Quick Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Music composed by John Williams
Music conducted by John Williams
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage, 20th Century Fox
Album time: 53 minutes
Available on Sony Classical

Returning to the screen after scoring 2012's Lincoln, the announcement of John Williams scoring The Book Thief came as a surprise to many. It is also notable that this film is Williams' first non-Spielberg or Lucas film since Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), another film in which he personally sought out scoring. This film isn't really a departure from material Williams has worked on before - a World War II set story, and based on a novel (albeit young adult). One listen and you will instantly recognize some of the composer's idioms, which in this case certainly aren't a bad thing.

Here's my track-by-track rundown, spoiler warning for track titles only.

The album opens with "One Small Fact", starting right off with a melancholic piano solo. As the strings pulse underneath, woodwinds begin their first rendition of the main theme. The strings respond back and forth a bit, with the piano included as well.  The Journey to Himmel Street begins with an plaintive oboe solo, before the piano taking over with a scale-like motif.  New Parents and a New Home is a bit more tender and warm. The same scale-like motif in piano appears in Ilsa's Library (fitting with the main character Liesel's love of books), before another appearance of the main theme with a lighter orchestration. [I'll call that motif the reading motif for this rundown.]

The Snow Fight is a scherzo similar to those found in his Harry Potter scores, The Terminal, and The Adventures of Tintin. Phrases pass between instruments - woodwinds, strings and celeste. Learning to Read begins with the bare harp solo before shifting to a lush reprise of the main theme and reading motif. An solo oboe takes over with interjections from the strings, until they arrive with harp utilizing the melody heard from the oboe earlier. Book Burning uses a bit more close dissonance in the strings to give a sense of dread and suspense with a repeating chord.

"I Hate Hitler!" begins with a simple-sounding harp solo, but the real beauty appears as the solo clarinet enters and other instruments unfold. This track is one that shows off the deceptively simple and stark approach to scoring the film.  Max and Liesel begins with a lovely new melody presented by the oboe, showing another sweeter moment of the score. The Train Station is full of gentle string writing, allowing them to to crescendo with a splash of percussion and supporting woodwinds before coming back down.

Revealing the Secret is one of the lengthier tracks on the album, with an opening similar to the lilting rhythms heard earlier. A solo clarinet and flute have moments in a more mysterious section, still melancholic even as the orchestra crescendos.  Foot Race is another brief scherzo, and the sweet ending is a welcome change to the pace of the album.

The Visitor at Himmel Street begins with an oboe taking over the theme first heard in "One Small Fact", eventually adding strings and harp. A stand-out track. Learning to Write starts off with a cello solo, before the main theme gets another sweeping rendition. Departure of Max is a tender track, featuring the theme for Max and Liesel (heard earlier in that track). The theme is transferred to piano as well.

"Jellyfish" features more of the reading motif, before a return of the main theme on harp, another sweet moment of the album. Rescuing the Book begins with a repetitive string pattern, giving the music momentum as melodies soar over.  Writing to Mama begins with a magical sounding opening section and a return to the main theme.

Max Lives is another highlight of the album. The brief clarinet moment in the middle really shines as it reprises the theme for Max and Liesel, without getting too sappy.  Rudy is Taken is the flip side of the previous track, a somber and dark track that could easily fit into Munich (2005). Finale begins with Max and Liesel's theme, before the piano and harp share a beautiful moment, moving and sweet before ending with an optimistic tone. The longest track is The Book Thief, a suite of themes with more room to expand. The themes benefit from the expansion and different orchestration, letting each have more time to shine.

The film score really touches upon many emotions, never lingering on one for too long. I give credit to Williams for the understated scoring style for this film. It is more intimate that some of his recent scores, with no broad strokes or large sweeping moments (like War Horse). The stark and tender solos really bring the score to life. It wouldn't be fair to not acknowledge the solos led by Jessica Pearlman (oboe), Don Foster (clarinet) and Randy Kerber (piano). 

 The main theme has many resemblances to past works, mainly Angela's Ashes (1999) and Jane Eyre (1970) and several Williams-isms a throughout the score. He really tells a story in the music, something John Williams has always been a master at. Don't listen to the score if you're looking for the bombastic Star Wars moments, but if you're looking for an intimate, emotional underscore with lovely theme transformations - this is the score for you.

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