When I was in junior high, I was in the school orchestra, and one of the obligations entailed in that was playing for graduation. Even my own, which is okay, because it was more fun than actually walking with my class. But the recessional music every year was our teacher’s arrangement of the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark. I may well still have my copy of the sheet music around here somewhere, even though I’m not supposed to because we were supposed to turn our music in at the end of the year.
The entity with the most Academy Award nominations, with 62, is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The person with the most Academy Award nominations, with 59, is Walt Disney. The person with the most Academy Award nominations that he actually earned himself, with fifty, is John Williams. He has more than Edith Head, who was nominated at least once and as often as three times every year between 1948 and 1966. And yet he hasn’t actually won since Schindler’s List despite having composed even more of the most memorable themes in the history of film.
Oh, there are memorable themes that weren’t written by John Williams. For one thing, sound in movies is a whopping five years older than he is. (He turns 84 tomorrow.) His first Oscar nomination wasn’t until 1967. On the other hand, if you were to list five movie themes that you remember, odds are quite good that John Williams wrote at least three of them.
Not to mention things like the Olympic fanfare, the theme to the NBC nightly news, and simply conducting the Boston Pops for thirteen years. He’s long been a very busy man, is what I’m saying; a lot of those nominations aren’t even for Spielberg films. Though he has done all but five of them, missing out on Bridge of Spies because of a health issue. It’s listed as minor, though, and he’ll be back for The BFG.
Orchestral music has undergone a bit of a downturn in popular culture in the twentieth century; I’m not sure there are many great twentieth century orchestral composers who didn’t write for at least one movie. Stravinsky, it seems, who certainly wasn’t thrilled by how Disney treated him. But Shostakovich wrote for film, and Aaron Copland even won an Oscar. I might be able to drag out a few more from my long-ago music theory classes, but by and large, the instrumental music of Europe and the United States that comes from the classical tradition has been written for film.
Therefore, I put it to you that, in a hundred years, when people are looking back at the instrumental composers of the twentieth century, John Williams will be one of the first to be mentioned. Sure, okay, Copland and Stravinski and Shostakovich. But Williams. (And Elfman, if you want my opinion, but it isn’t one shared by everyone. He’s only been nominated for four Oscars and hasn’t won any.) After all, I’m willing to bet the only Copland the average person knows is the bit of Rodeo that appears in beef commercials. But pretty much everyone knows Star Wars and Harry Potter and Jaws.
Two amusing Oscar facts about John Williams, before we’re done. First, he has at least once been guaranteed to not be played off by the orchestra; he was conducting the orchestra on a night that he’s won. Not only that, but in 1977, he beat himself. Star Wars over Close Encounters of the Third Kind, if you’re curious. It’s also the only time he ever won for music that is distinctly memorable as music for a franchise. Oh, I’m sure they revived his theme for the later Jaws movies, but who cares?