OK, I’m cheating a little here. There was no score by John Williams in 1985. It was the first year since 1960 that didn’t see a new score by Williams. Many of the years since that time had seen numerous scores. That tells you something about his work ethic, and how sought after he was. I don’t know why his name was not attached to any film in 1985, but it does give me the opportunity to explore a lesser known work in his ouvre – the wonderful score for “The River”, directed by Mark Rydell and released in 1984.
Williams had worked with Rydell on three films before this – all of them gems in an already glittering collection. They were the Reivers, The Cowboys, and Cinderella Liberty. I’ve looked at the music to the latter two previously. So now to their last collaboration, “The River”, starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek.
I was very excited to find this original score on LP many years ago, when I went on an exchange trip to Germany. I’d never seen the album before in any shops in the UK. I remember that I only had enough money to buy one album, and it was either this one or Spacecamp, another rarity by Williams. I bought this one, and it took years for me then to track down a copy of Spacecamp. But I digress.
I remember clearly the impact of hearing this score for the first time once I returned home. It starts with a good dose of sun-drenched Americana, as the strings play a rhapsodic introduction, which soon gives way to what to my ears sounded like the most incredible use of a piano I’d ever heard – not because it’s at all difficult, but more because it’s so very simple, yet so very effective. It’s a repeating figure, more like an ostinato than anything else, and I still love it to this day.
But soon the main theme comes in with a deceptively simple melody, played on the horns. It has some resemblance to the secondary theme from the Raiders March. But here, it’s transformed into a lyrical shape, playing around in the depths before it launches itself up to the surface at the end of the phrase. On it’s second iteration, it wrenches the key, modulating to the major sixth (to A if it has been in C). It’s again, a simple ploy, but extremely effective – it feels almost as if the theme reinvents itself as it meanders along, like a river. There is a real sense to my mind of fluidity, of journeying onward.
The theme meanders around in a mid-section, utilising the horns and the woodwind. Then the main theme reappears, this time with the strings. the accompaniment, as before, is the bass and drums. It plays itself into a rising section of melody, before we are greeted with the love theme – a beautiful jazzy number for solo trumpet and piano-strings accompaniment. The melody loops around rather like the ever shifting harmonies, before dying away into a haunting little melody on the flute. It itself has some elements of jazz, but is another example of John William’s mastery, not only in writing for the full gamut of orchestral instruments, but also in creating minor themes which are just as evocative and effective as the major themes. It will reappear prominently in “Rain Clouds Gather”. This theme has some similarities to work Williams did for Rosewood in 1996.
So in the first piece on the album, the “Main Theme and Love Theme” as is is often called, we have a statement of two of the major themes for the film, as well as a minor motif which will return elsewhere.
But to hear some of the other melodies Williams crafted, the listener will have to delve deeper into the soundtrack. One that particularly stands out is called “The Ancestral Home”, which I guess represents the deep rooted love of the land which is held by the farmers whose livelihood is threatened, not just by the river floods, but also by an unscrupulous landlord who seeks to foreclose on the farm. The theme starts with a rising melody, which then gives way to another of Williams’ seemingly effortless melodies, played on the strings. Woodwind take it on before the strings return, but it is shortlived. It’s one of those melodies you wish could stick around a little longer, but it gives way far too soon to the rising melody we heard at the start of the track. However that soon reaches a wonderful climax, as the strings soar and the horn provides a wonderful counterpoint before the trumpets join with the percussion to reach what feels like a summit. It’s similar to the wonderful music in Superman when Clark says goodbye to his adoptive mother – “Leaving Home”.
There are a number of other themes in the score, often written for guitar, such as the one heard in “Growing Up”, at 0:29. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and of course reminds one of the work Williams did some years later for “Stepmom”. It’s a graceful tune, which is repeated by the flute later in the track. It feels like a reminder of happy childhood. I didn’t grow up in America, but it still reminds me of childhood.
Then we have the Pony Ride, which in essence is a variation for guitars of the main theme. It’s utterly charming, but as it develops, it introduces a number of tiny little fragments of themes which any lesser composer would develop and turn into themes in their own right. Not Williams. Melodies seem to stream from his pen so fast and thick that he can’t develop all of them, and perhaps doesn’t need to. It’s part of what for me makes his music so invigorating – that ever changing melodic landscape which he is able to create, full of little surprises along the way.
The original soundtrack album, made up of 11 tracks, is a hugely listenable album. There is not one track which feels like filler. Even some of the darker, threatening tracks make great use of motifs which have been introduced earlier, and enlarges their impact and scope by giving them fresh instrumentation, new harmonies.
In the last track, “Young Friends Farewell”, new melodies emerge yet again. It’s a track driven again by guitar and flute. There is something very bittersweet about it all, there is a sense of desolation in the flute, which is tempered by the guitar. The guitar often seems to be the instrument that grounds the score to the family.
If you’ve never heard the score, track it down on youtube, it’s well worth the time. It remains one of my favourite scores by the maestro. It’s quite restrained in it’s orchestration, it’s certainly not bombastic, and it has a wealth of motifs and musical ideas which surprise at every turn. And it takes me away to another landscape, to another time. It reminds me of a place I’ve never been, which of course is impossible. Yet through this music, it feels as if I have been there. And that surely is one secret of great film music.