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Arts & Entertainment

Composer John Williams, savior of classical film scores, conducts at the Hollwood Bowl all Labor Day weekend

The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross in the Off-Ramp studio.
The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross in the Off-Ramp studio.
John Rabe

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UPDATE: John Williams will lead the LA Philharmonic in some of his best-loved music Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl.

John Williams received his 50th Oscar nomination for the score for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

A still from a trailer for
A still from a trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

Williams is so ubiquitous now, as former leader of the Boston Pops and the man behind the music for so many Lucas and Spielberg films, and old-fashioned lush orchestral scores are so common, that it's hard to believe they were endangered a few decades ago. But so writes Alex Ross in The New Yorker:

Perhaps [Williams'] most crucial contribution is the role he has played in preserving the art of orchestral film music, which, in the early seventies, was losing ground to pop-song soundtracks. “Star Wars,” exuberantly blasted out by the London Symphony, made the orchestra seem essential again.

— Alex Ross, "Listening to 'Star Wars'"

Film composer John Williams on stage in 2011.
Film composer John Williams on stage in 2011.
Chris Devers, Flickr Creative Commons


I spoke with Ross about Williams for this week's Off-Ramp, and he walked me through Williams' history and some of the complexities of the "Star Wars" score. (Go ahead. Hum the main theme. Alex says you're probably humming it wrong.)

He also debunked a popular trope:

It has long been fashionable to dismiss Williams as a mere pasticheur, who assembles scores from classical spare parts. Some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist. To accuse Williams of plagiarism, however, brings to mind the famous retort made by Brahms when it was pointed out that the big tune in the finale of his First Symphony resembled Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: “Any ass can hear that.”  

— Alex Ross, "Listening to 'Star Wars'"

Make sure to click on the arrow in the audio player to hear side-by-side comparisons with Williams' music and the music that inspired it.