Quick Review - Lincoln

Music composed, conducted by John Williams
Performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Chorus
Recorded in Symphony Center, Chicago

Album time:  58 minutes
Available on Sony Classical

Violin: Robert Chen, Trumpet: Christopher Martin, Clarinet: Stephen Williamson, Bassoon: David McGill, Horn: Daniel Gingrich, Piano: Randy Kerber

All things presidential are not a new thing to John Williams.  He has written the scores to the Oliver Stone films JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995).  This score to Lincoln is Spielberg and Williams’ 26th film together over 4 decades.  The project has been stewing for years, an obvious passion project for Spielberg and a daunting task for the director and composer.

In terms of the ‘American sound’, nobody is better than John Williams.  His ‘Americana’ is perhaps rivaled by the likes of Aaron Copland, composer of Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring and more aptly Lincoln Portrait.  

In this film, Williams created a world of sounds, a mosaic of themes that reflect both the character and situations regarding the 16th President of the United States.  The score is both bold and subtle at the same time.  It is an epic that is held back and character driven. 

Like so many of his scores, the themes and ideas seem deceptively simple.  It is this simplicity that gives the score its weight.  Many thought his score to War Horse was a bit pushy, almost too saccharine, but this score stays back and lets the dialogue and visuals do most of the work.

I have to admit, as much of a Williams fan as I am; I am more impressed by the use of silence in the film.  The music never turns the scene sappy - perhaps Spielberg dialing down his own sappiness made the score follow suit.  Spielberg mentioned how he wanted the dialogue to be front and center, which the score supports.

The main themes in the films I’ll divide into a few categories, and will be referred to in my track rundown.  There is the plaintive Lincoln theme, the folk sounding American Process, the boldly stated People’s House, the gently moving Amendment theme, a loss theme, and a few others that mingle in.

The People’s House is a collection of the film’s themes, most likely to be a concert suite.  Beginning with the plaintive clarinet solo, the orchestra comes in with the sweeping rendition of the People’s House theme.  A bit similar to moments in War Horse, the theme rises nobly with a sense of gravity.  The theme gets passed around, from woodwinds to strings and then brass choir.  The woodwind choir takes over and leads with a new theme – the folk sounding American Process theme, which sounds a bit like bits of The Patriot.  The trumpet gives one last rendition of the People’s House theme before ending.

The Purpose of the Amendment continues with woodwind pairing, this time with clarinet and bassoon solos.  The Amendment theme comes in the strings, with low strings giving it motion.  Getting Out the Vote is one of the lighthearted tracks in the score, featuring a fiddle solo with little interludes by the tuba, bassoon, percussion and mandolin.  This type of jaunty theme adds a nice change for the score.  The American Process begins with a clarinet/bassoon version of the American Process theme.  The theme seems both optimistic and melancholic at the same time.  The brass takes over with the With Malice Towards None theme, giving a heavy version of the theme.  The piano (with solos by Randy Kerber) makes its first large entrance in the score with the same theme.  The solo trumpet takes over and ends the track.  The Blue and Grey begins with a heartfelt piano solo of the loss theme (again by Kerber).  This theme appears in film moments related to loss, both for the Civil War as well as Lincoln’s children.  “With Malice Towards None” is the full version of the titular theme.  With a hymn-like quality and hints of folk, the track only features a short rendition of the theme, without much thematic exploration as other tracks. 

Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom is one of the few period-sounding tracks on the album.  With the snare drums and piccolos representing the war, the choir comes in singing The Battle Cry of Freedom – a semi source song being sung in the film.  In The Southern Delegation and the Dream, a solo trumpet plays over slowly moving strings.  This track is the most dissonant and dark of the score.  The strings take over in the theme from Elegy, a sort of adagio for strings.  A solo bassoon begins Father and Son before being passed onto the horn.  The low strings reprise the Amendment theme, with a melancholy piano solo taking over. 

The Race to the House is another semi-source music track.  We get traditional 1860’s music (arranged and performed by Jim Taylor).  The light fiddle jig features traditional melodies. 

With Equality Under the Law, we get a set of thematic reprises.  First is a clarinet solo of the American Process theme.  The harmony and instrumentation have changed slightly, with enough to make you lean in a bit closer.  The Amendment theme appears and the orchestra crescendos with a masterful touch.  Freedom’s Call is one of the longer tracks on the album.  The orchestra sets up a hazy atmosphere before the solo violin comes in (played well by CSO concertmaster Robert Chen).  The solo is of Lincoln’s With Malice Towards None theme, this time with more soloist touches and with gentle guitar accompaniment.  The orchestra takes over, before a reprise of the clarinet/bassoon American Process theme and the brass leads the lower strings to the Freedom’s Call theme.  This is the fuller version than we’ve heard before and with a bit more motion.  The strings and harp lend a tender side to the theme, with a solo horn ending the track. 

Another full version appears for the adagio theme in Elegy.  The track is heavily emotional, yet calm with resolve.  The strings sound a bit more modern, compared to the hymn-like rhythms seen earlier in the score.  Remembering Willie is another moving track, with a gentle string sound.  The solo piano comes in with the theme last heard in “Blue and Grey”, this time with a solo cello adding harmony. 

Williams turns yet again to a solo French horn and piano, to lead us in to Appomattox, April 9, 1865.  We get a small reprise of the Freedom’s Call theme.  This part of the film is almost dialogue-free, letting the music shine through.  The wordless choir comes in, which paired with the scene is haunting.  A meditative clarinet and French horn solo arrive before a foreboding string sound. 

The most impressive track on the album is the 11 minute long The Peterson House and Finale.  I would love to hear this piece performed in concert, as it is a thematic and emotional tour de force.  Almost all the main themes are reprised in this cue, with each gently transforming into the next.  Each theme is transformed a bit more, perhaps with more of a hymn-like solemn nature.  Where the film could get sappy, the music stays held back and reverential.  Like the tracks before, the woodwinds have been given several moments to shine.  The track finally opens with a bolder statement of The People’s House theme.  A semi-cadenza for trumpet appears (played well by CSO musician Christopher Martin).  The strings come in with a full growing statement of Freedom’s Call.  The trumpet returns with light piano accompaniment on Lincoln’s theme.  A piano solo gives one last version of the heartfelt theme related to loss. 

The last track, “With Malice Towards None” is a piano version of the original theme.  The cue is perfect for the moment, mainly bittersweet.  The gentle sound of this performance reminds me of some of the great piano music in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War.  And with that the album ends.       

Williams’ choice for solos in the score really worked in the film.  Solo instruments tend to be a bit more uncovered, perhaps more tender.  That must have been the goal, as Lincoln was very much a human being in the film.  The Chicago Symphony (coming from the Land of Lincoln) was an excellent choice for this orchestra.  The soloists, listed above, are top notch and offer the nuance needed in each instance. 

Perhaps some John Williams fans looking for bombast will be turned off by the score.  The score does require a few listens for it to sink in, mainly because it is quiet, intense and emotionally heavy.  The themes yet again feel pre-written, as if they've been there this whole time.  They are stitched together with such care, that it draws you in for more.   

While out of film order (like almost every John Williams album), the album presentation is the best for a score-only listen.  I can’t recommend this score enough as a film score, but even more as the listening experience John Williams wanted.  

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