Are there any movie scores that John Williams didn't write? Star Wars? Check. Superman? Yep. E.T.? You know it. Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Indiana Jones? Ditto.
Although he composed for countless directors, Williams has been Steven Spielberg's go-to guy for music. He's scored every one of his films except two. So when it came time to provide the score for his breakthrough drama, who you gonna call? John Williams.
Williams was born on Long Island, and his father played the drums in New York City. The apple didn't fall far from the tree. When the family moved to L.A. after World War II, there was no question what he was going to be. He was a pianist and head of a jazz band before going to school at Los Angeles City College and UCLA. He was drafted into the Air Force in 1952 (working in the band there too) and went back to New York in 1955 to continue his craft. He studied at Julliard then headed back to LA, where he soon found work scoring television and film productions.
By the time Spielberg found him, Williams was already well-established. He'd written opening themes for the Olympics, composed concertos, and scored many films. He'd already won an Oscar in 1971 for scoring Fiddler on the Roof. He worked on Spielberg's first film, Sugarland Express, and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Their big mutual breakout was the follow-up to Sugarland: Jaws. Today, the film's considered a classic and for a while ranked as the highest grossing movie of all time. But production problems of all kinds plagued the shoot and the mechanical shark that was supposed to generate all the scares simply didn't work. Spielberg went with a less-is-more approach—hiding the shark as much as possible and just suggesting its presence, Hitchcock-style—but it still wasn't quite coming together.
Paging John Williams. With a simple two-note theme (that we're guessing you've heard before), he turned a struggling "When Animals Attack" movie into a thriller for the ages. The theme gave Spielberg's visuals a chance to achieve all the terror the director intended and helping turn Jaws into… well Jaws. Spielberg cited Williams with saving his film, and from then on the two were pretty much inseparable.
Their collaborations read like a laundry list of musical cinematic classes, including the likes of Close Encounters, E.T., Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones theme, to name just a few. Williams also went on to compose the themes for such non-Spielberg classics as Superman, the Harry Potter saga, and the various Star Wars movies. He also racked up a whole passel of awards: five Oscars at last count, plus 49 nominations.
Schindler: A Challenge Like No Other
One of those Oscars was for Schindler, which presented a unique musical challenge for both director and composer. Williams favored big orchestral pieces of the John Phillip Sousa variety: a lot of brass and a big showy presentation. That wasn't going to fly with Schindler: it just didn't have that triumphant quality.
Plus, there was the subject matter: enough to turn the greatest filmmakers in the world into piles of quivering Jell-O. Williams famously told Spielberg that he needed a better composer, to which Spielberg replied, "I know, but they're all dead." (Source)
So yeah. Pressure. In order to get past it, Williams had to leave his comfort zone. He abandoned his usual trumpet-heavy orchestrations for stringed instruments. The main theme is played on a single violin, and strings tend to take precedent over brass and woodwind, thanks in part to acclaimed violin soloist Itzhak Perlman. (Perlman, an Israeli American, was already renowned in classical circles, and it was kind of a big deal that he did this: he hadn't performed for any movie soundtracks before this one. (Source)
There's more. Considering that this is a Jewish story with heavily Jewish themes, Williams took considerable inspiration from classic Jewish folk songs. He had experience with this on Fiddler, but even Perlman was impressed by his devotion to the authenticity of the sound.
It worked. Besides winning an Oscar, it represented one of Williams' high points as a composer, and today remains one of the most recognizable movie themes anywhere. Figure skaters love it —turn on the Olympics and you're apt to hear it somewhere amid all the triple lutzes. Like Mozart, its deceptive simplicity hides richness and complexity beneath the surface. This one will rope-a-dope you. You think you have it all figured out, and then it shifts into something much more textured. Small wonder Williams was daunted by it. Nothing else would have done for a movie this important. Fortunately, our man Johnny had it all in hand.