Review by Frank Lehman
How do I begin? The score to Far and Away never ceases to amaze me. Everytime I listen to it I feel like I’ve been transported to another world. John Williams seamlessly blends a masterful Irish texture with a sweeping sense of adventure and love. The music reflects everything I love about Williams’ work. Far and Away has got it all. A plethora of themes, a great flowing sense, and one of his all time best action scenes. I love Far and Away; it is among my top five favorite John Williams scores of his carrier. I enjoy it more than Hook, it moves me more than Empire the Sun and captures me better than Sleepers. Every human emotion is captured in his score. The agony of defeat, the excitement of ambition and the subtleties of love. I’ve been holding off from reviewing this score just because I wanted to see if I could listen to it too much, to see if the music could get old. Well, I have to say, Far and Away is one score that doesn’t ever grow old! Each time you listen to it, you hear something you didn’t notice the past time. Even as I am in the process of writing this review, I am struck by the unique quality of each track. Hmm.. Sounds like I am about to go into the track-by-track analysis part of the review, don’t it…
The score to Far and Away starts out with “County Galway, June 1892.” Irish bagpipes and piano jabs are soon replaced by a pan flute, (I am not exactly sure what the name of this instrument is. I would appreciate it if someone would clear this up for me!) boldly pronouncing one of the main themes of the movie, which for my review will be referred to as the Ireland theme. It is sweeping and appropriately captures the nature of the beautiful country, in a majestic quality. After the Ireland theme comes the Main Theme, the Love theme between Joseph and Shannon is played. It, in contrast to the Ireland theme, is soft and gentle and more human than the Ireland theme. The next track is “The Fighting Donellys.” The Donellys is a combination of two of the three fighting jigs that Williams’ composed. They are entirely authentic sounding. I was at first fooled after seeing the movie that these were traditional folk songs or something, but was impressed to learn that Williams composed theme. The first jig that appears on the track is my preferred one, but both are great. Each song holds a very whistleable quality, and I often find myself whistling along. Not everyone will appreciate the music from this track at first, but after several listenings, the tend to grow on you. And they are developed further throughout the movie. The track ends on a peaceful note, leading nicely into the next track. “Joe Sr.’s Passing/The Duel Scene” is a combination of two cues from the movie. The first covers the scene where Joe’s father dies in front of him, only to come back to life for a second. The music is somber, but not too somber. The music is not over-emotionalized which is a nice technique. The bagpipes are brought back in, and later bassoon quietly states the Ireland theme, with a steady drum beat setting in. Suddenly the music segues into the duel. A change of rhythm quickly marks the entrance of the second fight jig from the Fightin’ Donellys. The Love theme slowly emerges from the fog and makes its first truly bold appearance as Shannon rescues Joe. The prospects of a life in America are perfectly represented in the final notes.
The next track, “Leaving Home” is a good restatement of both the Ireland and Love themes, this time bringing the sadness of leaving one’s homeland into the anticipation of a new life. “Burning the Manor House,” the next track, starts out melancholy, but explodes into a frantic and frenzied chaos as a fire engulfs the mansion. The whipping strings and unsteady high pipes give an excellent feeling of fire. After the fire, the music returns to the somberness of the beginning as Shannon’s parents long for their daughter. “Blowing off Steam,” track 6, is one of the gems of this score. It is a short fighting jig, but instead of the first two, this one is more thematic and lyrical. It is vigorous and fleeting, which potrays Joe’s stress well.
“Fighting for Dough,” the next track, is a upbeat and energetically orchestrated version of the second fight theme from the Fightin’ Donellys. This track is one of the most Irish sounding on the CD; the Chieftains do a great job adding to the colorful nature of the soundtrack. I could easily imagine Riverdance performing a choreographed dance of this song. The track ends on a rushed rendition of the Love theme.
Track 8, “Am I Beautiful” is a nice representation of exactly how varied this score is. Up to this point, all the music has been either slightly aggressive or slightly sad, but “Am I Beautiful”, which by the way, does not appear in the film to the best of my knowledge, is peaceful and serene. Bass Clarinets engage in a musical conversation, back and fourth, with a celeste. Towards the end of the song, the Love theme is played for a short time, but it is the most heartfelt rendition of it so far.
