Lincoln by John Williams - film score review

John Williams: Lincoln - film score soundtrack CD cover Justly acclaimed for its impassioned yet restrained stance, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln rightly took its place at the forefront of the 2013 Oscars season. The mesmerising Daniel Day-Lewis gives another mercurial, eerie turn, this time transforming into Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, and the one charged with guiding the country through the horrifying carnage of the Civil War. Spielberg's atypically reserved film is based around the last four months of Honest Abe's life, detailing his attempts to push the 13th Amendment through the US House of Representatives. The Amendment will formally abolish slavery in the United States. The film centres on Lincoln's efforts to abolish slavery before peace is achieved – should peace be achieved beforehand, Lincoln fears that the slaves will not be granted their freedom.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 1 Working from an incisive script by Tony Kushner, Spielberg delves deeply into the politics of the period – composing not so much a biopic as a political thriller that is almost stage like in its construction. Most, if not all, of the film takes place in rooms and corridors – which is a bracing change for a director who often paints emotions on a grandiose scale. Spielberg makes a conscious effort to bring Lincoln down to a human level (notably in the opening scene which finds Lincoln talking amiably to two soldiers on a battlefield) – and Day-Lewis responds with a beautifully understated performance that avoids hagiography in favour of believability.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 2 The film also continues the partnership between Spielberg and composer John Williams, arguably the most fruitful, dynamic and rewarding in modern cinema. Lincoln is a milestone in the partnership, marking the 40th anniversary of their collaboration. It's interesting to trace the course of Williams' musical voice, which has changed considerably as Spielberg has matured as a filmmaker. The early stages of the director's career yielded such iconic Williams gems as Jaws, the Indy trilogy and E.T. – composed of leitmotifs, stirring, beautiful and instantly recognisable.

The composer was effectively defined by his bombastic blockbuster scores during the 70s and 80s, a shame given his skill with both subtle and frightening material. However, the Oscar-winning Schindler's List in 1993 marked a sea-change in the careers of both Spielberg and Williams. Just as Spielberg achieved the artistic recognition that he had craved for so long, so too was Williams able to demonstrate the more restrained, affecting side of his personality that had frequently been overlooked in the wake of his blockbuster scores.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 3 Schindler's List was a watershed moment in the way Williams composed for Spielberg's films, in many ways signalling the end of the bombastic, leitmotif-led Williams with whom many had fallen in love. The music changed technically – instead of favouring a plethora of character themes, Williams instead starting to score films on a scene-specific basis, relying less on instantly memorable pieces and instead underscoring each given film with a plethora of ideas that were appropriate but understated. It's not as if Williams has completely abandoned the former concept – think of the most recent Indiana Jones movie – but by now it's generally the exception that proves the rule.

Think for example of the generally restrained score to Saving Private Ryan – Williams' aim with that film was to score the sober reality of war, not the battle scenes themselves (which were in fact left unscored). Likewise, Memoirs of a Geisha (not a Spielberg film, admittedly) – a ravishingly beautiful score, one of Williams' best, but the bedrock of the score was built more on motivic material than long-lined themes.

This scene-specific, dramatically diffuse approach has led to mixed reactions in some quarters. For example, some bemoaned Williams' 2012 score for War Horse, saying that there was no anchoring theme holding it together. Although that's partially true, there were anchoring ideas within the score itself that held it together – they just never received a separate concert arrangement on album in the manner of classic Williams scores, instead circulating around other piecemeal ideas.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 4 What a surprise then to discover than Lincoln is something of a step back to the Williams of old, constructed of distinct building blocks that frequently get their own distinct arrangements. This makes it a somewhat more emotionally direct work than something like War Horse, brilliant though that score was. But even more interesting is the level of restraint Williams demonstrates, particularly when heard within the film itself. Spielberg's pragmatic depiction of the President deploys Williams' score to surprisingly discreet effect, only letting the music off the leash at a few key moments and during the end credits. There is a real sense that Spielberg is consciously holding the composer back, preventing him from ladling on the schmaltz in favour of something more understated.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 5 This is entirely to the film's credit: while the score for War Horse was tremendously effective in its melodramatic weight, Lincoln draws strength by veering to the opposite end of the scale. After all, a bombastic score would have proven disastrous for the dialogue-driven Presidential epic. Although Williams makes grand use of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, he emphasises a sense of intimacy within the ensemble itself by moving fluidly between specific musical components. Just as the film locates individual personalities within the wider political landscape, so too does Williams use certain instruments as individual voices within the noble acoustic wash. The result is a score that's both personal and grand at the same time.

