Composers Datebook®

John Williams goes west


In January of 1980, the famous American film music composer John Williams was named conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and on today’s date that year led the Pops in the premiere performance of a concert overture based on his score for the John Wayne film “The Cowboys.”

Now, by 1980 Williams has scored dozens of classic American films, but not all that many westerns. “The Cowboys,” from 1971, for one, and “Missouri Breaks,” a quirky 1976 western starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, for another.

If both “The Cowboys” and “Missouri Breaks” are somewhat unconventional samples of the western genre, Williams’ music is in the grand tradition of the classic film scores by Jerome Moross, who composed the music for “The Big Country,” Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the score for “The Magnificent Seven,” and Jerry Goldsmith, who has done that service for a number of other classic westerns.

All these composers, however, owed a collective debt to an unlikely cowboy music composer: Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland, whose “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” ballet scores from the 1930s and '40s helped define the symphonic equivalent of the wide-open American landscape.

Music Played in Today's Program

John Williams (b. 1932) The Cowboys Overture Boston Pops; John Williams, cond. Philips 420 178

On This Day


  • 1727 - French composer Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, in Dijon;

  • 1870 - French composer and organist Charles Tournemire, in Bordeaux;

  • 1901 - Austrian composer Hans Erich Apostel, in Karlsruhe, Germany;

  • 1903 - English composer Robin Milford, in Oxford;

  • 1916 - French composer Henri Dutilleux, in Angers;

  • 1923 - American composer Leslie Bassett, in Hanford, Calif.;

  • 1924 - American jazz composer and trombonist James Louis ("J.J.") Johnson, in Indianapolis;


  • 1964 - American composer Marc Blitzstein, age 58, from injuries suffered in a barroom fight, in Fort-de-France, Martinique;


  • 1723 - Handel: opera "Ottone, re di Germania" (Julian date: Jan. 12);

  • 1859 - Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d, Op. 15, with the Hanover Court Orchestra conducted by Joseph Joachim and the composer as the soloist;

  • 1887 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta "Ruddigore" at the Svoy Theatre in London;

  • 1894 - Glazunov: Symphony No. 4, in St.Petersburg (Gregorian date: Feb. 3);

  • 1908 - Stravinsky: Symphony in Eb, Op. 1, in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Feb. 4):

  • 1934 - Shostakovich: opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" (1st version), in Leningrad at the Maliiy Opera Theater;

  • 1936 - Hindemith: "Trauermusik (Music of Mourning)" for Viola and String Orchestra,on a BBC memorial concert for King George V of England (who had died on January 20, 1935), with Sir Adrian Boult conducting and the composer as soloist;

  • 1970 - Carlisle Floyd: opera "Of Mice and Men," in Seattle; According to Opera America, this is one of the most frequently-produced American operas during the past decade;

  • 1980 - John Williams: "Cowboys Overture," by the Boston Pops, conducted by the composer;

  • 1998 - Ned Rorem: song-cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” as Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City, by the New York Festival of Song;

  • 1998 - Bright Sheng: "Postcards," in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hugh Wolff conducting;


  • 1575 - The Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I, grants a license to Thomas Tallis and William Byrd (both Catholics), to print music for 22 years;

  • 1889 - Columbia Phonograph Company founded in Washington, D.C.;

  • 1907 - The Metropolitan Opera production of R. Strauss' opera "Salome," with soprano Olive Fremstad in the title role, creates a scandal; The opera is dropped after a single performance, and not staged at the Met again until the 1930s.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®