EVERYONE has listened to John Williams.
Whether it's the fanfare from Star Wars, or the ominous underwater ostinato from Jaws, or the familiar themes from Harry Potter or Jurassic Park or Sunday Night Football, or any of the countless scores Williams has composed in the past 50 years, every single person you know—from toddlers to the elderly, from music fanatics to those strange, suspicious people who say they don't really listen to music very much—has heard something Williams has written. Not even the biggest pop stars can claim such a thing, not the Beatles, not Elvis, not Michael Jackson, not Lady Gaga. And in the realm of classical music, Williams' reach is unsurpassed; whether you're comfortable with the idea or not, composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach have touched only a fraction of the living ears that Williams has.
This is scarcely revelatory. Williams is THE film composer, the big one—the titan among the Michael Giacchinos and Alexandre Desplats and Hans Zimmers. Williams' shadow hangs long and heavy over both current cinema and contemporary orchestral music, and it could be argued that Williams' influence is more the result of luck—his fruitful associations with Spielberg and Lucas, for instance—than anything else. Here's a guy whose tunes happened to get attached to some of the biggest moneymakers in Hollywood history.
But boiling it down to chance entirely overlooks Williams' scholarship. This is a man with a studious and rich sense of the history of classical music, coupled with a deep and enduring affection for film. Williams was the conductor of the Boston Pops for more than a decade—during his peak popularity as a film composer, it should be mentioned—and his adeptness with all facets of 20th century American orchestral music are virtually unmatched. In addition to composing and conducting with utmost skill, Williams has incorporated elements of jazz and post-romanticism in his work, putting him in the company of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
More importantly, Williams' work reveals a peerless sense of generosity and an abiding love for musical history. This is most obvious in the recurring motifs of Star Wars, which point directly to Gustav Holst's tremendous The Planets suite for orchestra: "Mars, the Bringer of War" is the direct antecedent for "The Imperial March," of course, while "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" offers the sense of majesty and optimism that can be found in virtually all of Williams' best-known pieces. His theme for Jaws is a skillful, knowing marriage of Bernard Herrmann's famous Psycho cue and the "Les Augures printaniers" section from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Similar parallels can be drawn to Dvořák's "New World" symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by Ravel), Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and the work of film composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alessandro Cicognini, Nino Rota, and beyond.
Some complain that these transparent influences are proof of Williams' thieving, magpie tendencies. I'd argue that, first of all, no good art exists in a vacuum. More importantly, Williams points the way to his predecessors with largesse and hospitality. To have your ears turned by Williams' themes for Superman and E.T. is to have them primed for The Firebird and Swan Lake. To examine the proficient way Williams incorporates the leitmotif in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is ideal groundwork for diving into Wagner's Ring cycle. To be thrilled by the music in Raiders of the Lost Ark is to open one's self up to Rossini's William Tell Overture; to be moved by Williams' well-known theme for the Olympics is excellent preparation for Copland's staggering Fanfare for the Common Man.
Williams, perhaps more than any other contemporary musician or composer, has used the breadth of his influence to open up doors to the worlds of classical and film music to everyday listeners. His music, deeply infused in the subconscious of generations raised on Star Wars and Harry Potter films, satisfies in its own regard, but it simultaneously functions as a vital signpost to the monumental works of the past. He's like the best kind of professor; John Williams' career is a syllabus that opens the gates to a whole world of music. That the maestro will be in Portland, conducting the Oregon Symphony for a night, is an event of historic proportions.