LINCOLN (2012) – Album Review & Thematic Analysis

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
by John Williams
A Review

By Mikko Ojala

The 26th collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams takes them to the turbulent Civil War era of American history, the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. The upcoming motion picture Lincolnfocuses on the last four months of the president’s life and the momentous decisions he was faced with during the ending of the civil strife and drafting the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Tony Kushner the famed screenwriter and playwright, who previously collaborated with Spielberg on Munich, provided a script based on the mammoth of a historical biography A Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, which apparently took 6 years to forge into a workable script as the entire presidency and life of Abraham Lincoln proved too much for a single film to depict. The film boasts an impressive cast of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as the Secretary of State William Seward  just to name a few and part of the film crew are the usual suspects in a Spielberg production, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and of course composer John Williams.

John Williams is certainly no stranger when it comes to portrayals of American history and Americana as he has scored numerous films in the spectrum of the idiom throughout his career from the rural, frolickingThe Reivers and The River to the heart aching string led lyricism of Born on the Fourth of July, and from the Southern flavoured blue grassy Rosewood  to the stately nobility of Amistad or quiet heroism of Saving Private Ryan or the brassy valour of The Patriot. His approach to this type of film could be said to be archetypical for such a subject matter, the composer describing his score in a May 2012 interview with Jon Burlingame as written in the 19th century musical language and containing hymnal modalities in the spirit of  the American music of the times. So it might not come as a huge surprise to Williams’ dedicated fans that he chose his own inimitable brand of Americana to address Lincoln and still this might actually be one of his most outwardly traditional scores in the idiom to date, so strongly he embraces the modes and musical gestures, feel and inflections of tradition of American music.

You could say that this new score forms a walk down the memory lane to the long time afficionados of his music as the different facets of his Americana writing pop up constantly on the soundtrack album and we do encounter in Lincoln brass and string writing in line with the style of Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, folk music stylings from scores like The Reivers, solemn sections similar to those in both The Patriot andWar Horse and elegiac tones of Born on the Fourth of JulyJFK and Nixon, but it has to be said that Williams does not self quote his old music but rather the overall sounds and styles of what has come before and building again something new on this foundation. In this respect Lincoln might not be groundbreaking in style and sound but it is despite of this highly entertaining and accomplished, at times ravishingly beautiful and powerful music which showcases once more Williams’ strengths, his gift for strong themes, deftness of orchestration and dramatic instinct.

To enhance the connection of the music to the president himself the composer at Spielberg’s suggestion engaged the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to perform the music in honor of Lincoln’s old home state of Illinois and to evoke some of the local musical flavour through their talent on the soundtrack. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has to be complemented for its vibrant and warm sound and the beautiful and numerous heartfelt solos gracing the album, the playing further elevating the emotional appeal of the music. Violin, trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and piano all receive lengthy solo passages but the entire ensemble creates a very empathetic, resounding and warm sound that feels very appropriate for this kind of music, capturing both the tenderness and the stateliness with equal skill and certainly gives the studio orchestras run for their money.

The music on the soundtrack album travels between the two poles of stately reverent and lyrically intimate by the way of some rustic humour, reflecting perhaps the balance of these elements in the film, the public and private persona of the president and the affairs of his office. The above mentioned soloists play an important role in the music and on nearly every track one or more of the Chicago Symphony’s musicians are offered a moment to shine. This serves both the restraint for which this score audibly strives but also imparts a sense of simplicity, honesty and fragility, a certain sense of isolation, giving an impression a man amidst events that are greater than he is, and provides a great deal of emotional resonance to the music. A healthy amount of restraint seems to be a guiding thought in this project to both Spielberg and Williams so as not to overpower the performances of the actors or the reality of the film and the composer is obviously trying to do more with less in many instances, reserving grander musical histrionics only for a handful of moments on the album. This restraint and certain stream lined sparseness and reliance on gentle simplicity does not however dilute the musical expression of the score and I actually feel that it strengthens and focuses it, Williams saying perhaps more emotionally with reduced forces than with a complete symphonic ensemble blowing full steam ahead with brass section blazing through every track.



