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On "The Penitent Man Will Pass" ~ Cue by John Williams

Climactic moments in film are often coupled with Williams' best textural compositional decisions.

While the cue screams "underscore" in many ways, it nonetheless possesses an exuberance of character emblematic of the Indiana Jones universe.

There is something mysteriously brilliant about the dissonant violin tremolos in their upper register amidst the beautiful brass theme. This is followed by a transition in the celli and basses, which leads to an echo of the theme in the woodwinds. The back-and-forth nature of Williams' motivic and thematic presentation creates variety and anticipation for what is a most anticipatory scene toward the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Starting in G minor, the anthem that is the main theme projects a mightiness and timelessness that mirrors the historic implications of the archaeological pursuit. The second half of the theme feels hopeful and bolder, momentarily drawing the listener through a tonicization of B-flat major and ending on a dominant (D major) chord. A second iteration of the theme returns to B flat, this time in minor mode. From there, Williams incorporates diminished chords into his buildup to a choir feature. His brilliant use of strings in octaves unlocks plenteous colors in the brass and woodwind families. Very little percussion is utilized; it is not until the end that the Phrygian-dominant sonority reveals timpani and yet grander brass textures.

Overall, Williams craftily accumulates and relieves tension to mirror the goings-on of the scene. His choice of strong violin motion in the upper register is expertly used in contrasting moments: during softer, uncertain moments; as transition material; and as broad thematic content sweeping the orchestral textures into the scene's dramatic foreground. Woodwind textures serve mostly as chamber instruments during those moments of dialogue and calm progression on-screen.

In the Indiana Jones series, brass (and in particular, trumpets) have always symbolized a triumphant Jones and his many adventures. This film specifically utilizes the brass section in a concert-band manner, an expected decision of Williams given his military and marching-band backgrounds. His chorale-style writing imparts a deep importance to melody and bass, the latter of which is represented in the tuba part. The bass role continues on many occasions in the cello and double bass sections. One can hear, during thematic and buildup material, how integral bass drones are to the piece. The majesty that such a background texture conveys is appropriate for pinnacle moments in scenes from adventure-dominant films, and indeed Williams is adept at tracking harmonic motion using these drones throughout several of his orchestral scores, if not most. There are advantages to the use of a temporary drone: the audience can, for a time, sit in the tonal center of that drone, even though technically harmonic motion above it sends the music off into various sonic spaces (however fleeting those send-offs may be).

There is a unification of both audio and the visual when a theme enters and even reenters later - perhaps in a different key - as occurs in this piece. This cue supports a pivotal moment in the film's falling action, and Williams aptly plays with the sacred and the mysterious, the majestic and the foreboding. An effective underscore cue will indeed play to all sorts of emotions in an organized manner: thoughtfully complementing the natural ebb and flow of cinematography, dialogue, and sound.

"The Penitent Man Will Pass" ends with an exceptional drone against chordal planing, and later invites the ear to enjoy a flute-trill texture in chordal succession. The latter brings the audience totally away from the scene into a place of resolve, and as such it transports the audience "back to the ordered world" so the plot's final resolution can at last be realized.

© 2024 Kristin Simpson Music


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