Lincoln: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Review
by Jason LeBlanc
It’s never been a better time to be a John Williams fan! After going 3 and a half years without a new John Williams film score post-Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we are now being treated to our third original Williams score in 13 months. And what a treat it is!
For Spielberg’s long-in-the-works biopic of the 16th president, covering the last 4 months of his presidency (and life) and adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, there was no question he would turn to John Williams, his collaborator for almost 40 years, to write the film’s score. There should likewise be no question that maestro Williams has created a high engaging score filled with beauty, depth, whimsy, devastation, and hope, all seamlessly tied together with memorable themes and a battery of wonderful solo performances. I have not seen the film yet, but I will share some thoughts on each track of the Original Soundtrack Album, being released on November 9th by Sony Classical.
01 The People’s House
This appears to be a concert arrangement of what I expected to be the main theme of the score, though it ends up not appearing again until the Finale track (at least on CD). It follows a common WIlliams pattern, with the theme being played a few times in a row, starting with one instrument and then gradually adding more as the piece builds to a grand statement of the theme for its first climax. A short interlude (of a theme that will be given a full workout in “The American Process” and “Equality Under The Law”) quickly gives way to an even grander performance of the main theme for a second climax. After that there is a lovely bridge section, followed by a string-led interlude that evokes sudden and painful hardship or loss (This theme will appear again in “Freedom’s Call”). Finally the piece ends with a wonderful performance of the main theme on solo horn.
02 The Purpose of the Amendment
A solemn intro builds to lovely string passage playing a new theme that is reflective and noble. The string-led theme is backed by subdued brass and soon gives way to another lovely, but brief horn solo. The track ends with more string work punctuated by an short oboe passage.
03 Getting Out The Vote
This is a terrific (and terrifically fun!) period-sounding piece, led by fiddle and violins and backed by bass, and even a little contrabassoon at the end. The music ebbs and flows through various ideas, and seems like it would underscore a montage in the film. One of the most fun tracks on the album!
04 The American Process
The theme that first appeared as the interlude in “The People’s House” gets a full arrangement here, running through several permutations on woodwinds, leading into what sounds like it almost could be a modified variation on the “People’s House” theme. After this we are introduced to a longform theme played on solo piano by Randy Kerber. A patriotic horn solo backed by strings rounds out the track.
05 The Blue and The Grey
Another solemn piano-based theme opens this track, which I believe could be Willie’s Theme (Willie being Lincoln’s third son who died about a year after Lincoln took office). This gives way to a dramatic passage, like trouble is afoot and decisions need to be made.
06 With Malice Toward None
Another solemn and reflective theme gets a full workout mostly by strings this time, building into a more illustrious version. The whole piece is under 2 minutes, and you want it to be much longer.
07 Call To Muster and Battle Cry Of Freedom
A quick militaristic snare drum and piccolo intro leads to a rousing rendition of the Civil War song “Battle Cry Of Freedom” (with the original Union version lyrics) sung by male choir, which is bookended by a snare drum and piccolo outro.
08 The Southern Delegation and The Dream
A rumbling intro gives way to another somber horn solo. The unsettling middle of the track sounds like waking up from a bad dream, with deep bass pulsing like a beating heart.
09 Father And Son
This bittersweet track features tender music suggesting a relationship filled with melancholy and ends with another nice piano solo.
10 The Race To The House
The album’s second incredibly enjoyable period piece is also lead by fiddle, but this time accompanied by banjo and other bluegrass instruments. This is an arrangement of cilvl war era tunes arranged by Jim Taylor. So much fun!
11 Equality Under The Law
Right back into solemn music, the theme from “The People’s House” that was first expanded on in “The American Process” is used again. I’m not sure if this track is made up of film cues or if it’s a concert arrangement, but it certainly works as a concert arrangement and has a very lovely, warming climax.
12 Freedom’s Call
One of the highlights of the album. The first third of this six minute track features an absolutely gorgeous violin solo performance (by Robert Chen) of the “With Malice Towards None” theme, backed by brass and briefly by guitar. After a quick interlude by the whole string section, the theme from “Equality Under The Law” returns again, a little more joyous this time. This gives way to the theme that first appeared towards the end of The People’s House, this time more encouraging. The rest of the track builds for a bit before settling into a quiet horn solo.
This sad track led by a gloomy horn passage also includes some great violin work that perfectly encapsulates grief and loss.
14 Remembering Willie
More violin-led gloominess opens the track, but the rest is a piano performance of Willie’s Theme, solo at first then backed by strings to close out the track.
15 Appomattox, April 9, 1865
After a short introductory passage and another tender piano solo, the meat of the track comes into play and its one of the best passages on the disc. It’s a wordless choir passage that harkens back to some of the cautious wonderment from some scenes in Jurassic Park. The ending features some similar Jurassic-Park-esque “things are going wrong here” underscore.
16 The Peterson House and Finale
This epic 11 minute powerhouse of a track is the clear highlight of the album and just one of the best tracks on any soundtrack in quite some time. Rather than breaking it all down I will just say it gracefully rotates through all the major themes that have played throughout the whole album, in new and familiar arrangements, covering a wide variety of emotions but in a completely organized way. It is the kind of track that makes you realize that nobody can write film music in quite the way that Williams can.
17 With Malice Toward None (Piano Solo)
A really, really lovely piano arrangement of the same music as the earlier “With Malice Towards None” track closes out the CD. This is a perfect denouement after the previous Finale track.
Overall this is a score that Williams clearly put a lot of work into, not only in writing a multitude of themes and planning various solo passages for them all to be highlighted, but also in experimenting with a variety of period-specific instruments and arrangements. It is not a scattered mess at all though, there is a unity running through all the tracks, they clearly all portray a different aspect of Lincoln’s character or what he was dealing with.
The score is probably not going to be welcomed by fans who only appreciate Williams’ big blockbuster action scores, but for those who like his dramatic work along the lines of Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Born on the Fourth of July and The Patriot, this is a real winner of a score. In fact I prefer it over all those scores, it’s my favorite dramatic effort by the maestro. Time to listen to it again.
Jason LeBlanc can be reached in our forums.
Be sure to pre-order the soundtrack on Amazon.com!
Samples of every track are available exclusively here on JWFan.
Be sure to check out the next episode of Erik Woods’ Cinematic Sound Radio for the premiere of full tracks from the album.