In addition to being a famous composer and known worldwide for his film scores, John Williams is also a talented pianist and conductor. He has used his gifts in a variety of musical genres and helped mainstream the use of the symphony orchestra in film.
John Williams is the son of a percussionist and started playing trumpet, piano and trombone at a very young age. He continued his training at the University of California in Los Angeles and studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. He was very soon leading a jazz band and arranging his own piano compositions for orchestra. During his three years as a serviceman in the US Air Force, he tried his hand at conducting an orchestra, then took advanced piano studies with Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. He was making a living as a jazz pianist at the time, but his teacher encouraged him to concentrate on writing. As an established pianist and arranger in Hollywood, he moved in cinema circles and met composers such as Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman.
In the 1960s, he rapidly became a recognised composer and was asked to write for television. He continued to write pieces in a more classical vein, though, especially in the concerto form, such as his Concerto for Flute (1969) and a Symphony.
In the 1970s, John Williams composed the scores for blockbuster disaster films (e.g. The Towering Inferno, 1972) and came to the attention of the young director Steven Spielberg. It was the start of a long and fruitful collaboration that was marked right from the beginning by an Oscar for the best original music score for Jaws. John Williams became the leading composer for the cinema. On Spielberg's recommendation, George Lucas called on John Williams for his sweeping Star Wars saga. It was a huge commercial success, which grew and continued with the composition of scores for most of the blockbusters in American cinema, including E.T. the Extra-Terrrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, JFK, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.
A brilliant conductor with an eclectic musical culture, now writing for a global audience, John Williams readily sought inspiration in the great composers such as Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Like Richard Wagner before him, John Williams liked to use leitmotifs to identify specific characters and actions. The way his music interacts with the images, his orchestration and the way he handles his themes have made him a first-rate composer.
Six landmark dates in the life of John Williams:
1956: married the singer and actress Barbara Ruick
1971: first Academy Award for Best Original Song Score for Fiddler on the Roof
1977: Oscar for Best Original Score for Star Wars
1980: appointed conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, where he remained until his retirement in 1993
1984: composed the music for the Los Angeles Olympics
2012: nominated for an Oscar in the category Best Film Score for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Steven Spielberg)
Six key works by John Williams:
1951: Sonata for Piano
1965: Essay for Strings, first performed by André Previn
1974: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
1993: Film scores for Jurassic Park and Schindler's List
2002: Original film score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
2011: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, first performed on 25 May by Keisuke Wakao and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer
Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, January 2014