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TESTAMENT – James Horner


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Testament was adapted from a short story “The Last Testament” written by Carol Armen. Originally conceived as a TV movie, Paramount executives were so impressed with the final product that they instead chose to release it in theatres across the country. The story concerns itself with the aftermath of a cataclysmic nuclear war. Its intimate narrative is seen through the eyes of Carol Wetherley, a mother who lives in the northern California town of Hamlin outside of San Francisco. After her husband is lost with the destruction of San Francisco, she struggles with determination and dignity to ensure the safety and continuity of her family. Yet all seems for naught as one by one her neighbors and family begin to succumb to the horrific ravages of radiation poison. The film earned critical acclaim for its intimate portrayal and was a commercial success.

Horner composed Testament during the interlude between his epic Star Trek scores. He chose to approach the score with a small ensemble and so employed just ten musicians consisting of a violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, French horn, harp, keyboards and percussion. Three cues also included a solo wordless female voice. Speaking in an interview Horner stated that he wanted to convey simply, quietly and elegantly themes that played in the background and did not twist the audience for tears. He succeeded on all counts with a score that despite its small ensemble resonates a significant and compelling emotional power. So, let us begin our exploration…

In the “Main Title” the music plays against the stark opening credits, which are displayed bleakly in white font over a black screen. The cue opens portentously with three bell chimes that toll atop a sustained violin and piano chord. Soon a plaintive horn line rises from the dark depths to emote the forlorn and sad Main Theme, which ends its short life over a sustained violin chord that fades unto nothingness. Horner often speaks of using orchestral colors to establish the film’s emotional narrative and this short cues again offers testimony to his capacity to emote so much feeling which such simplicity.

In “Bike Talk: Dad & Brad”, the first segment of this tri-part cue, we hear Horner speak to the bond between father and son as Tom encourages his son Brad to join him on a bike ride. The cue introduces the first two phrases of Brad’s Theme that is emoted with the melodic beauty of solo flute played against sparkling keyboards. We segue into “Bike Ride: Dad & Brad” where we are treated to a full statement of Brad’s Theme carried by solo flute that is magical. Lastly, in “Brad’s Bike Challenge” the cue concludes with harp glissandi ushering in a reprise of Brad’s Theme as a duet between French horn and violin as Tom and Brad race up a hill. The cue concludes with a dénouement of woodwinds as Brad gives up the race.

Although a short cue, “The Picnic” displays powerful emotions. We see Carol and the family confronted with an uncertain future as they face the grim reality that the country has suffered a devastating nuclear attack. Again Horner imparts with simplicity, orchestral color to set the mood with a cello playing a descending scale with harp glissandi and contrapuntal play from clarinet and violin. As they decide to set aside the grim news and go on a picnic, Brad’s Theme returns on solo flute with piano accompaniment. A harp flourish ushers in a change of key as we see Brad’s Theme now emoted by French horn with contrapuntal woodwinds. The cue and horn line ends abruptly with finality as their illusion of normalcy is shattered when they come upon a newly planted tree that is withered and brown.

“Carol Consoles Liz” is a complex, multi-thematic piece and for me the score highlight. The cue abounds with tenderness, nurturance and child-like innocence that moves me to tears. Horner perfectly attenuates the score to emote the sustaining and unconditional power of a mother’s love for her children as Carol comforts first Mary Liz and then later Scottie. A prelude of violin and piano introduce tender woodwinds with a bass counter as Carol comes to Mary Liz. As she comforts her daughter Brad’s Theme carried by French horn with glockenspiel accents arises and after a string chord transitions with a key change to solo flute playing atop a sustained violin chord with glockenspiel accents. We change scenes with a visit from their priest solicits Carol to come to the cemetery to retrieve a disconsolate Scottie who is trying to run away. We hear low register piano introduce a soulful French horn, which emotes with sparkling accents the Main Theme employing the classic raised Lydian fourth to impart child-like innocence. As Carol speaks to her son, Horner introduces the wondrous Scottie’s Theme, which brings a quiver. The theme features a duet between flute and glockenspiel playing a descending lyrical line against a contrapuntal clarinet repeating a tender minor third. But we are not done as Horner has the cello take up the primary flute line as the flute shifts to counter with the secondary clarinet line. We then shift keys as the violin takes up the theme with the flute countering amidst glockenspiel accents. At the 4:29 mark we segue into ”Carol Says Goodbye to Neighbor”, which speaks of tragedy as Carol says goodbye to her neighbors who have just lost their baby to radiation sickness. Horner employs a forlorn French horn to emote the inconsolable anguish of the scene. Harp glissandi usher in the final passage of this glorious piece with a low register clarinet emoting Brad’s Theme before shifting to a final ending statement born by flute played over strings, sparkling glockenspiel and fading French horn note. Folks, this cue is sublime, it is clearly one of the best cues Horner has ever written and provides enduring testimony to his genius!

“Mother and Daughter Talk” is another supremely tender cue and another score highlight. As mother and daughter reminisce over old photographs Mary Liz, who understands that her life will soon end, asks what it is like to experience lovemaking. Horner perfectly captures the sensitivity of the scene with a poignant and touching statement. He begins with a prelude by violin and viola that ushers in a tender duet of flute and French horn, which reprises the Lydian motif to emote Mary Liz’s child-like innocence. At 0:50 wordless female voices sing over flute and horn solos with harp glissandi and glockenspiel accents. For those of you familiar with Horner’s canon, you will detect the nascent proto-themes that will be born in the later Krull and Spitfire Grill scores.

