CW & Pop Culture: The Gettysburg Soundtrack

Gettysburg had become an obsession. My first trip there had captured my imagination. At the tender age of five, my parents, with a push primarily from my father, had arranged what became the first of many yearly family trips to the small Pennsylvania town. A toy musket, kepi, and my father’s retelling of those historic events at numerous places across the battlefield kept me wanting to come back year-after-year to further explore and re-fight the battle with those accouterments and my imagination in hand. One trip in the early 1990s, however, was different.

As we drove around the battlefield, taking the National Park Service’s self-guided auto tour, something we did multiple times from start to finish during each trip, we were confused as to why some of the areas of the park were closed. Plus, Gettysburg itself was more busy than usual. Reenactors were everywhere, which for me was great! I now had more soldiers to join my ranks to re-fight this battle. Through talk with other visitors and shop owners my parents discovered that a movie about the battle was being filmed. As a matter of fact, at one particular shop in town, we were perusing keepsakes with none other than Robert E. Lee! The name Martin Sheen meant nothing to me at the time.

Following the release of the movie Gettysburg, and yet another family trip back to those hallowed grounds, my parents picked up the soundtrack to the movie on cassette before leaving town. They had not seen the movie yet, and they didn’t plan on taking such a young kid to see a four hour war movie, but the movie music might be something nice to listen to on the long drive back home.

The scene was set. My father driving with my mother in the passenger seat of our Chevrolet station wagon. My sister in the back seat, leaned back, with her cassette walkman on sleeping off yet another boring (to her at least) family vacation to Gettysburg. I was in the large, farther back of the vehicle, drawing and coloring pictures of soldiers, monuments, and Lincoln. My Britain’s soldiers had numerous battles on streams and rocks drawn on these pieces of paper as well. With our course set for home, the cellophane was ripped open, the cassette removed from its case, and pushed into the radio console in the front. The opening song on the album, “Main Title,” cut through the relatively calm and quiet of the car, save my cavalry charge across the back of the cargo area of the station wagon. I was immediately hooked.

After side one finished, my mom pushed eject, turned it over to side two, and let the album play out. It was a different time for media to say the least. When the soundtrack had finished, I asked to have it played again, from the beginning. My very patient family played it over and over for me all the way home. It was nearly a six hour drive back then.

Although it was meant to be a cassette for the whole family to listen to and enjoy, once we returned home, it practically became mine. It was stored in my room on my cassette spindle tower but was rarely found there. I listened to it all the time. I played it on my walkman while doing everything. When we went anywhere in the station wagon I asked for it to be played, especially when it was on the way to see a reenactment or encampment.

By the end of the decade the tape was worn out, and produced a muted, garbled sound. It was okay, however. My love of history had taken a momentary back seat to girls and garage bands. Before entering college, just two weeks before my first class as a freshmen, my family took a last trip together back to Gettysburg. It had been many years since our last time there as those awkward teen years didn’t include family vacations. Feeling nostalgic, I wanted to listen to that old soundtrack but technology had marched forward and cars didn’t include cassette players any longer. Plus, that old, worn out cassette wouldn’t play anyhow.

At some point during the trip I purchased a new copy of the soundtrack on CD. Not only was my interest in history rekindled, but so too was my love of this soundtrack. The whole ride back home at the end of this trip was once again filled with the music that had accompanied the movie all those years ago.

Over the next couple years as I worked through my undergraduate program in music education I continued to revisit the battlefield at Gettysburg during every break between semesters. Each time, I listened to the soundtrack on the drive there, the drive back and during the countless hours I spent driving around the battlefield. It has remained a staple during visits to other Civil War battlefields and trips with a history focus. As a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service at Gettysburg, I also make sure to play it in the car on my way to and from the park each day on July 1, 2, and 3 each summer.

I am not the only one that has fallen in love with the soundtrack, however. The more I became involved with different circles in the Civil War community the more copies of the soundtrack I found stashed in cars and wedged in car CD players. R. E. Turner, the Vice Chairman of Time Warner in 1998, agreed, writing in the five year anniversary commemorative edition insert, “The score of Gettysburg reflects the drama, intensity and passion of the film. It is one of the most beautiful soundtracks I’ve ever heard.” Randy Edelman, the soundtrack’s composer, disagreed about the immediate following the score received. “It’s not as though there was an immediate response [to the music],” he wrote. “Obviously, there are many people who love this kind of thing, the Civil War setting. But it wasn’t like there was a tumultuous response when the movie came out, or when it first aired on cable for that matter. It was something that just seemed to happen from the viewers’ emotional response to the music, that created this groundswell of ongoing affection for my score.”

One of the strengths of the score, and perhaps one of the reasons why it has received as much attention as it has over the decades, were the numerous compositional themes that Edelman had created. The composer had created an easily identifiable theme for each prominent character or officer in the film. These themes were ever present anytime these characters were on screen. The themes interweave so much into the rest of the compositional fabric that the overall lack of period music in the over three hour film is hardly noticed or missed. Listeners become so enamored with the themes that Randy Edelman composed that upon successive listens, few would notice their absence. Edelman later recalled the reasoning for the absence of nineteenth-century music in his score. “I didn’t have the luxury of time to research the music of the period for Gettysburg,” he noted, so “I let the picture and the tremendous emotion of the characters dictate the music at every turn….I tried to follow each officer thematically through the story, interweaving the colors of each character.”

