Focusing on the lives of people in four small towns during World War II, Ken Burns's seven-hour epic The War brings the reality of war home on a personal, intensely human level in way no other filmmaker has done since the multiple-Oscar-winning 1946 classic, The Best Years of Our Lives. This is not war romanticized; it's war up close, brutal, bloody, and horrific, and the memories of how it was remain searing and vivid to the veterans and their loved ones. The music Burns has chosen for The War thus reflects both the hopes and the melancholy of those years, sometimes all in the course of one song, as on Norah Jones's somber piano-and-vocal reading of the film's theme song "American Anthem." Comparable in effect to the poignant "Ashokan Farewell" theme of Burns's Civil War project, it is repeated at the end of the soundtrack as a haunting instrumental for piano and cello by Bill Charlap and Amanda Forsyth, respectively, who render it with touching sensitivity to the nuanced tenor of Jones's vocal and to the series' overall mood. The War soundtrack album is a concise, 17-song sampler of the music heard over the course of seven hours of film, including original performances by contemporary artists such as Jones, Forsyth and Charlap, classical violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, and Wynton Marsalis, who contributed some original compositions, including the introspective piano-and-cello instrumental "America My Home" (featuring Forsyth and Charlap in another star turn). These recordings complement the indelible hits from the war years, which here include Kay Starr's buoyant "If I Could Be with You," the King Cole Trio's smooth workout on a V-disc recording of "If You Can't Smile and Say Yes," and tracks from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Bolstering the effect of all this timeless pop are classical performances by Yo-Yo Ma and by Leonard Slatkin conducting the London Philharmonic in William Walton's brooding "The Death of Falstaff."
In addition to the soundtrack, the box set boasts three "inspired-by" discs, which include some of the music found in the film and are thematic in nature. Sentimental Journey: Hits from the Second World War is an orchestra-heavy compilation of vocals and instrumentals that pretty much touches all the right bases -- Benny Goodman with a swinging treatment of "We'll Meet Again," Artie Shaw's luscious take on "Dancing in the Dark," plus Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Coleman Hawkins, Duke, Cab Calloway, Satchmo (his enduring, bluesy treatment of "Memories of You," featuring one of Louis's most seductive vocals), and others. In addition to Armstrong's, vocal highlights include the young Frank Sinatra's sensitive, romantic reading of "Let's Get Lost" and his masterful, dramatic rendition of "Long Ago and Far Away" (which is preceded by Sinatra's spoken introduction identifying himself as "the hoodlum from Hoboken") and the Mills Brothers' sweetly swinging blues-tinged pop classic "Paper Doll." The one legitimate flaw is the virtual absence of the great female vocalists of the era, who certainly left their mark on our boys overseas but, apart from Kay Starr, are unrepresented here.
There's no subtlety about I'm Beginning to See the Light: Dance Hits from the Second World War. It's about getting bodies in motion and is a sheer delight from the get-go. Opening with Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra's shuffling "C Jam Blues" (which features a most unexpected outburst of country fiddle less than a minute in), the disc goes on to chronicle an astonishing variety of music that fell under the rubric of Big Band -- from the jubilant "In the Mood" courtesy Glenn Miller & Hs Orchestra; to the country swing of Al Dexter's signature tune, "Pistol Packin' Mama" to the loping grace of Erskine Hawkins's "Tuxedo Junction." Artie Shaw's great orchestra of the time is understandably represented twice, with the lush, jittery arrangement of "Frenesi" that features terrific clarinet soloing from Shaw over a lovely string arrangement, and a lighter-than-air string passage buttressing Shaw's keening clarinet soloing on "I'm Confessin'." And it's heartening to see Jimmie Lunceford and Charlie Barnett and their orchestras included, as they boasted two of the hottest lineups of the day but usually lose out to the household names when these sort of retrospectives are assembled.
It's no surprise that Songs Without Words: Classical Music from the War is the most ruminative of the four discs in the box set. In the documentary, these works tend to be heard at the most heart-wrenching or reflective moments: Yo-Yo Ma has such moments himself in his anguished soloing in Dvorak's "Cello Concerto in B Minor," the fevered pulse of his bowing mirroring the soul-deadening onscreen horror. Suitably, that most American of composers, Aaron Copland, is here twice: His first appearance is with Benny Goodman and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on a solemn original composition, "Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano," a 16-minute-plus work that opens up into a stirring, soaring celebration of hope after its dour theme-setting stanza, then returns to a more ominous mood. It's a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from abject fear to unbridled optimism and back, and a more appropriate musical evocation of the war years could hardly be summoned. His other composition here, "Grovers Corners" from Our Town, with the New Philharmonic Orchestra, comes in at a slight 3:12 and sounds like the first tentative breaking of a new day, full of hope in a strings-and-woodwinds passage of exquisite, fragile beauty. Works by Ligeti, Fauré, Liszt, and Messiaen ("Quartet for the End of Time") sound a doom-laden note, but the Mendelssohn composition that gives this disc its title, "Songs Without Words," is a marvelous, nuanced duet performed by Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax that balances light and dark emotions. Like the other three discs in the box set, this one works well as a self-contained entity, free of any context but that of the music itself, but those who see Burns's film will never hear these works in quite the same way again -- just as those who see The War may come away with a whole new perspective on the human toll these conflicts take. Even in the "good war," it's an awful price to pay.