In sharp contrast of the previous track, “The Big Match” is a piece that covers the emotions of ambition and defeat. The first appearance of the triumphant “Westward Ho!” theme as I will call it comes early in the track. It is a simple tune, but very moving and uplifting, and it soon makes way for the love theme. The music then takes a turn for the action sequence where Joseph fights the huge Italian. The music is quick paced and jabbing, with more serious renditions of the Ireland theme thrown in. It, unlike the previous fight jigs, is not fun or upbeat. The music during this fight is dark and sinister. As the Italian pounds Joe, painful strikes are made in the orchestra. The fast-paced fighting music slows down for awhile and then cruises back in, this time even more agonizing. Suddenly, in a spiraling fall, the music enters a delirium of confusion. One of the only parts of this score which I don’t like is how the Love theme is played on a synthesizer during this segment, but it is quickly over. As the fight ends and Joseph is defeated, you can feel his sadness and anger as he is booed out of the hall into the freezing and snowing outside. The love theme is played hopelessly as the dire situation racks the two main characters. We are given a chance to breathe after the Match with “Inside the Mansion.” Resembling track 8 in its serene feeling, The Mansion is even more atmospheric and heavenly. The entire piece feels white and glassy. Sorry if that sounds strange, but after listening to this track, all I can think of is a white environment with a lot of glass, just like the Mansion with the snow falling outside in the movie. It is incredibly atmospheric. As the music progresses, a lone piano plays the love theme, and the orchestra later shifts keys and plays the main theme even more passionately as Joe and Shannon kiss. The music is romantic, but I have a gripe. The “pan-flute” accompaniment makes the music seem awkward at times, especially at 4:04, and I think it kind of disrupts the mood. Furthermore, Williams makes the same mistake twice in “The Reunion,” but I’ll let it slide.
“Shannon is Shot” immediately disrupts the peace of “Inside the Mansion” as even more panic and pain engulf the two main characters. Even so, the Love theme does make its way into the music, and when it is played, it is very sad and remorseful. The Ireland Theme makes its appearance at the end of the track. It is powerfully and climactically played, with a certain urgency. It pounds out at the end, making way for “Joseph’s Dream,” where the Ireland theme is played once more, this time less angrily, more in a sense of grandeur like the first track. The “West!” theme is played in triumph suddenly as Joseph realizes his dream of owning land, and gives way to the soaring love theme. “Westward Ho!” is played with a American style towards the end of the track, mimicking the sound of the “Oklahoma Territory” later. The next track “The Reunion” has a great beginning. The emotion it portrays is very clear, but I don’t think there is a word for it. Restrained affection could be something like it. The piece proceeds into a more typical sounding version of the love theme, warmly played its first time, but making the same awkward pan-flute mistake as it did in “The Mansion.” After the love theme, a reflective harp harmony is played to yet another pan-flute solo, this time not awkward, thankfully.
Of all the tracks, “The Reunion” could best be used as a concert arrangement for the love theme. Next up on the CD is “Oklahoma Territory,” a lively piece with a very western feeling, but more comical than, say, the Cowboys. It builds up, and slows back down, making way for the jewel of the CD, “The Land Race.” Track 15 starts out with anxious strings and brass, anticipating the beginning of the race at 4:16. A huge fanfare opens as the collosal race begins. The whole piece is thrilling and uplifting. It is exciting and swift, never letting go of the majesty of the movie. The love theme is victoriously woven into the mesh, along with the first fight theme, building up into a glorious climax. “The Land Race” is truly exhilirating and, I am happy to say, has made its way to the top of my list of Williams’ best action sequences, previously held by the stellar “Belly of the Steel Beast” from Indy 3. This is golden Williams.
Even after the Land Race, there is still more great music on this CD, believe it or not! Track 16, “Settling With Steven/The Race To The River” begins with a tensely played version of the love theme, and later brings in the Ireland theme. The music pauses for a second before it segues back to the race, this time utilizing the “West!” theme. The Land Race had a perfect sense of flow and direction, with Settling is less musically cohesive. Still, it is a worthy follow up, even if it isn’t as good, to the Race. Ending the film is “Joseph and Shannon.” Quietly opening with flutes and french horn, “Joseph and Shannon” beautifully lifts up as Joseph’s soul leaves his body. Sorrowfully, the music departs with his soul, until 1:57 when the music rises back up, overjoyed, as Shannon and Joseph are united. One last statement of the love theme, and the music gloriously ends in a fanfare. The end credits are made up of two parts, the first being the well known song, “Book of Days”, by Enya. The song is very recognizable and doesn’t get in the way like some other non-Williams songs do on soundtracks. The final track, “End Credits” is a wonderful finale. It starts with the first fight gig, brilliantly orchestrated and romping. After it ends, the love theme comes in, first on the Pan-Flute, (No awkward moments though!) then, after a masterful key change, from the entirelly orchestra. After a short proclamation of the brass fanfare, “West..” the “Blowing of Steam” is reprised, this time slightly differently written. The West fanfare is then given a more full part of the music, leading into the love theme once more. The track ends triumphantly, closing the stunning work.
What a fantastic score! I truly think that Williams outdid himself for this one. There is no way you can listen to the entire thing and not feel good. Each theme, (love theme, Ireland theme, west theme, fight themes) is unique. There is endless re-listen value to the CD. His score is mesmerizing and fulfilling. It is with great pleasure that I award the score with a 10 star rating. I recomend this score to anyone who has feelings (I know that some of you out there don’t have feelings, and I apologize.)