Lincoln: John Williams Music

The elements of Spielberg vision are also reflected in John Williams’ score for “Lincoln,” a departure for the American composer who has received an astonishing 47 Oscar nominations and five Academy Awards in a career filled with indelible music.

“For me, this was a very different experience than any of my experiences with Steven in past years,” Williams says. “’Lincoln’ is more of a musical tapestry, with several very distinct and discreet musical subjects that don’t overlap. And in terms of the texture and orchestration, it was also quite different. It’s a quiet score with a lot of variation, but also with some broader, noble expressions.”

Williams began with what was the most challenging piece of all—the music that accompanies Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, as read by Daniel Day-Lewis. “The challenge was to find something worthy of accompanying those great words,” he explains. “I started with a hymnal kind of piece and then I kept carving away at it to find the simplicity needed to support Daniel’s delivery, which is itself a work of art.”

A potent simplicity would become woven through the entire score. In another key sequence, when Lincoln rides through City Point, Virginia, across a field of broken young soldiers’ bodies, Williams opted for a solo piano. “We didn’t want to underscore the bodies on the ground, but just to give a feeling of respect and support a moment of rumination about the tragedy at hand and the challenges of trying to fix things in human affairs,” he comments.

Elsewhere, the music shifts with the moment. As Seward’s lobbyists head out to finagle votes, Williams brings in rhythmic, country violins; and as the first African-Americans ever in history enter the House of Representatives, there is a more lyrical moment of full orchestration.

To record this diversity of music, Williams took the opportunity to work with an orchestra he has wanted to use for a Spielberg score for many years: the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for whom Williams has been a guest conductor on occasion. “They are one of the great American orchestras and I’ve always said to Steven, ‘Someday we should do something with them.’ When we started on ‘Lincoln,’ Steven said, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great time to work with the Chicago Symphony?’ Not only is Illinois the home of Lincoln but Chicago is the center of the nation, and I think Steven liked the idea of bringing energy from the heart of our nation into our film in some way.”

Sums up Spielberg: “I’ve always believed that making sense of the past helps shape our present, helps us figure out where we want go from here. In this way, I think ‘Lincoln’ could not be more relevant right now. His presidency offers such a vivid model of leadership. He advocated for things we hold dearer now than ever. He stood up for the idea that democracy’s survival requires fairness, compassion, respect and tolerance. And sometimes a good sense of humor. That is the soul of ‘Lincoln.’”