this day, where Williams sits when he is composing his now-legendary themes. The piano is where Williams births his themes and first presents them to his eager directors.

One of those directors is, of course, Steven Spielberg whom has asked Williams to compose the music for all but three of his films over the last 44 years. We see in Schrader’s film, the moment when Williams first played his themes for E.T. to Spielberg on of course, Williams’ piano.

READ MORE: The Cowboys: Deluxe Edition (John Williams) – Score Review ★★★★☆

This was one of the reasons why Schrader felt he needed to make his documentary.

“A love for film music is a lot more mainstream than I realised when we first started out,” he explains. “I really enjoyed the bonus features on DVDs, specifically the ones about the music, and always thought it was underrepresented. Music adds heart to film that no other element can, and without effective music, a film can never achieve its full potential. I expected someone to make this documentary several years ago, but I was surprised year after year when no one did. Having a deep appreciation and respect for the music, I realised this is an incredibly fulfilling world of creativity worth pursuing as a documentary.”

Although Williams himself was not interviewed for the documentary, many other film composers were and many of them, most notably Hans Zimmer, rightly declare Williams a towering force in the history of not just film composition, but one of the most talented composers throughout 20th Century music.

Zimmer is not alone in his praise as I asked Schrader what his favourite score was and without surprise, it was the one where Williams is seen playing his new themes for Spielberg on piano within the documentary. “E.T. is my favourite John Williams score, because the end of the film is told through music,” said Schrader. “It is written almost like a great concert piece, and really elevates the end of the film.”

[featured image credit:  By Alec McNayr (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons]
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