SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) – Album Reviews


Review by Jeff Commings

You don’t have to read the liner notes in the Saving Private Ryan CD to realize that this project marks a change in thinking for both Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Though it is probably the shortest score ever written by Williams, the music has just the same impact as a score for AmistadJFK or even Star Wars. Played with beauty and grace by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was recorded in the acoustic Boston Symphony Hall. On CD you can feel the power the recording has; it’s almost like having a real concert played for you in your home! Many scores that are recorded in studios rarely get the feel of being almost like a concert performance, but like Schindler’s List this score’s beauty is highlighted by its sound.

No John Williams score would be complete without a theme, and even SPR has a few. The drum cadence sounds throughout the score, and the wonderful trumpet solos by Thomas Rolfs and regular Williams trumpeter Tim Morrison (who played on such scores as Amistad and JFK) give this score its identity. It pays tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in Normandy, and it makes a somber statement at times about the horrors of war. At no time does the score try to lighten or sentimentalize the onscreen action — the visuals give us enough emotion — but rather it acts as a companion piece to the film, a break from the whizzing bullets, the grenade explosions and the blood-curdling screams of dying soldiers.

The film opens up with a majestic drum cadence and a shot of an old man walking down a road to a war cemetery. It is Normandy, and the man’s desperation is accompanied by yearning French horns and violins. Soon the music builds as the camera closes in on the man and suddenly we are taken back to that horrible day on Omaha Beach. The film goes scoreless for the 20-plus minutes of the battle, then returns with a slow pulse as we look out on the damage of the beach. On the CD this long cue is titled “Omaha Beach,” but a more accurate title should be “Letters Home,” as the bulk of this score follows the discovery of the three dead Ryan brothers and the attempt to find a way to get the surviving brother back home.

After a long musical drought, music returns after a brief battle at a radar station. The Americans are victorious, but at a cost: the medic, Wade, has been shot and is at certain death. The music in the scene is quite interesting as the music seems to act toward the end as Wade’s heart monitor. When all hope seems to be lost, the main theme is passed from trumpet to French horn. Then the woodwinds come in with a gut-wrenching triplet, which is finally passed to strings, and then fades out with Wade. It is the most emotional cue in the film, one that you can feel on the CD as much as you could in the film itself.

At this point the soldiers are on edge, but Capt. Miller (played by Tom Hanks) calms things down by admitting his true occupation. “High School Teacher” is a very solemn piece, full of flowing strings that also hint at a little desperation to return home. The main theme is played beautifully in this piece, but it symbolizes mostly the soldiers’ decisions to stay and continue the mission.

After the soldiers decide to stay after finding Ryan to defend a bridge, the “Defense Preparations” begin. On the CD you can sense a little recollection of “Setting the Trap” from Home Alone, but without the comic overtones. The mood is urgency, as they must get the stage set for “The Last Battle,” a cue that, like “Omaha Beach,” doesn’t try to add more emotion to what just occurred (and what is occurring) onscreen. The film changes from past to present when we see Ryan as an old man looking at the grave of Capt. Miller. A very bold trumpet piece underscores this piece, and ends with a soothing piece on strings with a shot of the American flag.

Heard only over the closing credits, “Hymn to the Fallen” could very well have been a piece like “Summon the Heroes,” written separate from the film as a lasting tribute. Very little of the film’s thematic material is used, and only at the very beginning of the six-minute piece. Angelic chorus lift the music to great heights before a silent drum cadence brings it to a close.. This is Williams’ way of rewarding the audience for making it to the end of such a gut-wrenching film. “Hymn to the Fallen” is one of the reasons the score to Saving Private Ryan is an instant classic and certainly one of his best in recent years.

Many composers would have tried to put music under the Omaha Beach war or tried to make their score heard over gunfire, but hearing his brilliant and sensitive work on Schindler’s List, we know that Williams is aware of the power of the visual image and how a cue placed in the wrong scene may ruin the entire score. This score will undoubtedly rank in the canons of Williams scores as one to be remembered for many years if not for its notable brevity but its power in the heart of its length.

Review by Frank Lehman

It is going to be very hard to review the score to Steven Spielberg’s visceral and heart-wrenching film of World War II, Saving Private Ryan. Why? Two reasons. Number one, the solemn nature of the film means that I have to be careful of what I say. Second, the music itself is very hard to judge. The score to Private Ryan is different from every other score Williams composed. There exists just a little more than 50 minutes of music during the entire movie, and that 50 minutes can get a little repetitive. Plus, none of the bloody action scenes were scored, meaning Williams was denied (and rightfully so: I can’t imagine the movie with music during the Battle of Normandy, etc.) of his usual spirited pieces. Does the score live up to the tough standards that were laid down for Williams, and does it provide a valuable listening experience in the long run? I hope to answer all these questions, while stressing the typical track-by-track analysis less than I usually do. With that said, lets continue.

I bought the soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan several weeks before seeing the movie. I know how I have said before that it is a mistake to do this, but in SPR’s case, I don’t think that it was such a problem. I believe the emotional impact of the music would have been much more profound after seeing the movie, but as long as you see it at some point, the music retains its power. The first track on the CD is the Hymn to the Fallen, but I will write about that at the end of the review, since it is different than the rest of the score. Instead, I will group tracks 2-8 separately.

