John Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List

John Williams (b. 1932) is the pre-eminent composer of Hollywood film music and has been for the past four decades. He was born into the film industry, after a fashion, since his father was a film-studio musician, and he accordingly grew up studying first piano and then trombone, trumpet, and clarinet. When his family moved to Los Angeles, in 1948, Williams began studying with the jazz pianist and arranger Bobby Van Eps. During the early 1950s he spent a stint in the Air Force (conducting and orchestrating for bands), studied at Juilliard for a year with the eminent Rosina Lhévinne, and began making his way in the world of jazz clubs and recording studios. Back in Los Angeles for the second half of the decade, Williams studied composition at UCLA with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Arthur Olaf Andersen and soon became enmeshed in the musical side of the television and movie industry.

He orchestrated a number of feature films in the 1960s and by the 1970s emerged as an important film-score composer in his own right. The breakthrough that would make his name synonymous with the sounds of the screen came with Steven Spielberg’s aquatic thriller Jaws. Spielberg would go on to deliver a profusion of Hollywood hits of surprisingly different character, and Williams became the composer of choice to mirror, support, and advance their action and their emotional states through music.

Schindler’s List (1993), based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (itself drawn from factual occurrences), tells the story of an industrialist in Germany—a member of the Nazi party—who managed to save the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories, navigating astonishing political and economic challenges in doing so. Appearing at a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2009 (at which Spielberg was also in attendance), Williams told the audience that he was flabbergasted when he first saw a rough cut of the film. “I had to walk around the room for four or five minutes to catch my breath,” Williams reported. “I said to Steven, ‘I really think you need a better composer than I am for this film.’ And he very sweetly said, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’” Itzhak Perlman has been connected to this music from the start. He performed this subdued yet curiously hopeful piece on the soundtrack, and it has become a frequently visited item in his concert repertory. 

—James M. Keller


(September 2018)