The score boasts with a whole host of themes ranging from noble pathos to familial tenderness. As it might be clear from the above general description of the music all these ideas share a strong Americana feel, whether it is a down-to-earth and folksy or more classical hymnal one and here as in both of Williams’ recent scores (The Adventures of Tintin The Secret of the Unicorn and War Horse) these themes seem to form a family, that shares common musical roots. The composer’s decision to provide so many different ideas perhaps reflects the different aspects of Lincoln and the people close to him, the themes forming a tight knit fabric of motifs that flows from one to the next with fluid ease on the soundtrack album. Partly as a consequence from this way of writing and thinking Williams doesn’t obviously assign any of his themes a clear central position as the “main theme” of the score that then would be stated and restated with regularity, which might puzzle and frustrate some of his fans, and there are indeed several long and well developed ideas on the album vying for that title, appearing continously from one track to the next. Still after numerous consecutive listens With Malice Toward None seems to be for me the most important and emotional and certainly most memorable of all the themes on the album.

With Malice Toward None (Lincoln’s Theme): The name of the theme refers to the second inaugural speech of Lincoln and it is a folk song styled, simple, lyrical and honest melody that could be said to be main theme of the score. It seems to embody the down-to-earth nobility of the main character and his humanity. Coloured with lilting gait of folk music in some settings and slow solemn progression of traditional hymns in others, this theme paints a very humble, thoughtful and gentle picture of the president of United States.

Appears on the album:
04 The American Process: 1:18-1:47 and 3:10-end
06 With Malice Toward None
12 Freedom’s Call: 0:24-2:29
16 The Peterson House and Finale: 1:49-3:13 and 7:40-8:25
17 With Malice Toward None (Piano Solo)

The American Process: A gentle lilting Americana “home and hearth” melody with almost folk song quality, the theme pensive yet optimistic with a sense of earthy wisdom. It is set often in the woodwinds, clarinet, bassoon and flute but this idea is also frequently developed on stately strings or brass, revealing a nobler aspect and aspirations in this guise.

Appears on the album:
01 The People’s House: 2:16-3:09
04 The American Process: 0:00-1:19 and  2:10-3:00
11 Equality Under the Law: 0:00-1:36
12 Freedom’s Call: 2:29-3:18
16 The Peterson House and Finale: 4:50-5:43 and 8:26-9:14

The People’s House: The most dramatic and triumphantly of the themes, this noble and heroic idea is built on a leaping four note clarinet figure heard initially on the opening track and soon blooms to a full brass and strings setting, imparting a sense of victory and achievement, probably reflecting political and personal accomplishment. The idea is used sparsely on the soundtrack album appearing only on the opening track and the Finale track, and it seems that Williams is reserving this level of musical heroism for specific and crucial instances in the narrative.

Appears on the album:
01 The People’s House: 0:00-2:15 and 3:10-end
16 The Peterson House and Finale: 3:14-4:49

Freedom’s Call: A short and direct melody, composed of a series of a few alternating chords, depicts perhaps Lincoln’s just and good aspirations and goals, the abolition of slavery and his gentle wisdom and noble humanity. There is stately grace in this simple yet affecting idea, bridging the public and personal side of Lincoln and Williams offers numerous alternating variations of it throughout the score in different settings from solo piano to brass chorale.

Appears on the album:
02 The Purpose of the Amendment: 0:55- 1:39 and 2:26-end
09 Father and Son: 0:34-0:52 and 1:08-end
11 Equality Under the Law: 1:37-end
12 Freedom’s Call: 3:18-5:29
15 Appomattox, April 9, 1865: 0:24-1:08
16 The Peterson House and Finale: 0:24-1:20 and 6:19-7:39

The Elegy: A mournful and anguished string elegy, quite religioso in nature, that seems to exude regret, sorrow and horror all in one harrowing theme, a reminder of the Civil War and its ravages.

Appears on the album:
08 The Southern Delegation and the Dream: 3:06-end
13 Elegy

The Remembrance Theme: A theme that seems to relate both to Lincoln’s personal loss, of his son William, but also to mourning of the tragedy of Civil War and remembrance. It is an unadorned piano melody that expresses bittersweet sorrow with a hint of regret. This musical idea is used sparsely and always retains the same guise, invoked on the piano, the most familial and “domestic” but also emotionally direct of instruments.

Appears on the album:
05 The Blue and Grey: 0:00-1:01
14 Remembering Willie: 0:29-end
16 The Peterson House and Finale: 9:29-end




As I have not seen the film nor do not know the full narrative of the movie, the below analysis and names of the themes are pure speculation on my part, made only to give the piece a structure and to help identifying recurring musical ideas on the album.

