Quick Review: War Horse

War Horse
Music composed by John Williams
Conducted by: John Williams
Orchestrated by: Eddie Karem
Music Recorded/Mixed by: Shawn Murphy
Score Recorded at Sony Pictures Studios
Album time: 63 minutes
Available on Sony Masterworks

2011 has been a great year of scores.  There has been some outstanding work from all genres.  This year also marks the debut of two John Williams scores.  Not having done a feature film since 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Williams and director Steven Spielberg reunite for War Horse and also The Adventures of Tintin.  Luckily the scores to Tintin and War Horse couldn’t be more different. 

The film is based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo and the critically acclaimed London play of the same name.  Set in the English countryside during the onset of World War I, the music really gives us a sense of time and place in the beginning of the score. 

The album begins with Dartmoor, 1912.  We begin with a flute solo, which occurs a few other times in the score.  This beginning reminds many listeners of Ralph Vaughn Williams, certainly an influence for this type of score.  It has a slight Celtic flair in melody and rhythm.  The melodic lilts may remind one of his score to Far and Away.  The low strings move on to a driving melody until the whole orchestra enters with an exquisite folk-like melody.  This is a fantastic moment, and from then on I realized I was listening to John Williams (still) in his highest form.  This track serves as a great introduction to the score. 

Orchestration-wise, this score contains many woodwind solos.  The Auction is a track with plenty of these solo moments and a swaying string line.  Bringing Joey Home and Bonding features that slightly comic sounding march of low strings and bassoons that Williams has used in previous films (see Chamber of Secrets/Home Alone).  In this track, Williams is able to have a melody that is noble and reflective, fitting the young main character nicely. 
In this first half of the album, we hear snippets of past melodies, which grow on you each time.  The use of strings/harp with clarinet or horn over them is a staple of many film composers, and this score is no exception.  We hear the theme first heard in the Dartmoor, 1912 return in Seeding, and Horse vs. Car.  It is expanded from the first time and the orchestration changes to add trumpets and cymbals in a very majestic fashion which ends the track.  The writing in Plowing is just as spectacular, with a buildup to a reprise of a few themes heard so far.  We end with the lyrical flute solo with the feeling of nostalgia. 
A melancholic oboe solo begins Ruined Crop and Going to War.  This really is a beautiful track which includes a foreboding section with mournful sounding trumpet solo.  The trumpet continues in the next track as well.  Williams uses this trumpet sound often, and it really works on an emotional level in films. 

For those worried about spoilers in track titles, tread carefully.

In the track Desertion, the fast moving strings drive the music to a crescendo, adding in the brass, reminding me of music written for the Star Wars films.  This track contains one of the loudest moments of the album, if for those fans of John Williams action.  The lighthearted music of Joey’s New Friends is a welcome break in the score, utilizing quick time signature changes and cheery orchestration.  From there, the drama continues in the score.  The lower strings and trumpet become more prominent in Pulling the Cannon as the music grows more intense.  The elegiac strings continue into the next track, one of the most emotion-filled tracks of Williams’ since Anakin’s Betrayal in Revenge of the Sith.  This track blends into the next; underscore gets tenser as the horns and snare drum return.  No Man’s Land contains more boisterous orchestral music and the peak of the action on the album. 

The Reunion (a never-disappointing track name for Williams) gives us reprises of past themes in slightly varied forms.  It is music like this that works very well in Spielberg films – the tug of emotion.  The next track, Remembering Emilie, and Finale, is no different.  The solo piano features a rendition of the theme heard in The Reunion, which gets passed around the orchestra, building each time.  The longest track of the album is the suite The Homecoming.  The main themes return, along with a pseudo-cadenza on flute.  Each reprise is satisfying and by the time they return, we feel like we’ve always known them.  An extremely beautiful listening experience.  [edit: Flute solos are by Louise Di Tullio and trumpet solos are by Tim Morrison]             

It is nice to see John Williams in top form with two contrasting film scores this year.  His work this year is certainly some of the best this year, and for War Horse – this type of film is what Williams can do very well.  It is no surprise that his collaboration with Steven Spielberg has worked extremely well over the years.  John Williams always finds the emotional core of the scenes, making the score extremely moving. 


1. Dartmoor, 1912
6. Plowing
11. Pulling the Cannon
14. The Reunion
16. The Homecoming

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  1. Great contrast between the two JW scores as you mention.

    Both are excellent, but I think I'd give War Horse preference. A brilliant score that is both technically masterful and incredibly beautiful.