After listening to the soundtrack for the first, and several other listenings, I have to admit that I was somewhat under impressed. The music seemed boring and banal. I cannot, after more than 30 complete listenings (thats a lot, which I’ll explain later) say the same anymore. SPR is one of those soundtracks that you have to listen to over and over again to appreciate it fully. And then you’ll realize Saving Private Ryan’s score is richly thematic, moving and eloquent. It has an impressive thought-provoking quality in it. Contrary to what I first expected, the score is not dark or dismal, instead actually being rather uplifting and poignant. Aside from the somber Wade’s Death, most of the score is reflective. I think that Williams made a very conscious decision in scoring the film to portray the human element more than the war-time element more prominently. Except for parts of tracks 5 and 6, the score is of a wholly earthly, human tone. There are no heartsinking dirges or tear-jerking (again, I am excluding the Hymn) death marches. By listening to the CD, you can really get a sense of the times and emotions in the film.

The first track, “Revisting Normandy” begins with a single French Horn statement, devoid of emotion, acting as an elegy similar to the prologue of Born on the Fourth’. The music later shifts into a wonderful brass ensemble, played with a militaristic tone with a snare drum motif that pops up here and there. The music progresses into a more continous, developing piece, with strings and wood winds getting their parts, with a common trumpet solo. The piece ends on a dire note, fortelling of the battle of Normandy, which is unscored. Track 2 is a perfect representation of the score. Even though it doesn’t even have the main theme in it, the music captures the general atmosphere and essence, therefore acting as a perfect prologue.

Perhaps the second best track on the CD, “Omaha Beach”, track 3, is also one of the longest. The track begins with a lengthy rendition of the main theme. It is a simple yet enormously effective and moving theme. It isn’t too emotional, not too sad, yet, along with the scene accompaning it, is very powerful. The track then takes a turn for the less melodic, more back and fourth style seen in the previous track. This, and several other tracks in many ways resemble the music fromAmistad for President Adams. Both are written in an eloquent, stately manner, but have a unique sense of Americana that makes them good listening. Track 3 and 8 are both written in this fashion. Throughout both pieces the main theme is played differently several times. Track 3 has one of the most gripping moments from the film, in my opinion, when Private Ryan’s mother falls down crying, during which the music reaches a soft climax. Track 4 is an interesting one. It begins with a melancholy clarinet duet, which leads into a trumpet solo. There is a lot of dissonance in this track, but it isn’t as obvious as some of his other pieces. Later in the track, the strings play a slightly hopeful part, leading into the brass, and later into a rendition of the main theme and a recurring 3 note motif. This single rendition was used twice in the film, the second time replacing “Approaching the Enemy”, the next track. Approaching introduces a steady 3 beat motif that is present for most of the track. It provides a good, moving, progressive sense to the track. It changes keys once or twice, and moves onto a more thematic section with horn and wind solos.

Track 6, “Defense Preparations” starts off with music similar to the previous track, with a certain urgency building up to a transition at 4:10, where the music takes a turn to a darker, more heavy tone, with strings creating an uneasy sense. This, and the next track are the only two tracks on the CD which are truly unnerving. “Wade’s Death”, track 7, is, in contrast with most of the rest of the score, bleak and depressive. The piece is hauntingly sad and remorseful, utilizing the recurring 3 note motif often. At one point, there is a lonely trumpet, and later French Horn duet, during the scene where Tom Hanks is crying. The track ends with yet another 3 note beat, shifting and mutating several times, finally dying down into nothing.

Since I already discussed track 8, I’ll go straight to track 9. Another excellent stand alone piece, “The Last Battle” takes all the best elements from the score and puts them into one great track. Adding a sense of closure, just as “Revisting Normandy” acted as a prologue, “The Last Battle” borrows a little bit from other tracks, but really shines towards the end of the track, with excellent trumpet solos depicting the losses of the battle. A feeling of triumph and fulfilment, despite the deaths also exists troughout the piece. Even a bit of patriotic feeling music exists, but doesn’t get in the way. The clarinets mark the ending of the track, leading into the magnificent Hymn, worthy of its own paragraph.

The “Hymn to The Fallen” is one of John Williams most astounding pieces. The simple tune carries the weight of all who died in the war, as Spielberg said in the liner notes. From the snare solo in the beginning, the theme begins softly, with a beautiful choral part. The music is never too sad or depressing. Even when the tension builds, the tears that are yanked from your eyes come not from the sadness of the piece, but from its profound beauty. One of the most glorious parts of the track is the brass’ interpretation of the theme. It rises up in dignity, and dies back down, letting way for another, stronger rendition of the theme, once again with the theme. The entire orchestra swells in a majestic, grandious rendition, building up to the soaring climax, and sweeping down back to the calm. A lonely clarinet/bassoon duet leads into the conclusion, with the snare drum growing only to fade back.

In conclusion, I must say that Saving Private Ryan is an amazing score. While lacking the familiar themes and techniques we Williams fans are so accostemed to, SPR presents its own appeal. The score is delicate and articulate, never stressing one element too much. The more you listen to it, the more impact it gives the listener. I actually find myself humming during some parts, just because the music has such a potent quality to it that you almost want to participate with the playing. Like he does so often, John Williams outdoes himself with Saving Private Ryan, providing the perfect score for a magnificent movie. SPR is great to listen to while doing something, as it is never frantic or distracting, or while simply doing nothing. You can get a lot of thinking done while listening to such a human, reflective score. In the end, Saving Private Ryan is not a score for just everybody. The casual listener will not enjoy it at all. But if you truly feel you can appreciate the score, then I recommend nothing more than it.


Saving Private Ryan’s score has everything scored for the movie on it, which is unusual to say the least. It actually has more music than was used in the film, counting “Approaching The Enemy”.