01. The People’s House (03:41):
A pensive 4-note phrase on solo clarinet, played by Stephen Williamson, opens the album with an air of gentleness and optimism, the lilt of the melody almost asking a question as it repeats several times all the while developing the phrase, strings rising to support it. Flute and clarinet restate the original 4-note idea before Williams lifts the melody forth in key and strings sing out a fully formed upward climbing People’s House theme, noble and stately, as if denoting a moment of accomplishment and victory, brass accompanying the melody warmly underneath. Woodwinds present the second phrase of the thematic idea, slightly more thoughtfully winding melody implicating resolve before it is swept again into a majestically fanfarish and rousing full orchestra statement of this Americana theme, the 4-note motto of the theme slowly receding through the ranks of the orchestra to solo trumpet after the crescendo.

Clarinet and flute duet plays a new theme, The American Process, another Americana melody where the two swaying woodwinds interlace their voices in the song-like melody that is dignified and initially almost folksy but soon reaches stately proportions as suddenly glowing violins underpinned by lower brass take up the theme, giving the music an air of importance, solo trumpet rouding out the track with a calm and proud statement of the People’s House theme.

One of the stand-out pieces of the album, this is a wonderful way to open the CD but oddly the opening heroic musical idea does not return to the score until the finale. In overall feel this cue sounds like Amistadmeeting Saving Private Ryan with a dash of the unabashed heroism of The Patriot thrown in.

2. The Purpose of the Amendment (03:06):
A new ruminating and stoic melody is heard on clarinet and bassoon, developing slowly phrase by phrase but then moving to a hopeful and warm string idea, the first appearance of the Freedom’s Call theme, that calmly rises forth on higher strings, the celli and basses playing accompanying figures underneath giving the music a sense of forward progress, the theme perhaps illustrating Lincoln’s ideals and political aspirations concerning the 13th Amendment and healing the war torn nation. Clarinet and horns and trumpets all pass phrases, solo trumpet’s clear tones rising alone for a moment before autumnal strings and clarinet transition again to Freedom’s Call theme in the string section, this time more assured, glowing and reverent, clearly indicating a moment decision.

The writing here reminds me of War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, especially Williams’ way of combining flute, clarinet and bassoon voices and the way the broad long lined theme is developed on strings.

3. Getting Out the Vote (02:48):
Solo violin quickly and subtly hints at the chords of Freedom’s Call Theme, maybe a nod to the political action taking place during this light hearted cue, before Williams spins a wonderful jaunty Appalachian scherzando or dance for strings, solo fiddle, viola, woodwinds, tuba and light percussion, the music exuding wonderful hoe-down folk music feel and humour. The soloists have their moment to shine, violin and bassoon performing particularly delicious solos. This piece is a  delightful interlude that offers not only variety and levity but allows the composer to explore a different side of Americana writing, the style and feel of the piece harkening back to his similar music in The Reivers. A terrifically sprightly and fun piece!

4. The American Process (03:56):
Clarinet and bassoon duet once more, this time giving a long rendition of the American Process theme, solo flute joining them and for a while the trio develops the music alone the melody full of tender warmth. Oboe’s lyrical voice has almost a bucolic air here supported by the gentle lower strings before stately and burnished low and slow brass choir introduces a brief first statement of With Malice Toward None that ends in very dignified sounding brass phrases, hinting possibly at official state business.
Randy Kerber, the only soloist not from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performs a simple yet emotional piano variation on the American Process theme with solo flute ghosting subtly, calm swaying string chords melting into Christopher Martin’s sublimely serene trumpet reading of With Malice Toward None, a perfect depiction of nostalgia and longing, which closes the track in soothing tones.

5. The Blue and Grey (02:59):
A dark hued theme plays on solo piano, the Remembrance Theme, slow and thoughtful, expressing in equal measure sorrow and regret, a warm yet sad memory. Randy Kerber’s reading is beautiful, the halting phrases of the theme capturing a quiet sense of loss and the toll of war.
A repeating string rhythm starts a slow tug, piano first striking paced rumbling chords underneath, the music expressing deliberation, slow wait for a moment of decision, pensive clarinet and bassoon appearing underneath the rhythm, which transitions briefly from strings to the woodwinds and then back again continuing inevitably and finally slides into resigned silence.

6. “With Malice Toward None” (01:50):
String orchestra performs the main theme of the film with sensitivity and grace, the melody in equal part hymnal and traditional folk music, the nobility, humane spirit and a sense of wisdom captured in this gentle lyrical melody. One of the highlights of the album full of emotion and tenderness of Williams’ best themes, the only downside being that it feels too short and I would have loved to hear Williams develop this theme further.

