Emilio Audissino

‘Star Wars’ composer John Williams brought classical Hollywood music back to life

REPORT. Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The list goes on with big movies where Hollywood composer John Williams has made film music that has become classics. One of the foremost John Williams experts works at Linnaeus University – the film scholar Emilio Audissino. He means that the core of Williams' film music was a rediscovery of a classical Hollywood sound.

It all started with a cinema visit back home in Italy, when 13-year-old Emilio saw Jurassic Park for the first time. Then he was stuck.

– I found the music so fascinating that I wanted to know everything about the person who wrote it. There started my life-long study of Williams, says Emilio Audissino, Associate Professor in Media and Audiovisual Production.

Emilio’s interest soon moved from a fan-like enthusiasm to a more restrained academic interest. He wrote both his Master's thesis and his first Doctoral thesis on the American film composer, and has since published several books and articles on the subject.

John Williams CD-box
The CD box John Williams and the The Boston Pops Orchestra, by Decca Records.

He was recently asked to write liner notes for a new CD box, with 21 discs where John Williams conducts The Boston Pops Orchestra. The CD-box was released in February 2022 to celebrate John Williams’s ninetieth birthday.

– Of course I said yes! I had been looking forward to the re-release of those excellent recordings, so I was particularly glad to be able to be part of the project, says Emilio.

"I think the finale from E.T., the bicycle chase and the farewell, is one of the best music moments in film history."

Williams and Emilio Audissino
John Williams and Emilio Audissino, after Williams concert in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmoniker on 18 January 2020. Photo: John Norris.

Williams rediscovered 'classical' Hollywood music

So, what is the characteristic of John Williams's music? Emilio explains that Williams has had the merit of reviving the style of the ‘classical’ Hollywood music, that is the music that one would hear in films during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. It was a grand-symphonic style, played by big orchestras, that descended from the late-Romantic 19th century operas and tone poems by composers like Wagner, Strauss and Puccini. It was also a style that consisted in a close coordination of the music and the visuals, a tight synchronism in which music would imitate the visual gestures with corresponding musical gestures. This is called ‘Mickey-Mousing’, named after the use of music in the early Walt Disney cartoons, where you would see the mouse tiptoeing and you would hear corresponding notes of the violins to punctuate each step.

This style, the grand-symphonic idiom and the tight musico-visual synchronism, became outdated in the 1960s. At the end of the decade it appeared to be dead and buried. Symphonic film music and the use of acoustic big orchestras were replaced by more popular, smaller and more up-to-date ensembles – jazz combos, rock bands, theme songs, synthesizers.

– What Williams did was bringing back to life that old style that had disappeared from the cinemas. That is why I call Williams’s film music ‘neoclassical’, because its principal characteristic is that of having brought back in a modernized style the music of the classical Hollywood period, says Emilio.

Why has his music become such classics?

– The first reason is that it is music that can stand on its own, even outside of the film. This is not something that any film music succeeds in doing. Every film score by Williams has a considerable number of cues that can be entirely enjoyed in isolation, can even be played in concert without sounding superficial or boring. The second characteristic, besides being extremely well-written and orchestrally complex music, is that his music is also very accessible. He has a knack for writing memorable melodies that are easily hummable – think of the Indiana Jones theme, the E.T. theme, just to name two.

What impact has Williams had for the film music industry?

– His impact has been enormous as to the increase in consideration for film music as an art and also for the rediscovery of ‘classical Hollywood film music’. But when it comes to the style of today’s film music, I don’t think that Williams really has had a strong impact. His style is not feasible because the fluid digital work-flow of today’s film production, where films are constantly edited until the very last moment before release, does not allow composers to precisely design their music in more complex fashions. And the intricate sound design leaves little room for old-fashioned music. Add to this the preference for music that you ‘feel’ instead than music that you ‘listen to’. I’m perhaps too pessimistic, but I don’t think Williams’s ‘neoclassicism’ will get back any time soon.

What are your personal John Williams favorites?

– I think the finale from E.T. (the bicycle chase and the farewell) is one of the best music moments in film history. And I also love the opening of the Ark in Raiders of the lost Ark. As to the single pieces, instead of singling out the most popular, I want to bring attention to the devil’s tarantella from The Witches of Eastwick, whose orchestration is just brilliant. Or the hauntingly sinister and beautiful main theme from Dracula.

Top 10 list: Emilio Audissino´s favorite movies with John Williams music (not in order of importance)

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Hook (1991)
  • Superman (1978)
  • Dracula (1979)
  • The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • Jurassic Park (1993)
  • Schindler’s List (1993)

Read more:

The Film Music of John Williams – Emilio Audissino
Film Music in Concert – John Williams
The CD-box “John Williams – Complete Philips Recordings