Eye on the Oscars: Music Preview

Thirty-eight years ago, Steven Spielberg wanted musical Americana for his first feature, “The Sugarland Express.” He hired John Williams on the strength of the composer’s folksy scores for “The Reivers” and “The Cowboys.”

“Lincoln” marks their 26th film, one of the longest-running director-composer partnerships in modern movie history. Williams calls it “an amazing relationship. We’ve never really had an argument. It’s just something that has, personally and musically, worked well.”

Fifteen of those films earned Oscar nominations for Williams, and three have won (“Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List”). For the 80-year-old dean of American film composers, who already has a record-setting total of 47 nominations, “Lincoln” explores yet another aspect of Americana circa the 19th century.

“I thought that the music, in some fundamental way, should have the harmonic and melodic grammar of the 19th century,” Williams explains.

He started his work near the end of the film, when Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”), thinking that “if I could solve the inaugural scene, be supportive at the right level,” he might find the key theme for the score.

Once he and Spielberg decided on the music for that scene, however, the composer discovered that the film demanded different moods for different aspects of Lincoln’s character and experiences: a sorrowful piano for the president’s dead son Willie; a noble theme for the moment when black Americans are permitted inside the House of Representatives to witness the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery; a lighthearted fiddle for the shady work of political operatives; an elegy for a field of hundreds of dead Civil War soldiers; and others, six themes in all.

“It’s a tapestry, really, of thematic pieces original to the film,” Williams says.

Much of the score, recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is restrained and dignified, befitting the subject. Producer Kathleen Kennedy describes it as having an “elegant simplicity. To reinforce the context of the period, he intentionally kept his instrumentation sparse. (It) elevates the emotion without being overpowering.”

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