John Williams: Flying from E.T.

Context

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982 and was produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. John Williams composed the music for this blockbuster film, with it eventually becoming one of his most popular and well-loved scores. 

The story tells of Elliott, a boy who befriends an extraterrestrial who is stranded on earth. The boy and his siblings try to help E.T. return to his planet without the government finding out. The concept came from an imaginary friend that Spielberg had in the 1960s when his parents got divorced. Interestingly, the film was shot in chronological order so that the young actors’ emotional performances were more authentic.

The film was released on June 11th, 1982 and became the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing the likes of Star Wars. This was an impressive record that the film held for 11 years until Jurassic Park surpassed it in 1993. The film has been dubbed as one of the greatest films of all time, with it being acknowledged as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.”

 

The Music

Another one of John Williams’ many popular film scores, the music for E.T. has been preserved as one of Williams’ most magical. The Flying Theme is heard in the flying scene where E.T and Elliott take flight for the first time. 

The pace of the music is established from the off, with motor rhythms in the strings representing the pair taking off. Whimsical flutes fly around above, adding a pinch of magic to the music. After the introduction the strings fall into a luscious ascending melody that raises first by a fifth, then an octave, then a minor 6th. These various intervals create shimmer within the harmony of the music, whilst also celebrating Williams’ romantic style of writing.

Flying starts in C major, and although it stays major, Williams does move around some unexpected keys such as B major to emphasise transition sections. The strings flourish with their romantic motif as the horns add a sense of power and strength to the music. Williams’ use of tuned percussion also adds a touch of magic to the piece with the xylophone ringing particularly pure here.

The outro section is symbolic of the flight coming to its end. The harp and xylophone keep the magic, with additional bells providing some determination. The main motif is repeated by a selection of instruments before a bold conclusion led by the upper brass and horns. The percussion utilise timpani, bass drum, cymbals and triangles to create a dramatic effect at the end of this magical piece of underscoring.

 

Final Thoughts

Flying is one of the most magical works by John Williams. From the use of motor rhythms at the start, to the whimsical winds and bold brass, Flying is a truly exciting depiction of Elliott and E.T. taking flight for the first time.

Happy Reading!

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