In the United States, yesterday was Memorial Day. A national holiday, it is a day of remembrance to honor and mourn those who died while in the service of the United States Military. It is often observed with parades, speeches, cemetery visits, and non-related things like family picnics and cookouts that celebrate Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer. This year, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed many of those traditional events but the significance of Memorial Day remains undiminished. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who died serving our country. That gratitude can never be overstated and it can never be repaid.
Yesterday, my wife and I watched the Steven Spielberg motion picture, Saving Private Ryan, for the first time. Released in 1998, the movie is considered to be one of the most significant movies of all time. It took me 22 years to decide to watch it because I am not a person who likes/enjoys/wants to see graphic portrayals of violence. I had heard about the movie’s intense opening 30 minute scene of the beginning of the D-Day invasion. My heart wanted to see the movie but my stomach was not sure.
But yesterday, on Memorial Day 2020, it was time. We watched Saving Private Ryan in our home (Blu-Ray) and found the movie to be a powerful, moving reminder of sacrifice and service. Yes, some scenes were very intense. Very, very intense. But even the most intense scene could only communicate a fraction—a very small fraction—of what those who served in war actually experienced. I’m glad we watched it, and I will watch it again.
I had another reason for wanting to watch Saving Private Ryan. I played on the movie’s soundtrack.
As readers of The Last Trombone know, I was bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1985-2012. During the early years of my tenure in the orchestra, John Williams was the conductor of the Boston Pops and after he left that position, he continued a fruitful relationship with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops that continues to this day. My respect for him is enormous, and I was very fortunate to record many Boston Pops albums under his direction, and also be the first bass trombonist to perform his Tuba Concerto (on bass trombone, in May 1991) with the Boston Pops with John conducting. The photo above shows John and me in Symphony Hall, Boston, taken at a recording session in 2012 for his Fanfare for Fenway, that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Boston’s Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox.
Saving Private Ryan was the second John Williams film score that I recorded as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, following on the recording sessions for Schindler’s List in 1993. The soundtrack for Saving Private Ryan was recorded over three days in February 1998 in Symphony Hall. I recall Steven Spielberg being there for all of the sessions, and Tom Hanks (who had the role of Captain John H. Miller in the movie) being in attendance at the first session. The music is very unconventional for a war movie: there is no loud music. Instead, Williams used music mostly to guide the audience in both anticipation and contemplation of combat. There is no music during battle scenes.
The movie’s longest musical segment occurs at the end of the film, over the credits. That music, titled “Hymn to the Fallen,” features a long brass chorale that still, 22 years later, moves me to tears. You can hear the recording of “Hymn to the Fallen” for the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack by clicking below or you can hear it on YouTube by clicking HERE.
This is not a movie with loud trombone playing like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. What you’ll hear are trombones in a supporting role, adding depth and texture to strings, and stepping forward from time to time in chorales, soft but intense rhythmic punctuations, and contemplative warmth.
Seeing the movie yesterday for the first time brought back a flood of memories about those recording sessions. Tim Morrison and Tom Rolfs played the beautiful, haunting trumpet solos and duets, and Richard “Gus” Sebring did the same on french horn. Ronald Barron, Norman Bolter, and I were the trombone section and Gary Ofenloch and Chris Hall played tuba, substituting for Chester Schmitz. Spielberg and Williams wanted to record with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall rather than with a studio orchestra because they wanted to “hear the air” of the hall in the music, and work with a group of players who played together everyday and understood Williams so well.
Then Boston Globe music critic Steven Dyer wrote a long article about the recording sessions that describes some of the back room scenes and work of those days in February, 1998. You can read that article HERE.
Also, at the beginning of the first recording session, Tom Hanks read the letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Lydia Parker Bixby who had lost five sons in the Civil War. Written on November 21, 1864, it was first published in the Boston Evening Transcript four days later. It remains one of the most poignant consolations I have ever read, and the letter figures both in the plot and the narrative of Saving Private Ryan. Here is the letter as first published in the Boston Evening Transcript:
If you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, you have your own thoughts about the movie. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so if you feel you can handle intense depictions of the brutality of war. If you can’t—like I felt I couldn’t for the last 22 years—you might want to pick up the soundtrack album. The movie is a strong reminder of the sacrifice and heroism that we gratefully recognize on Memorial Day. The music is haunting, moving, powerful, and contemplative. I often turn to Hymn to the Fallen when I need music to help me think about or remember something important. It has become a kind of Adagio for Strings (of Samuel Barber) for our time.
Memorial Day. Saving Private Ryan. Abraham Lincoln. And the trombone. They’re all tied up in my memory.