7. Call to Muster and Battle Cry Of Freedom (02:17)
Williams includes on the album this resounding reminder of the music of the Civil War era, a piece of diegetic music for militaristic drums and choir, where the traditional sounding military snare drum tattoo bookends a performance of a famous Civil War era song Battle Cry of Freedom sung by the Chicago Symphony Chorus with patriotic resolve.

8. The Southern Delegation and the Dream (04:43)
Somber strings and subdued militaristic brass calls give away to a solo trumpet intoning a tragic and dark melody above string harmonies, paced by subtle timpani, the atmosphere grave. The same grimly martial mood continues and after a brief passage for snare drum, elegiac strings and solo trumpet the music suddenly plunges into disturbing rumbling synthesizer textures and turbulently quivering murkily dissonant string layers, like a musical depiction of a nightmare. High strings slowly rise from the dark cloud of sound and begin a reading of the Elegy Theme, a mournful, lonely and subtly religioso composition, which seems to lament the tragedy of the Civil War and the countless victims of the conflict, the tone of the music forlorn and sad although the piece seems to find some measure of solace in the end.

An interesting mix of moods, this piece conjures up shades of the darker and more challenging music and elegiac writing from Born on the Fourth of JulyNixon and JFK.

9. Father and Son (01:42)
A solo bassoon presents a halting ruminating melody that moves on to a noble but grave horn statement before melting into a variation on the Freedom’s Call theme on celli and basses, a brief lyrical solo oboe phrase transitioning back to the theme, this time heard in a simple affecting solo piano reading, suggesting a moment of paternal wisdom.

10. The Race to the House (02:41) (Traditional, arranged and performed by Jim Taylor )
A selection of Civil War era folk music arranged and performed by the traditional and folk music expert Jim Taylor.
A jaunty jig for fiddle, banjo, guitar and hammered dulcimer that seem to contain snatches of different traditional folk tunes.
Another track that offers some authentic diegetic music from the era and at the same time some lighter tones amidst all the serious and solemn music. A very entertaining piece of music.

11. Equality Under the Law (03:11)
A dreamy clarinet solo over expectant string harmonies plays the American Process theme before whole string section takes up the phrase, hinting at the Freedom’s Call’s harmonies before horn and clarinet in somber mood move to a humble statement of American Process theme. Clarinet and flute pair to perform the Freedom’s Call again, this time with solemnity, developing the original melody further until string section rises through this build-up finally to a beautiful yet restrained and reverent reading of this idea that poignantly rises higher and higher, a powerful and emotional musical moment before subsiding in warm harmonies in a classic Williams style.
Another winner track, the slow build through the cue reaching a highly satisfying release at the end of the piece.

12. Freedom’s Call (06:06)
Tubular bells toll quietly over glowing strings that flow into a solo violin rendition of the With Malice Toward None, a soulful and yearning performance by Robert Chen of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the melody gently underlined by simple guitar chords. The solo is full of poignancy and idealism yet the violin lends the melody touching emotional fragility that would melt the hardest of hearts. The string section continues to develop the theme, finding new avenues for it and in solemn beauty raises the music to a magnificently emotional height.
After the theme has subsided clarinet and bassoon appear together, duetting and performing theAmerican Process Theme that is taken over by the brass in almost heraldic proclamation, the theme working in this piece as a bridge melody that ushers in high strings that play the Freedom’s Call theme in its more developed and emotional guise while rhythmic figures on the double basses play underneath with a feeling of determination, the performance full of stately largesse and sense of accomplishment. Horns and trombones continue the theme reaching a triumphant peak with sense of finality when Williams suddenly releases an ethereal almost beatifically glowing variation of the theme on strings and ends the piece in a noble horn soliloquy by Daniel Gingrich.
A stunning composition by the Maestro, drawing together the three central themes of the film. The music is combining moods similar to those of Saving Private Ryan, War Horse and the fiddling of Mark O’Connor from The Patriot.

13. Elegy (02:34)
This track is a long development of the Elegy Theme that was previously hinted at on the track The Southern Delegation and the Dream. It opens with a trio of trumpets in almost military bugle call style singing the main melody of the sorrowful and tragic theme before the strings come in and repeat the melody in harrowing tones, Williams’ elegiac writing strong as usual, the performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra highly emotional, the mood alternating from sadness to heart rending pathos and finally to religioso majesty, which ends the piece in a resigned calm.

