“John Williams does it again” is a phrase a lot of people are used to hearing. And, well, Johnny has done it again, delivering his first non-Spielberg score in nearly a decade with THE BOOK THIEF. An adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel, it’s set in Nazi Germany and tells the story of a young girl’s relationship with her foster parents and a Jewish man who is hiding in their house as World War II begins.
I guess there are certain preconceptions that you have when you have a score by someone with the stature of John Williams in front of you. When you have someone that has permeated the medium of film music so definitively as he, it’s hard to try and get scores like JURASSIC PARK or JAWS or STAR WARS or even WAR HORSE out of your head. And considering I had no idea of what the story was about before listening, I had no clue if it was going to be full of massive themes and leitmotifed to the hilt or composed solely for duduk.
THE BOOK THIEF starts immediately as it means to go on, with an intimate rendition of the main theme on delicate piano that moves to a short burst of strings with an emotional yet reflective feel. The intimacy is a strong part of the score and a marker for its tone, it’s almost subdued, especially for Williams, and indicates a perhaps smaller scale than many are used to from the composer. Don’t get me wrong, this is not minimalistic in any way, but considering there is a skewed view of Williams that he only composes this one type of bombastic blockbuster score, some of the music in the score may challenge some expectations.
Saying that, the score has Williams’ hallmarks stamped all over it. There are a lot of instances of solo instruments either carrying a cue or introducing one, such as the woodwinds in ‘The Journey To Himmel Street’ and ‘The Visitor at Himmel Street’ (I’m assuming creating a motif for the neighbourhood) and the sparse piano of ‘I Hate Hitler!’. ‘The Train Station’ is an example of pulling back slightly from the John Williams we expect, with some quite lovely strings swelling emotionally, but ending with a darker, subdued edge.
But there are some lively moments in the score that open up to more of the Williams we expect. ‘The Snow Fight’ is a lively piece propelled by lovely jaunty and flighty strings that reminded me of a faster version of ‘The Magic of Halloween’ from E.T. or ‘The Menu’ from JAWS 2. ‘Foot Race’ is similar, a scherzo with some wonderfully swirling strings that gives a sense of quirky – albeit brief – fun to the score. Tension comes from ‘Burning The Books’, where high strings and low piano combine to provide a sense of shadowy danger.
But the highlights of the album (as usual with John) come from the emotional moments. As you might imagine there are some wonderful string pieces and these really are Williams’ trademarks, such as the sparse piano that segues to a sweeping rendition of the main theme in ‘Learning To Read’, which is reflected in ‘Learning To Write’, which begins with violin which then moves into a wonderfully emotional section. He has such a grasp of narrative writing where he creates moments that have payoffs further down the line, and it makes for such an entertaining listen.
The piano work on the score really is incredible, from both a compositional and performance viewpoint. ‘Jellyfish’ is a great example of Williams kind of showing off really, and ‘Writing To Mama’ has an ethereal feel where the piano has a romantic, twinkling kind of effect. These are followed by ’19’ which has a wonderfully warm string motif that’s just beautiful and ‘Rudy Is Taken’, a dramatic piece which feels quite emotionally straining and is maybe one of the most Williamsy cues on there, leading to ‘Finale’.
A fittingly tender and beautiful track, it begins with solo woodwind before making a segue into reflective strings and a simply sublime solo piano with subtle strings behind it. The piano continues into the ‘The Book Thief’, which in typical fashion provides a musical summary of the score and this presumably is the end credits suite.
It may be easy for some to listen to THE BOOK THIEF and say they’ve heard it all before. But to me, it’s a score that is enriched with each listen. I’ll be perfectly honest, on the first listen I wasn’t really sure what I thought, but I listened a couple more times and it opened up to me in a deeper way than any of his recent work. So that would be my first advice with this score: give it a couple of tries.
What comes across overwhelmingly in John Williams’ score is a sense of reflection. He doesn’t have to prove himself in the slightest so he’s free to go wherever he wants, and what we have is a score that at a glance may seem like “Williams on autopilot” as some put it, but with a closer look is not only greatly rewarding but also an example of how effortlessly he is able to write great music. THE BOOK THIEF doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but really, does it need to?
THE BOOK THIEF is released by Sony Classical on November 11th.
Words: Charlie Brigden