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The Book Thief (John Williams)

December 14, 2013

Cover_bookthiefTHE BOOK THIEF

John Williams, 2013, Sony Classical
22 tracks, 52.03

It was a wonderful surprise when John Williams was announced as the composer for “The Book Thief”. And whilst the music itself it not exactly surprising, it most certainly is wonderful.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Directed by Brian Percival (notably known from the hit TV series “Downton Abbey”), “The Book Thief” tells the story of little girl Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) who, during the second World War, steals books to share them with the people around her. Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush also star in this war-time drama. The original score is by none other than John Williams for whom this is, almost famously, his first non-Spielberg related assignment in a decade.

What does it sound like?

I’ve always enjoyed the quieter John Williams, though I must admit that last year’s “Lincoln” was a little too sober, even for me. “The Book Thief” is a beautiful little score. One that is unmistakably Williams. Even if the opening piano melody leaves any doubt (though only Williams and maybe Gabriel Yared write melodies like this anymore), as soon as the strings and woodwinds take over we are firmly in familiar territory. Instantly, and throughout the score, there are little characteristics reminiscent of “Angela’s Ashes”, “Seven Years in Tibet” and the intimate moments of “A.I”.

Opening track “One Small Fact” introduces two themes: a whimsical one for piano (which gets an instant reprise in the second track), its quick notes perhaps indicative of young Liesel running around; and an almost song-like one for various woodwinds, rather akin to “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”. Piano and strings dominate the score, though there are numerous solo moments for oboe, clarinet and cello. There is none of the bombast or adventure of a “Harry Potter”, nor is it quite as oppressing as “Schindler’s List” despite its war-time setting. The score is at its most joyous with “The Snow Fight” and “Foot Race”, both being typical Williams scherzos for strings and woodwinds.

“Learning to Read” offers a see-sawing string motif that is heard a number of times throughout the album (in “New Parents…” earlier and “Revealing the Secret” for example) , and that reminds me somewhat of “Interview with the Vampire”, Elliot Goldenthal’s darkly romantic score. At other times I can’t help but think of “The English Patient” by Gabriel Yared. It just goes to show that this kind of music is hardly written anymore these days. And it’s all the more welcome for it!

“The Departure of Max” opens with heartfelt strings, continues with an oboe taking centre-stage before making way for a beautiful piano melody. Fast-paced strings lend a sense of urgency to “Rescue the Book”; whilst “Rudy is Taken” is marked by densely layered strings. The album closes with a 7-minute suite which beautifully encapsulates the score’s themes.

Is it any good?

For Williams to take on this project means he must have really believed in it. And that shines through in his music. It is an elegant, intimate score written in a style that is quintessential (and almost exclusively these days) Williams. As such “The Book Thief” offers no surprises, but instead offers heartfelt beauty in abundance. Its coherency is also noteworthy, with the numerous themes seemingly derived from one an other. Those who enjoyed “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Angela’s Ashes” and the likes will find a wonderful addition to their library. Whilst it’s a 2013 highlight, I believe the ‘safe’ nature of the music will render it unremarkable in the long run. Nonetheless, a classy alternative to the scattered ‘punk’ mind-set that dominates modern filmscoring.

Rating [3,5/5]


1. One Small Fact (1:46)
2. The Journey to Himmel Street (1:48)
3. New Parents and a New Home (1:33)
4. Ilsa’s Library (2:21)
5. The Snow Fight (1:01)
6. Learning to Read (2:48)
7. Book Burning (2:52)
8. I Hate Hitler! (2:06)
9. 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)

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