“Carol Bathes Scottie” is a sad and achingly tearful cue for me. We see Carol bathing her beloved Scottie whose life is ebbing as he succumbs to radiation sickness. A clarinet begins the counter line of his melody while piano and bell accents carry the primary line. Flute and cello take up the two lines in a poignant and truly heart-wrenching duet. A repeating bass pulse with sparkling percussion plays as Carol holds the lifeless Scottie to her chest and we view through her eyes flash backs of his brief life.

In “Brad and Henry Call CQ” we see Brad riding his bike to Henry’s house to determine if he has made radio contact with anyone. Horner plays the travel music as a minor modal string ostinato with cymbal accents as we see Brad riding through his now desolate neighborhood. At 0:46 we segue with wordless A Cappella female voices into “Brad and Hiroshi Ride Double” where we witness Brad’s neighbor’s body being loaded into a truck. In a truly compassionate gesture, Brad resolves to take the man’s mentally handicapped son with him since there is no longer anyone to take care of him.

“Carol and Priest Graveside” continues the inexorable march toward death as Carol sees her beloved Mary Liz buried beside her brother. Her grief is inconsolable and her anguish unbearable yet she grasps passionately in the embrace of the priest that seeks to comfort her. Horner understands the flux of Carols competing emotions and chooses to emote the scene with two divergent lines that at times align in harmony only to separate into dissonance. The cue opens with high register woodwinds playing atop pizzicato strings and bass chords. At 0:51 a harp introduces the secondary line carried by French horn, dissonant strings and wordless female voice that reflect Carol’s conflicted internal emotional state. Tolling bells, discordant strings and somber bass chords evoke the finality of the situation.

In “Hiroshi Hands Teddy to Carol” Carol, Brad and Hiroshi light three candles to affirm hope. As Hiroshi gives Scottie’s teddy bear to Brad as a gift of life, Scottie’s Theme returns. We again hear his clarinet and flute lines with bell accents, which are soon joined by a warm and sumptuous cello. The film closes as they make a pact and resolve live. At 1:10 Horner chooses to emote optimism by introducing with harp and wordless female voices singing in harmony, a major key waltz. This transitions with a bell toll to a concluding solo French horn statement of the Main Theme. With the rolling of the “End Credits” at 3:18, Brad’s Theme returns with solo flute playfully dancing over piano. The line is taken up by violin with sparking keyboards only to again transition into the Main Theme, now emoted plaintively by a French horn over a sustained high register violin chord. The score concludes as both horn and violin jointly fade unto nothingness.

Folks, I must thank Neil S. Bulk and Lukas Kendall for resurrecting one of Horner’s best early career scores. It suffices to say that Film Score Monthly has once again demonstrated that they are masters of film score restoration. The FMS team has successfully secured the complete score from the three-track film mixes of Shawn Murphy that were printed on the original 1″ 32-track digital 3M master tapes and the sound quality is excellent. I have long hoped for a release of this score and this is indeed a dream come true. Horner understood that given the intimacy of the film, a small unobtrusive ensemble was the best approach. Indeed, his astute scoring sensibilities are on full display here as time and time again his music is perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery and emotional narrative. His elegant themes emote powerfully and demonstrate a wondrous interplay and level of sophistication. Despite its 30-minute length, the quality and beauty of this score cannot be understated. I highly recommend this score for worthy inclusion in your collection.

Rating: ****

Buy the Testament soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (Main Theme from Testament) (1:40)
  • Bike Talk: Dad & Brad/Bike Ride: Dad & Brad/Brad’s Bike Challenge (2:24)
  • The Picnic (1:29)
  • Liz Plays Pied Piper/Pied Piper Play/Pied Piper Flute/Pied Piper Piano (1:14)
  • Pied Piper Curtain (0:39)
  • Carol Consoles Liz/Carol Says Goodbye to Neighbor (6:07)
  • Mother and Daughter Talk (2:24)
  • Carol Bathes Scottie (2:40)
  • Brad and Henry Call CQ/Brad and Hiroshi Ride Double (1:29)
  • Carol and Priest Graveside/Desire to Live (2:36)
  • Hiroshi Hands Teddy to Carol/End Credits (5:15)
  • Liz Enjoys Mozart [BONUS] (1:50)
  • Fania Plays Mozart [BONUS] (0:37)

Running Time: 30 minutes 24 seconds

Film Score Monthly FSM Vol.14 No.8 (1983/2011)

Music composed, conducted and orchestrated by James Horner. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by William Saracino. Album produced by Lukas Kendall and Neil S. Bulk.

  1. Matt C.
    April 27, 2011 at 7:28 am

    I am in complete agreement with your review. I was somewhat hesitant to purchase this 30 minute score, but I am so glad I did. It is truly beautiful and poignant. Now I’m crossing my fingers for a release as good as this for Horner’s score to In Country!

    • Craig Richard Lysy
      April 27, 2011 at 7:47 am

      Thank you for the kind words.

      Yes! In Country would also be a dream come true. Horner just has it in his genes to write these type of films. I hope someday to review it.

      All the best!

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