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7 of the Best Brass Band Arrangements of John Williams’ Music

Updated: Feb 14

Exploring the Most Epic John Williams Arrangements

His film music is some of the most iconic in history and holds a very special place in the hearts of all movie lovers; from wannabe Jedis to wand-carrying hopefuls who are still waiting for their letter from Hogwarts (I am the latter). John Williams, without question, is the most prolific and highly-respected living composer. With a career spanning over 70 years, he has 5 Academy Awards and 26 Grammy Awards to his name, alongside countless other accolades. 

As a brass musician, the one outstanding feature (and there are many) that draws me to the music of John Williams is his ability to write for brass. From the triumphant, adventurous fanfares of the S'tar Wars 'theme to the mournful bugle-esque calls in the 'Hymn to the Fallen' he has the power to harness the versatility of a brass section to evoke the full spectrum of human emotion.

Therefore, it’s no wonder his music lends itself so well to the brass band medium. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and playing a range of Williams’ music, beautifully arranged by some of the best composers our community has to offer and I thought I would explore a few of those arrangements with you. So, pack your lightsaber, grab your broomstick and don your fedora - we’re going on an adventure.

1) Star Wars (Main Theme) Arranged by Philip Harper

Two of the most recognisable theme tunes of all time come from the space cowboy franchise, ‘Star Wars’ - its main theme and ‘The Imperial March’. Written in 1977, the soundtrack to the first film won Williams the Academy Award for best original score in 1978. It was difficult choosing between the two pieces for this list, but I had to go with the main theme, it is just so iconic and up there with one of my favourite pieces of film music. 

This film has ties to the brass banding world, believe it or not. Star Wars may have been set in a galaxy far, far away, but quite a few members of the brass section within the LSO when they recorded the soundtrack are characters we know very well from our world. The trumpet section comprised of Maurice Murphy, Willie Lang, Norman Archibald and Ralph Izen - what a section! On trombone was Denis Wick - yep, alongside making mutes and mouthpieces, he was providing the accompaniment for lightsaber duels! Also on trombone was Eric Crees, who has arranged a lot of music for brass bands. Another keen bander, Frank Mathison, completes the trombone line. The current Chair of Denis Wick Products, Steven Wick, was the tuba player with the LSO on this track. So, there you are folks - that iconic brass part you hear in Star Wars is thanks to the stars created (mostly) in the fires of the brass band community. 

Now there are a few different arrangements of this theme out there, but the three best (in my opinion) are by Goff Richards, Ray Farr and Philip Harper, with the latter arrangement being my ultimate favourite. For me, Philip Harper’s arrangement is incredibly cinematic and is very well adapted for the brass band medium with all the powerful energy, spirit and drama of the original orchestration. When performed well, it is absolutely breathtaking. 

Now we’ve visited a galaxy far, far away, it’s time to swap our spaceships for pirate ships - come on!

2) Prologue from Hook Arranged by Darrol Barry

One of my all-time favourite childhood movies was Hook. The story follows a grown up Peter Pan (played by one of my favourite actors, Robin Williams) who returns to Neverland to rescue his children from the fiendish Captain Hook and reclaim his old traits and skills as leader of the lost boys and ‘the boy who never grew up’. It’s a wonderful story, directed by Steven Spielberg and a soundtrack from John Williams (one of the many films that showcased the power of their partnership). 

The film was originally intended to be a musical, and Williams wrote around 8 songs with lyricist Leslie Bricusse, with several of these songs being recorded and some musical segments filmed. Of the 5 recorded, 3 songs were cut and instead incorporated into the instrumental score and the two remaining songs: ‘We Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ and ‘When You’re Alone’ did end up in the final production. 

The Prologue was written for the film’s theatrical trailer and combines two themes from the film’s soundtrack - a nautical sailors march and the ‘flying theme’ (if there is one thing John Williams is an expert in, it’s scoring music for flight- Peter Pan, E.T. Superman etc.). It’s a twinkling, youthful and exciting minute and a half of music that encapsulates the plot of the movie perfectly. It has been brilliantly arranged for a brass band by Darrol Barry and was released on the Black Dyke Band’s ‘Screen Blockbuster’s’ CD in 2008. It’s a piece I’ve not performed myself nor have I seen it programmed at a concert.So, if you’re putting together a ‘night at the movies’ or a ‘stage and screen’ concert - this could be a nice addition to your repertoire!

