LINCOLN – John Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In the annals of American political history, virtually no-one is as universally admired, revered and respected as Abraham Lincoln. Born into relative poverty in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln rose from being a simple country lawyer to being elected the 16th President of the United States in 1860. During the course of his presidency Lincoln essentially re-defined the United States as we know it today, successfully defeating the Confederacy in the four-year Civil War, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that essentially ended slavery in the country, and delivering the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous political speeches of all time. He was re-elected in 1864 but, as we all know, was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth while watching a play in a Washington DC theatre in April 1865, before he could fully establish his second term. There have been many films over the years featuring Lincoln as a central figure, but director Steven Spielberg’s film – simply titled “Lincoln” – is a straightforward biopic of the man’s life and achievements. The film stars Daniel Day Lewis in the eponymous role, and features a stellar supporting cast including Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, Tommy Lee Jones as republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert, David Strathairn as secretary of state William Seward, and Jackie Earle Haley, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jared Harris and Hal Holbrook in smaller roles.
Of course, where Spielberg goes, so too goes John Williams. Lincoln is their 26th collaboration as director and composer, a relationship that extends all the way back to The Sugarland Express in 1974, and encompasses some of the greatest film music ever written, from Jaws to Raiders of the Lost Ark, to E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and more. With the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, theirs is by far the most creatively successful director-composer relationship in the history of cinema. At the time of writing, Spielberg has no directorial features planned until 2014, and without wanting to sound morbid, it’s possible that Lincoln may be the now-80-year-old Williams’s last significant cinematic work. It’s just as well that the score is a classic Williams work of beauty, elegance and restraint, a tasteful but emotionally appropriate musical tribute to one of America’s greatest ever leaders.
If you boil it down to it’s nuts and bolts, Lincoln is a combination of the restrained patriotism of Saving Private Ryan, the emotional thematic core of War Horse, and the harmonic language and chord structure of The Patriot, filtered through the Americana sensibilities of Aaron Copland. It even goes so far as to have brief moments for period-specific instrumentation with fiddle solos and fife-and-drum Civil War marching songs, while referencing mid-19th century music from the Lutheran hymnbook which Williams researched in order to find inspiration for his thematic ideas. The vast majority of the score is written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and considering that they are not a traditional film score recording orchestra, they do a marvelous job capturing the expressiveness and nuance in Williams’s writing. The main theme, which featured prominently in the full trailer, is a warm and inviting piece which gradually swells to encompass the entire orchestra. It’s classic Williams; noble, dignified, emotionally appropriate, musically interesting, and with the beautiful harmonies that have been the hallmark of his career. Its performance in the opening “The People’s House” moves effortlessly from oboe to strings to horns in succession, illustrating the theme’s adaptability to different settings, and setting up the score perfectly.
The underscore, when not dominated by the main theme, tends to be a little more restrained, presenting dramatic textures that highlight specific instrumental colors rather than a web of recurring thematic ideas, although a series of sub-themes do exist – in fact, there are five of them, each representing a specific ideal, location, or concept from Lincoln’s life. It’s not as aimless as the presidential music Williams wrote for John Adams in Amistad, or as understated as the majority of Saving Private Ryan, but instead presents a series of cues which are tonally pleasant, instrumentally interesting, and have a richness which drives the score onward, echoing Lincoln’s determination and sense of destiny. Cues such as “The Purpose of the Amendment”, “The American Process”, “With Malice Toward None” and “Equality Under the Law” have a regal sense of righteous resolve, conveyed through slightly more bass-heavy performances led by cellos and horns, noble trumpet refrains, and which are connected by variations on a theme which seems to signify the endless inner machinations of government, and Lincoln’s valiant attempts to reform it.
Another theme, first heard via Randy Kerber’s expressive piano performance in “The Blue and the Grey”, seems to act as a signifier for the horror and tragedy of the Civil War, lamenting for the men and women who died in it in the cause of freedom. It’s a much more downbeat and thoughtful theme than the others, and rightly so. The theme in “Father and Son” shares compositional ideas with the Civil War theme – appropriately, as Lincoln’s eldest son fought in the conflict – but has a warm, steadfast quality that speaks of the respectful relationship the two shared. There are moments of darkness, too, none more so than in “The Southern Delegation and the Dream”, which is about as dissonant as the score ever gets.
The time-specific pieces include “Getting Out the Vote” and “The Race to the House”, where more rhythmic ideas take over, and the score becomes quite jaunty, accompanying the President on his adventures across the United States seeking votes with country fiddles, tapped percussion (including spoons!), old-fashioned banjos, and almost comedic-sounding oompah brasses. In “Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom” Williams lets loose with the all the fifes and drums he can gather, before moving into a choral performance of George Root’s famous Civil War anthem, which became Lincoln’s personal song during his 1864 re-election campaign against George McClellan.
“Freedom’s Call” features a standout solo violin performance by Robert Chen that gradually swells into a resounding rallying cry for the American people, and when the full throated voices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus kick in during “Appomattox, April 9, 1865”, the music simply soars. The conclusive 11-minute “The Peterson House and Finale” provides the most satisfying performances of the score’s various thematic identities, giving Lincoln an appropriate send off which is both tragic in the sense that it mourns his death, but distinguished in the way it captures the spirit of the man and his achievements.
I have heard virtually every one of Williams’s scores since the mid 1960s, and his seemingly endless supply of thematic ideas, his mastery of the orchestra, and his innate ability to get to the emotional heart of any scene he scores with tasteful and appropriate music never fails to amaze me. This is the reason Williams is rightly considered to be one of the greatest film composers who ever lived. It’s an absolute guarantee that Williams will receive his 48th Oscar nomination for this score next year, and with no second score to split his own vote, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins. Lincoln is a superb work, a proud and respectful musical tribute to a true American hero, and by far one of the standout works of 2012.
Buy the Lincoln soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The People’s House (3:41)
- The Purpose of the Amendment (3:06)
- Getting Out the Vote (2:48)
- The American Process (3:56)
- The Blue and Grey (2:59)
- With Malice Toward None (1:50)
- Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom (2:17)
- The Southern Delegation and the Dream (4:43)
- Father and Son (1:42)
- The Race to the House (2:41)
- Equality Under the Law (3:11)
- Freedom’s Call (6:06)
- Elegy (2:34)
- Remembering Willie (1:51)
- Appomattox, April 9, 1865 (2:36)
- The Peterson House and Finale (11:00)
- With Malice Toward None (Piano Solo) (1:31)
Running Time: 58 minutes 32 seconds
Sony Classical 88725446852 (2012)
Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus . Featured musical soloists Robert Chen, Christopher Martin, Stephen Williamson, David McGill, Daniel Gingrich and Randy Kerber. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt and Robert Wolff. Album produced by John Williams.