This ebb and flow between different parts of the orchestra is immediately apparent in the beautiful opening track "The People's House", which moves from a pastoral, homely flute solo (indicating Lincoln's rural background); to a glorious, noble arrangement for full orchestra and timpani; and finally back down again to a solo trumpet, indicating the nobility of the President's cause. Immediately, there is a sense that Williams is constructing a sense of Lincoln's individual personality and how this impinges on the cause that he is fighting for.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 6 "The Purpose of the Amendment" is another lovely piece, full of warm understatement and yet purposeful too, indicating the forthright direction in which Lincoln is headed with the Amendment. "Getting Out the Vote" and traditional piece "The Race to the House" both demonstrate that Williams is a much more versatile composer than he's given credit for, both being period-specific blends of banjos and struck percussion depicting the manic race for votes. "The American Process" reintroduces the lovely main theme, which goes on to appear several more times, with an especially glorious rendition in the stirring climactic piece "The Peterson House and Finale".

There are several other themes at work in the score, including a pensive, piano-led elegy for the horror of the Civil War itself in "The Blue and Grey" (referring to the colours of the opposing armies' uniforms). It's heard again later on in "Remembering Willie" and carries definite overtones of Williams' work on Schindler's List. "With Malice Toward None" is the third principal theme for the soundtrack, a beautiful and noble orchestral summation summing up the President's decency, and how he always acted for the good of the people (the track title is taken from a quote in his Second Inaugural Address). "Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom" is another authentic piece, beginning with a martial fife and snare drum arrangement before leading into a rousing rendition of George Root's Civil War anthem (one adopted by Lincoln himself during his 1864 re-election campaign).

"The Southern Delegation and the Dream" is one of the score's bleakest moments, the solo trumpet drained of warmth and vitality, the strings chilling and discordant to better capture the horror of war. The mood changes again in "Father and Son", which establishes a quiet sense of intimacy with a prominent oboe line. "Equality Under the Law" effectively fuses the two Lincoln themes together, showcasing how the personal and the political exist side by side. The lengthy "Freedom's Call" opens with a gorgeous fiddle solo reminiscent of The Patriot before expanding to encompass the full orchestra and ending with a proud rendition of the main theme, first on flute and then trumpet.

"Elegy" builds into a powerful sense of string-led tragedy with overtones of JFK's final moments, before one of the score's rare choral injections appears in "Appomattox, April 9 1865", the track title detailing the moment of the Confederate surrender. It's an effectively sobering piece of scoring by Williams, not resounding with a sense of triumph but instead reflecting on all the carnage that's gone before.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 7 And yet the score looks forward with hope in the stunning "The Peterson House and Finale" which brings all of the scores principal ideas together – Lincoln's main theme, the Malice Toward None theme and the piano elegy among them. It's a tremendous piece of cathartic musical storytelling that hails Lincoln's presidency, laments his death and salutes his success in abolishing slavery. The glorious build toward the horn arrangement around 3 minutes in is symptomatic of Williams' effortlessly graceful skill when it comes to scoring movies – there's never a sense that he's marking time, instead always communicating vital information to the listener. The score then ends on a suitably reflective and personal note with a piano arrangement of "With Malice Toward None".

John Williams: Lincoln - image 8 Lincoln is a score that once again proves no composer can pierce to the emotional heart of a movie with as much tact and grace as John Williams. It's no coincidence that he's one of the few remaining composers who forgoes using computers to construct his scores, instead writing with pen and paper. Williams is defiantly a member of the old-school – and that's a very good thing. His music is never just noise for the sake of it, is never dominated by ego or aimless padding. Instead, he always serves the emotional needs of the movie through good, old-fashioned orchestral magic, and it's always a treat to behold. What makes the score for Lincoln such a joy is its emotional directness. Although the music is for the most part fairly quiet, the building blocks are more easily identifiable than they have been in many Williams scores of late, making it a pleasurable and well-constructed listening experience. The tracks imitating the musical techniques of the period also make it a varied one.

John Williams: Lincoln - image 9 And let's not forget Spielberg's part in this enduring collaboration. As director, he shows real sensitivity and understanding in how to deploy music, helping to draw out the very best from Williams. It's very easy to dismiss the Spielberg-Williams partnership as built on manipulative bombast and little else. But in fact the score for Lincoln highlights a restrained sense of maturity. The score works brilliantly on album and yet its largely unobtrusive presence in the film also needs to be commended, quietly urging the drama along and never getting in the way.

It remains to be seen how many more times these two filmmaking giants will collaborate. But even if the curtain is starting to come down on this legendary partnership, we have been left with a magnificent legacy of movie music. Lincoln is yet another masterwork within that legacy.

Williams' superb score is available from Amazon at and

Reviewer: Sean Wilson

John Williams: Lincoln - CD Track Listing

    John Williams and Steven Spielberg
  • The People's House
  • The Purpose of the Amendment
  • Getting Out the Vote
  • The American Process
  • The Blue and Grey
  • "With Malice Toward None"
  • Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom
  • The Southern Delegation and the Dream
  • Father and Son
  • The Race to the House (traditional)
  • Equality Under the Law
  • Freedom's Call
  • Elegy
  • Remembering Willie
  • Appomattox, April 9, 1865
  • The Peterson House and Finale
  • "With Malice Toward None" (Piano Solo)