Time to settle down for a moment, as we leave the boy who never grew up, for a piece of music that commemorates the lives of the boys who had to grow up before their time…

3) Hymn to the Fallen Arranged By Klaas van der Woude

I think what makes John Williams such a prolific cinematic composer is his ability to capture human emotion - the things that cannot be truly conveyed in words - through music. He has the power to create music that moves you and his from ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is the perfect example of that. 

The film was Spielberg and Williams’ 15th collaboration and the soundtrack won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television. Williams’ said to have chosen the use of brass instruments for ‘solemn’ sections of the soundtrack and horns for ‘pensive moments’. Although Hymn to the Fallen is a widely recognised piece of music, the soundtrack itself was met with mixed reviews and was even marked as ‘bland’ by some critics. However, Spielberg’s comments on Hymn to the Fallen, did come to fruition, as he said it’s a piece of music and a testament to John Williams’ sensitivity that, in my opinion, will stand the test of time and honor [sic] forever the fallen of this war and, possibly, all wars.’ This piece has stood the test of time with features both in Veterans Day commemorations in the states and in our own remembrance concerts in the UK. 

I remember playing this for the first time when I was around 16. I hadn’t seen the film at this point, but I absolutely fell in love with this piece of music and it’s one of the pieces of music that has driven my love for the brass band sound, as well as John Williams’ works. 

This is testament to Klaas Van der Woud’s beautiful arrangement. It is as hopeful as it is heart-breaking. The haunting ‘bugle calls’ at the beginning, the hymnal form of the piece and the crescendo that leads into a swell of emotive ensemble work that is almost pleading with the listener (you would have to have a swinging brick instead of a heart for this not to move you to tears) - it is a piece that really lends itself well to the brass band sound. If there is one thing we can do better than anyone else, it is a hymn. 

From music that celebrates the life of fallen heroes, to a work that summons the heroes of the Olympics…

4) Summon the Heroes Arranged by Philip Sparke

Running on a similar theme, Summon the Heroes has become one of my all time favourite pieces of music. I was first introduced to it when I played it with the Wingates Band at a Remembrance concert. This triumphant, driven and motivational piece, although fitting for Remembrance was actually written for the 1996 Olympic Games that took place in Atlanta. Most of us will be familiar with his Olympic Fanfare and Theme that was written for the 1984 Olympics that was held in Los Angeles, but Summon the Heroes doesn't seem to get as much of a run out at concerts, which I think is a shame, as it is absolutely brilliant!

The piece is around 6 minutes long and opens with a rousing brass fanfare (similar to Olympic Fanfare and Theme) that leads into a simple yet heroic solo for trumpet. It it is the driving, stirring section towards the end that is the star of the show for me. I honestly feel like I can take on the world when I listen to this piece of music - it even helped me prepare for a contest that I was particularly nervous for last year (read about that here).Playing it is an even better experience than listening to it, so I hope to experience it on a concert programme again at some point. 

From athletics to archaelogical adventures - are you ready to enter the Temple of Doom?

5) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arranged by Ray Farr

Another absolutely iconic piece that is instantly recognisable and great fun to play. I think the vast majority of us will have played the Ray Farr arrangement at some point. It’s usually a staple piece on stage and screen/movie concert programmes and for good reason! It’s a fantastic adaptation of the heroic theme and snippets from the film’s soundtrack.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the second film in the franchise and is significantly darker than the other films. Its soundtrack was the seventh collaboration between Williams and Spielberg and alongside the main Indiana Jones theme there is a stunning love theme for Indie’s love interest in this film, Willie which is very reminiscent of the love themes from old hollywood films - fitting considering this film is set in the 30s. The film is set in China and India with the soundtrack taking influences from musical styles from both countries. 

