Music Composed and Conducted by: John Williams
Movie Genre: Drama, War
Movie & Soundtrack Release: 2013
Label: Sony Classical
“Just by listening to John Williams’ score,
you’ll realize where the film’s core lays.
You’ll be able to feel his magical touch
while the music interacts with the moving image.
It’s all about feelings, and that’s strikingly apparent
from every single note John Williams puts to paper.”
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, a little girl named Liesel is given for adoption to a poor family in Germany. Fairly soon, a young man appears in her home. A German Jew with a deteriorating health, named Max, is hidden in the basement. It is a time where persecutions against Jews are multiplying. Liesel is learning to read and write, so reading to Max appears to be a great exercise for her. And hopefully she will succeed in giving comfort to him, while he’s battling to overcome his illness, as he is constantly lying in bed. How on earth is she going to read books to him though, when none of them are available in the house? She is going to steal them! Well, borrow them, to be exact. From where? Of all places, the large library at the mayor’s house.
The Book Thief, based on Marcus Zusak’s titular novel, tells the tender story of Liesel, who tries to break into the magical world of books, as an attempt to escape the cruelty of the war in her everyday life. When composer John Williams found out that his beloved book was expected to be filmed, he offered his scoring services to the film’s director. Truth be told, he didn’t have to try hard to convince him. Brian Percival was thrilled to have John Williams composing the score of The Book Thief. How could he not, since the composer won his last Oscar, also for a second world war film. An absolute masterpiece, “Schindler’s List” (1993). During his long and fertile career in film music, John Williams asked to write a film score only twice: “Memoirs Of a Geisha” (2005) & “The Book Thief” (2014). Both for the exact same reason: he had read the books and simply adored them! That is enough of a reason for a composer to seek out the opportunity to be a member of the production team. And what a vital one he has become!
Since 2005 and up to 2013, John Williams has written music for only one director, Steven Spielberg. Brian Percival would be the one to break their exclusive collaboration after eight years! Ηowever, it wasn’t announced beforehand as it typically happens. In fact, the news that John Williams was the composer of the The Book Thief came rather late in the process of the film’s post production. Just days before the recording of the music. Until then, it was a well-guarded secret.
“One Small Fact” (#1) is the starting point of the film’s music. A gentle piano is the first instrument that is heard and indicates the composer’s approach: the story is unfolding through Liesel’s eyes, so the nature of the score has to be defined by tenderness, innocence and playfulness. Which is the ideal instrument to express the feelings of a little girl? None other than the piano. Additionally, the most prominent feature of the music is its ability to work as a lyrical escape that takes us out of the reality the characters of the story live in. The soundtrack of “The Book Thief” has none of the soul-stirring drama of “Schindler’s List” (1993), nor the moving choral majesty of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), two of the other second world war films that were scored by John Williams. The Book Thief required a different emotional reading, far enough from the heavy drama surrounding the Second World War.
There is a small number of melodies, which are repeated throughout the score, all of them rather emotional and beautiful, yet not connected with certain characters or situations. One melody, or in fact a motif, that is evidently used to pinpoint a specific situation concerning a specific character of the film, appears at 1:12 in “One Small Fact” (#1): a piano motif that is performed every time Liesel interacts with one or more books. It functions like a smooth code, heard every time she is drawn to the magical world of the books. Tracks “Ilsa’s Library” (#4) & “Learning to Read” (#6) are two further examples of this piano motif, where Liesel’s special bonding with the books emerges. On the former, Liesel is in front of a library for the first time and on the latter, she is learning to read with her stepfather’s help.
While the special connection that Liesel has developed with the books is covered by the music, there are aspects of the story that are absent from the score. Young Max is a Jew and that’s the reason he is hiding from the Nazi. Τherefore, the “Jew” element of the film is extended enough to be considered part of the composer’s approach. Nevertheless, it is nowhere to be found in the score. And rightfully so, since Williams features Liesel as the center of his musical approach. Having said that, covering the activities of her everyday life is, of course, part of the composer’s way of thinking: “The Snow Fight” (#5) is a lighthearted and humorous piece of music regarding a snowball fight and “Foot Race” (#12) is a carefree and whimsical piece concerning a foot race between Liesel and her dear friend Rudy. Both the aforementioned tracks are a brief and welcome respite from the war’s distress.
Nearly the first half of the “Book Burning” (#7) is unused in the film. As the title suggests, it’s about the scene of the public book burning. After no one is left to the spot, Liesel still remains with the desire to take home a nearly unburnt book. She hides it inside her coat, but, she was seen from Ilsa, the mayor’s wife. Now, Ilsa is aware of Liesel’s books’ affection. At 1:55 in “Book Burning” (#7), strings are performing a repeated agitated motif signaling a possible threat. What if Ilsa encounters the girl at some point and recognizes her? What will happen then?
There are numerous scenes where the music captures the desired feeling with such delicate, yet profound, way. For example, listen to “The Train Station” (#10). The music is dedicated to a parting. Liesel’s beloved stepfather is enlisted, and just before his departure, they are on the train platform talking to each other. Liesel is full of sorrow. This scene is the perfect synchronization of three different elements: the train’s departure and increasing speed, Liesel’s growing heartache and the music’s escalated development.
From that point on, sadness and tears are more dominant than ever before: the tracks “The Visitor at Himmel Street” (#13), “Rudy is Taken” (#20) & “Finale” (#21) are the accompaniment of the three most sorrowful scenes of the film, leading to the end credits. During these scenes, John Williams doesn’t have to push the viewers’ emotions to the extreme, because up to that point, they have already succumbed to the composer’s music mechanism. Undoubtedly, while we are dealing with highly emotional music, it doesn’t extend to an overwhelming point. It steps away from grand orchestral gestures, in a lyrical, warm and affectionate way.
In particular, the track “Finale” (#21) concludes the film in perfect style. The piano is the very last instrument heard prior to the end credits, as it was the very first at the beginning of the film. But now, it has a special purpose’ it waves goodbye by rendering the music immensely melancholic and slightly sorrowful. Such a delicate composition, amazingly beautiful and utterly captivating. Just by listening to John Williams’ score, you’ll realize where the film’s core lays. You’ll be able to feel his magical touch while the music interacts with the moving image. It’s all about feelings, and that’s strikingly apparent from every single note John Williams puts to paper. Regardless of how restraint or imposing, the power of his orchestral music makes an indelible contribution to every film he touches.
01. “One Small Fact” (1:46)
02. The Journey to Himmel Street (1:48)
03. New Parents and a New Home (1:33)
04. Ilsa’s Library (2:21)
05. The Snow Fight (1:01)
06. Learning to Read (2:48)
07. Book Burning (2:52)
08. “I Hate Hitler!” (2:06)
09. Max and Liesel (1:11)
10. The Train Station (2:16)
11. Revealing the Secret (4:11)
12. Foot Race (1:20)
13. The Visitor at Himmel Street (2:02)
14. Learning to Write (2:07)
15. The Departure of Max (2:32)
16. “Jellyfish” (2:08)
17. Rescuing the Book (1:55)
18. Writing to Mama (2:42)
19. Max Lives (1:31)
20. Rudy is Taken (2:00)
21. Finale (2:48)
22. The Book Thief (7:05)
Total Time: 51:58
The tracks that stand out are noted with bold letters