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Comments about the soundtrack for Saving Private Ryan (John Williams)
Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review #3

Benjamin Wright
Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review #3   Tuesday, March 11, 2008 (5:36 p.m.) 

(The following donated review by Benjamin Wright was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in March, 2008)

Saving Private Ryan: (John Williams) John Williams, known for his sweeping orchestral pieces and hummable themes for characters and events, has retracted from his usual flare for the grand opus in Steven Spielberg's new film, Saving Private Ryan. He has, instead, created a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who risked their lives for our futures with piercing cues of integrity, honour, and emotion.

The score begins with snare drum and trumpet solos similar to that of JFK, another of Williams' compositions. He introduces a musical phrase that is heard throughout the film, but the most triumphant aspect of the score does not appear in the film. It is the brilliant tribute to America's fighting men and women, "Hymn to the Fallen," heard during the final credit roll of the film. "Hymn" begins like any other of Williams' thematic works: he states the theme (one of which develops over the course of its six minute running time) quietly, solemnly. Soon strings enter, joining the lone drum and horn; then the Tanglewood Chorus (of Boston) heightens the drama; and just when you believe the emotional height has been achieved, the Chorus rises an octave.

The subsequent tracks are low and ominous, primarily horn and drum motifs. These are moments of brilliance... of true Williams genius. Such musical phrases include a combination of military strictness and American romanticism --flowing violins and saddened trumpet calls. By comparison, "The Liberty Theme" is a close relative to "Hymn's" American heritage and ancestory. Hightlighted tracks are "Revisiting Normandy", "Defense Preparations", "Approaching the Enemy", and "The Last Battle".

There are no forthright, obvious character themes in this sixty minute score; Williams and Spielberg chose, respectively, to center around the activities, events, and brutal imagery of the situation at hand: the invasion of France in World War II. The heroes in the film work as a team, as a unit. Their personal backgrounds are second to the situation, the war. "Hymn" succeeds at capturing the "group effort" mentality of the fighting eight whose job it was to save one of their own.

Among the recent criticisms of Williams' work, there has been an impenetrable cloud of confusion surrounding the score's effectiveness on its own against its effectiveness in the film. John Williams has stated on many occasions that his scores (and the scores of other composers) are not meant to be scrutinized alone without the accompaniment of the film for which the score was written. It just so happens that many (if not all) of Williams' works stand alone; they work beautifully with or without the moving images that the music complements. For Saving Private Ryan, Williams has written a score that works remarkably well in the film (drawing very little attention during the duration of the actual film), yet works even better when listened to alone, privately. To the contrary, there are several motifs (altered themes) that come and go, that are used sparingly. There is the lone violin in track eight that speeds through its ten note phrase creating suspense and tension; and there is the uplifting (if solemn) phrase in track five that reaches a climax at 3:14 min (approx).

Listen intently to this score. This is not an outright adventure or drama score by Williams characterized by a main theme(s) repeated and/or varied throughout the soundtrack. There is a main theme, nonetheless. It is a carefully woven theme, one that is not hummable, but instead lives on in our minds. It is comprised of the deep resonant brass and wonderful drum motifs (ones that Williams continues to improve upon each time out--starting with 1941, JFK, Midway and others--which are continuously copied by James Horner).

For true Williams fans, one can almost instantaneously listen to his progression in the medium of film scoring; his talent increases after each score, each year. "Hymn" is proof of that. He takes his time in addressing the musical value for this score. He does not need a bloated, heavy, loud orchestra to achieve his message as many fledging composers may think is needed. While the film may not be overly filled with John Williams' composition, it is there... and may be regarded as one of the greatest scores ever composed by the maestro. *****

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