Outside of Edelamn’s score, however, there were several scenes in which reenactors with period instruments or reproductions of period instruments performed popular airs of the day. With so much interest in the music of the film even a year after the film’s debut, a follow-up recording was released. Titled More Songs from the Movie Gettysburg, this extended release included recordings of those period pieces that had appeared in the film but did not on the original soundtrack. Also included was a recitation of the Gettysburg Address by actor Jeff Daniels who had portrayed Col. Joshua Chamberlain in the film. Punctuating Daniels’ stentorian reading of the address was the “Main Theme” that had been composed by Edelman for the original soundtrack.

Still, diehards of the movie and soundtrack wanted more. In 1998, on the five year anniversary of the film, a deluxe commemorative edition of the soundtrack was released, containing two discs of the score and an insert full of interviews, fun facts and images from the film. This edition did not incorporate the historical pieces that had been added to the follow up release to the original score in 1994, however. Nevertheless, the re-released and expanded score has provided those avid listeners a larger musical story to explore. By the time of the commemorative edition’s release, the popularity of the score had expanded as well.  Writing in the edition’s insert, Turner noted, “As this compilation is being prepared…U.S. Olympic skating team member Todd Eldridge, [is] choreographing his long program in competition to a selection of Randy Edelman’s music from the soundtrack….Eldridge’s choice indicates not only the enduring mark that Ron Maxwell’s film made on the cultural landscape of the ‘90s, but more than that, how deeply the score from this film resonated within the collective consciousness of those who saw the film.”

Five years after the film’s release and the popularity of the soundtrack the composer still could not believe it’s success, writing “The use of the music, apart from the film, is just wonderful and not a little mind-boggling: It closes the Olympics, it opens the Super Bowl, and I recently attended a performance of the score by the Boston Pops. I hope it goes on and on.”

As a classically-trained musician and music educator, I could tell you the nuances of Edelman’s soundtrack. I could walk you through a harmonic analysis of the score, point out the composer’s different uses of cadences at the end of numerous musical phrases, and diagram the many themes, laying out a case for what musical form each piece in score takes. Looking at it through this lens, however, would only strip away the magic that this soundtrack holds for me and so many others. Perhaps it is fitting to just enjoy it, let it do “…what it is supposed to do, which is to set the mood,” and “impart a sense of the era.”

9 Responses to CW & Pop Culture: The Gettysburg Soundtrack

  1. I hit Play when I hit the Caledonia State Park coming in on Rt 30. Helps me focus…except for that Gentlemen’s Club and Elephant store.

  2. Excellent article! Over the last few years, I have been listening to the Gettysburg soundtrack whenever I work on projects in my workshop. I find the music helps awaken my creative side, especially when working on Civil War related projects!

  3. This is one of my all time favorite soundtracks! The music is so stirring and beautiful. Do you know why it is no longer available in iTunes and Amazon Music? I rejoined Amazon with the purpose of listening to this album again but it is no longer available.

    1. Hi Elizabeth. Great question! Sometimes the purchase agreements expire between the owners of the copyright and music and retailers like iTunes and Amazon. Sometimes in physical recordings like CDs or cassettes, etc. they go out of print and are not available again in the new market until they are reprinted. I’m not sure in this particular case but it doesn’t hurt to send in your concern via their contact information and ask for it to be brought back!

  4. I reckon I’ll be viewed as the proverbial “wrench in the works”, but oh well. I agree that the music itself is quite gorgeous. As a ‘stand alone’, it is fine. However, while listening to it as it was mixed into the movie itself, it drove me nuts. To me, it took away from the sheer horror that was manifesting itself on the battlefield(s) there. The ‘choirly orchestras’ present in most scenes detracted from the drudgery that comprises much of soldering. It deflected from the fact that they were MEN thrust into a terrible situation, not ‘gods’ or heavenly transplants to Earth here engaging in ‘God’s works’.

    It reminds me of some of Sergio Leone’s movies. I remember watching his film “Once Upon A Time In The West”. It uses classical music to try to add a certain ‘surrealistic effect’ to the proceedings, and that allowed certain scenes to be extended so that such effects could be maximized. Evidently the critics of the time loved it. To me it’s a gimmick that took away from scenes that should have been able to define themselves. Anyways, that’s just me. Silly me..

    1. Both uses of the soundtracks mentioned are two of my favorites. Both movies would not be the same without them.

  5. In preparation for a fifth visit to Gettysburg this coming week, I rewatched the film in its extended version. Again, I was totally mesmerized by the music and still do not understand how the soundtrack was not even nominated for an Oscar. Having been an instructor at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth where we included “Killer Angles” in our curriculum, I was already hooked on the study of that historical battle. To me, the movie soundtrack only reinforced the significance of that awful, yet, critical event.

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