The arrangement from Ray Farr captures that iconic brass writing by John Williams that we know and love - playing the main Indiana Jones theme is exciting no matter what age you are. Other than the main theme, my favourite part of this arrangement is the love theme. It’s such a beautiful melody and the arrangement is simply lush. 

Indiana Jones is still a source of success for John Williams; although The Temple of Doom was nominated but didn’t win at the Grammy’s, its predecessor did and in the last week he took home his 26th Grammy for Helena’s Theme from the latest in the Indiana Jones franchise - ‘The Dial of Destiny’.

Now then my fellow Potterheads, grab your wands, our time has come. Have you got your letter? Then its time to board the Hogwarts Express.

6) Hedwig’s Theme Arranged by Andrew Duncan

The magical world of Harry Potter has captured the imaginations of children and adults alike for decades now. The first film was released in 2001 and was our first introduction to ‘Hedwig’s Theme’. It has since served as the main theme for the entire Wizarding World franchise.As with Star Wars and Indiana Jones, it has been regarded as one of the most iconic film themes of all time. Andrew Duncan’s arrangement successfully captures the mystery, magic and mystique of the original orchestration. 

When the time came for Warner Brothers and the director of the first film, Chris Columbus, to find a suitable composer for the film, you would be forgiven for thinking that they whizzed Mr Williams a letter (by owl obviously) and that was that. However, they instead set several composers the task of creating a theme for a short promotional video for the film. Without seeing any footage of the film, Williams created his first draft of the iconic ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, presented it, in its bare form, on the piano to Chris Columbus and the rest, as they say, is history.

Shall we get a bit geeky? 

So, if you’re interested, the piece is written in ternery form (three-parts: section A followed by section B and then a repetition of section A). Section A features Hedwig’s theme, which is a leitmotif (a recurrent theme associated with a particular character, scene, situation etc.) which we have come to associate with the Harry Potter franchise. Section B is created with the the leitmotif used to represent Harry’s broomstick, the Nimbus 2000 (and is also used throughout the film during particularly action-packed scenes). We then repeat the opening section, but with a much more intense ensemble, finishing with a coda that uses material that wasnt used in the rest of the work. 

In the words of Albus Dumbledore, ‘Ah music! A magic far beyond what we do here’.

7) Jurassic Park Arranged by Alan Catherall

Alan Catherall’s arrangement of Jurassic Park is another John Williams piece that has become a firm favourite within programmes for movie-themed concerts. There are two main themes or motifs that can be heard throughout the score that Alan incorporated within his superb arrangement. 

The first is what is commonly known as the theme from Jurassic Park, which opens with a haunting horn solo that leads into that beautiful well-known melody. This first theme is introduced to the audience when Dr Alan Grant, Dr Ellie Satler and Ian Malcolm first see the Brachiosaurus (yes, dino fans I had to Google it, I nearly said it was a diplodocus, which it isn’t). 

The second theme, Journey to the Island, is a fanfare-style, noble affair that is first heard in the film as the helicopter approaches Isla Nublar. Williams described this feature as an ‘adventure theme, high-spirited and brassy, thrilling and upbeat musically’. 

Catherall combines both themes brilliantly within his arrangement and manages to maintain the integrity of the brass parts heard in the original score; strategically adapting them for alternative instruments within the brass band. It’s an all-round crowd pleaser for players, audiences and dinosaur fanatics alike.

A Whole Musical World to Explore

Now, you may be thinking - Liv, what about E.T., Jaws, Superman, Born on the Fourth of July?! Well E.T. traumatised me as a child (I’m still getting over it to be honest), but I agree that the flying theme is beautiful. I also agree that there is still a world of John Williams’ music that has been superbly arranged for brass band that I haven’t covered in this post. Well, dear reader, that gives us an excuse to embark on a second adventure, doesn’t it?

What do you say - shall we go for a sequel? 

Watch this space.

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1 Comment

Craig Chapman
Craig Chapman
Feb 13

Ahhh, I love Temple of Doom so much!

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