14. Remembering Willie (01:51)
After a few harp notes, solo violin and viola receive their own passages, subtly quoting the Elegy Themebefore the cello takes over and sings forlorn above simple guitar chords until Remembrance Themeappears on the solo piano as mourning and contemplative as before, now further enhanced by the sonorous emotionality of the solo cello that appears in brief duet with the piano, expressing quiet but powerful sorrow and feeling of loss. The fragile tone of the music is just superb here, this brief but powerful piece full of emotion.

15. Appomattox, April 9, 1865 (02:36)
Horn calls out alone, solemn and slightly mournful and a piano variation on the Freedom’s Call plays serene and unadorned, Williams relying on the simplicity of the most domestic of instruments to carry the emotion and message of the moment,  before brass chords slowly flow into heart breakingly beautiful, ethereal sounds of ghostly choral voices, a moment of haunting sorrow, followed by solo clarinet and horn both equally sorrowful and pensive, deep woodwinds and strings bringing the cue to an ending full of dark foreboding.

16. The Peterson House and Finale (11:00)
This piece draws together all the themes of the score into a long tone poem styled piece, meditation on all that has gone before on the soundtrack, a stunning and emotional finale.
Oboe starts off alone, wandering and ruminating when solemn chords appear halfway between the opening of several of the main themes, showing their interconnectedness, but finally clarinet and flute settle on Freedom’s Call in a humble setting, oboe and cor anglais interrupting, a hint of the Elegy Theme darkening the mood. Reverently slow the With Malice Toward None rises in the strings, Williams omitting a few folk song styled decorative notes here and there in the melody to transform the theme into a more hymn styled variation, a regal deep brass choir repeating the theme full of telling solemnity, slow and dignified in their progressions from which the People’s House Theme begins in the flutes and surges quickly up into a fantastically triumphant full ensemble statement of the theme that slowly fades into a solo trumpet stating the 4-note motto of the idea.

The American Process theme on its emblematic woodwinds, clarinet and flute, appears and soon leaps into glowing and courageous string rendition that is followed by a heraldic trumpet solo interlude, showing again the skills of Christopher Martin, his voice sounding like a lonely bugle over a field of battle. From this grows the Freedom’s Call theme in the high strings with the rhythmic low string accompaniment, here perhaps even more expressive than on track 12 and it marches forth, the theme statelier here than ever before. The solo trumpet returns singing With Malice Toward None in serene, warm and clear tones over piano chords, a stunning moment of Americana before the piano continues alone performing an innocent and down to earth variation on the American Process Theme, flute appearing to ghost the theme and in the final reassuring chords the music seems to fade into silence accompanied by a swaying string figure but Williams gives the last word to the Remembrance Theme, its somber and sorrowful tones bidding farewell to the listener in bittersweet thoughtful tones.

17. “With Malice Toward None” (Piano Solo) (01:31)
A solo piano rendition of With Malice Toward None theme rounds out the album in a gentle, pensive mood, Randy Kerber’s performance liltingly warm and even nostalgic, a great finale to the entire listening experience.


Lincoln is a very strong entry in Williams’ dramatic ouvre and on album it is a highly entertaining and listenable score, permeated strongly by the spirit of Americana. It might not break radically new ground in its approach for such a subject matter but it makes up for it in engaging thematic material, emotional soloist performances and a strong dramatic arc. While the score does make an instant impression with its melodic nature and warmly emotional tone, this is music that benefits from multiple listens, the thematic ideas intertwining through the album so that it takes a few listens to fully explore Williams composition in full and appreciate the way he approaches the subject matter and Lincoln’s different facets. Those who come to this score expecting for the music to impress with bold brassy themes, sweeping statements and grand musical gestures or some kind of complete reinvention of the composer’s style might be disappointed but all I can say as a fan of his intimate scores for dramas, his writing for solo instruments and his trademark Americana, this is another wonderful and heartfelt score from the Maestro and shows yet again how Williams is still at the top of his game and going strong at the age of 80, continuing to create some of the best film music around. Lincoln is definitely among the best of the year for me for its mastery of the idiom and sheer emotional appeal.

© Mikko Ojala

Music composed and conducted by John Williams
Performer: Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Chicago Symphony Chorus
Violin: Robert Chen
Trumpet: Christopher Martin
Clarinet: Stephen Williamson
Bassoon: David McGill
Horn: Daniel Gingrich
Piano: Randy Kerber
Producer: John Williams
Editor: Ramiro Belgardt / Robert Wolff
Recording Engineer: Shawn Murphy
Mixing Engineer: Shawn Murphy
Engineer: Brad Cobb
Contractor: Sandy De Crescent
Preparer: Jo Ann Kane Music Service
Mastering Engineer: Patricia Sullivan