Composed by John Williams
November 6, 2012
From Jaws to Munich, John Williams has feasibly become the most seminal American film composer of the 20th century, creating bold and enthralling themes that have embedded their way into the audience’s collective subconscious and establishing himself as one of the true greats. So it only makes sense that Williams, having worked with Steven Spielberg for 40 years now, would continue his illustrious career with the director on his latest cinematic outing about the great Abraham Lincoln. With Lincoln, Williams composes one of his best works, resulting in a dense and elegant musical tribute to one of the greatest American presidents.
With all this talk of greatness, it would have been easy for Williams to deliver a pompous score drenched in sentiment a la War Horse, though that’s arguably what that film needed. Here, however, he exercises more restraint, approaching the project with a sense of dignity and reverence. His ability to create indelible themes is still his greatest strength, and here he interweaves five musical motifs throughout the score, culminating in an immersive work of musical Americana.
Lincoln’s primary musical theme can be found in the opening track “The People’s House”, a beautifully written piece that deftly establishes the historically American atmosphere of the entire score. The piece opens with a single oboe languidly stating the main theme before being joined by warm, harmonious strings and flutes. The motif builds to a grandiose flourish, incorporating Williams’ signature brass writing, always a delight to hear. This lyrical piece is reminiscent of Aaron Copeland’s compositions, and it’s a joy hearing Williams pay homage to such an influential American composer.
Spielberg’s film focuses less on a story and more on political figures discoursing and debating ideas. Williams follows suit, and his themes work more as musical concepts than narrative cues. “The Purpose of the Amendment” introduces a heartening melody supported by ostinatos of ascending cellos, lending a sense of gravitas to the entire piece. This theme can also be heard in the serene “Father and Son” and again in “Freedom’s Call”, this time with more gusto, evoking a sense of the liberation and equality that Lincoln was so resolutely fighting for.
Williams further develops similar ideas of positive assurance in tracks like “The American Process”, which harbors a cheerful motif that resurrects a Yankee Doodle spirit with childlike earnestness. The piece begins with the counterpoint between an oboe and a bassoon and later takes on new life with French horns before returning to its melodic roots, this time with some exquisite piano writing. Additional levity can also be found in “Getting Out the Vote” and “The Race to the House”, both capering pieces featuring jiglike violins and banjos. They vivaciously underscore the few zany sequences in the film and are as close as Williams has ever been to scoring a hoedown.
The score, however, is not without its somber moments. Sobering, piano-driven pieces like “The Blue and the Grey” and “Remembering Willie” capture the feeling of loss that the Civil War afforded the nation as well as the pain Abraham and Mary Todd experienced through the death of their 11-year old son, Willie. The score ends with hope though, with its reprise of “Malice Toward None”, this time as a piano solo, accompanying Lincoln’s second inaugural address that speaks of the work this nation must collectively do in order to bring about peace.
What makes Lincoln’s score so resonant is the fact that Williams’ thematic work seems so instantaneously timeless. He has the ability to write music that, while being entire new, feels as if it has always existed. At the impressive age of 80, Williams has instated yet another classic composition into his canon, and even if this proves to be one of the last few scores composed by the man, it’s undeniable that his musical legacy will be remembered for years to come.