Alan Menken: Farewell from Pocahontas

Context

After some great musical successes in the 1980s, Walt Disney Studios hired Alan Menken to write the music for the 1989 film The Little Mermaid. The film signalled a renaissance for Disney animated films, and Menken played a big role in that. Menken has worked on the scores for films such as Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Aladdin, with his ongoing relationship with Disney still going strong. 

For many of his film scores for Disney, Menken has been nominated and won numerous awards. Menken collaborated with Stephen Schwartz for the 1995 film Pocahontas, with the score winning two Oscars for ‘Best Musical Score’ and ‘Best Song’. The score for Pocahontas was one of the largest and most complex scores written for a Disney animated film. After the death of long-time collaborator Howard Ash, Stephen Schwartz stepped in as lyricist, with Menken commenting that:

 

“I just really felt that he and I would be able to find a voice that was unique to the two of us together, and we did.”

 

The soundtrack incorporates a brilliant mix of theater, classical and folk music to create this colourful score. The film features hit songs such as Colours of the Wind, Just Around the Riverbend and Steady as the Beating Drum. 

 

The Music

Farewell is one of the last pieces of underscore you hear in the film. The music accompanies Pocahontas and John Smith saying their final farewell as he is taken back to England to receive medical help. The piece starts with a horn theme which is accompanied by a low drone. Like much of the film there is an air of mystery throughout, and what Menken does is he features some of the famous melodies from across the score. Remnants of Colours of the Wind and Steady as the Beating Drum can be heard in the first minute of Farewell. 

Rich sonorous strings play through memorable melodies from the film, as the characters on screen say their emotional goodbyes. To heighten the emotion, Menken uses the top range of the violins paired with the sparkling sound of the celeste, which adds a drop of magic to the score. As the music begins to rally into the first small climax of the piece, the quick rush of sound is soon taken back into a flute and cor anglais solo. 

The strings begin to gush with their elongated melody, with the horns making their grand entrance that adds intensity to the music. As John Smith’s boat heads out to water, Pocahontas runs up to the iconic cliff that she is seen on near the start of the film. The tempo gains traction which emulates her running through the forest to the cliff. The intensity is so high at this point and it explodes with glorious colour once she hits the top of the cliff. As she watches the boat sail off into the distance, an explosion of colourful leaves fly over to John Smith, showing that Pocahontas is still with him, wherever he goes. 

Menken goes full out for this climax as he brings in a choir to sing the melody of Colours of the Wind, as Pocahontas’ spirit reaches out. Menken’s rich orchestrations pull on your heartstrings, whilst also staying true to the music of the film. The whole film culminates in this climax and it really is truly unforgettable. 

 

Final Thoughts

The award-winning 1995 film Pocahontas remains one of Menken’s most-loved scores. From memorable songs to emotionally-driven underscoring, the music is a testament to the Disney Renaissance. 

 

This blog is dedicated to Paula Burns.

 

Happy Reading!

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