Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Music composed and conducted by John Williams
A Review by Mikko Ojala

The Book Thief – the newest addition to the filmography of John Williams – is notable not only as the only film project slated for him in 2013, but also for the fact that it is the first non-Steven Spielberg project he has composed for since 2005. The announcement that the famed composer was attached to the film came quite late in the game and took the film music fandom by surprise, and generated an increased buzz of excitement for the upcoming score – especially when the film was slated for an earlier than anticipated release by the studio.

The composer had been very moved and impressed by the novel The Book Thief by the young Australian author Markus Zusak, and much like in 2005 with Memoirs of a Geisha, this literary inspiration again lead Williams into a scoring assignment. In a recent interview the composer himself mentioned that when it was announced that there would be a motion picture adaptation of the novel, he in a rare move actively sought the assignment and offered his services to the director Brian Percival. After a meeting in which Williams says he and Percival hit it off almost immediately and appeared to be on the same wave length from the start on how to approach the film and its story, the composer was signed to score the movie.

The story of the novel and the film is set in Germany before and during the 2nd World War and follows the life of a young girl Liesel (played by Sophie Nélisse), who is given up for adoption by her mother and sent away to live with a foster family, Mr. and Mrs. Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). She slowly grows fond of her new family and friends, and during this time discovers the world of books after she has been taught to read by his foster father Hans. And it is this love of reading and books that in large part helps her through the horrors of the WWII and the tragedies she has to face. And it is these humane and familial elements that Williams’ score hones in on, focusing on providing gentle support for the unfolding drama but breaking out in a few more dramatic statements where appropriate.

The score for The Book Thief could be said to be archetypical when the composer is concerned and it has to be admitted that Williams offers very little here that is entirely novel, but rather continues to write in his own idiom much as he has done in the past few years in the scores like The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse and Lincoln. Shades of his past dramatic scores, like Angela’s Ashes, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Memoirs of a Geisha, Presumed Innocent, Stepmom and Accidental Tourist waft in and out in stylistic and orchestrational choices but rarely in the actual musical material. The score might be best described musically as meeting an old and welcome friend, and despite the familiar orchestral trappings you can’t deny the sheer emotional pull and quality of Williams’ writing in The Book Thief.

Orchestrations are once again superb, the music finely crafted with that Williams-esque brand of class we have come to expect from his work. For the most part this score is quite small in scope and the chamber sized orchestra consists mainly of the strings, woodwinds and a small brass section. The Book Thief is a very intimate and introspective piece throughout but still remains engaging through the album’s whole running time. As is his wont, Williams employs solo instruments extensively on this soundtrack as well, evoking memories of scores like Angela’s Ashes in this respect, and does it with wonderful emotional resonance that is only enhanced by the fine recording. Piano becomes the undisputed central instrumental sound of the score but oboe, flute, cello and harp are all given significant roles in the music, the fine studio musicians delivering particularly lyrical and emotionally charged performances here. It is a score one should listen intently and with thought as much of its strength lies in subtle musical moments instead of overly melodramatic ones.

The album is full of classic Williams sounds and dramatic gestures that he paints with apparent ease a whole emotional kaleidoscope from the heart wrenching anguish (Rudy Is Taken) to rueful regret and longing (“One Small Fact”, The Journey to Himmel Street, The Train Station), suspense (Book Burning, Stealing the Book), wondrous awe (Ilsa’s Library, Learning to Read, Writing to Mama), whimsy (The Snow Ball Fight, Footrace) and delicate tenderness (“Jellyfish”, The Departure of Max, Finale).  There are a good many highlights on the 52 minute album. The opening track “One Small Fact” sets the tone with a classical tragedy tinged piano solo before unveiling the main theme in an introductory reading for woodwinds and strings. New Parents and a New Home offers a beautiful new optimistic theme for the family of the story on lyrical strings, gently rolling Ilsa’s Library fully introduces the magical cascading piano motif that captures Liesel’s curious fascination with books.

The lighter side of things is represented by The Snow Fight, which returns to the sounds of the 1980’s and 1990’s Williams with a short but rollicking scherzando and Foot Race with its bouncy strings and woodwinds exudes childish exuberance, all quite familiar in style yet delightful all the same. Revealing the Secret, the longest track in the main body of the album offers haunting woodwind solos nestled in part sombre part delicately mysterious orchestral mood. Max and Liesel introduces on oboe yet another new theme full of touching tenderness, and a haunting oboe solo opens The Visitor at Himmel Street which leads to a stunningly luminous string melody simply aching with yearning and wonder at the same time.

Everything culminates emotionally in the final three tracks, opening with the heart aching pathos of the string elegy of Rudy is Taken, which features one of the album’s most dramatic moments and is stylistically reminiscent of Maestro’s past works like JFK, Revenge of the Sith and Nixon, before the understated yet absolutely stunning Finale, where the tragic opening theme of the album finds its peaceful and serene resolution in a tender and supremely lyrical meditation on piano, harp and strings that would melt the hardest of hearts. And finally the album rounds out with a piece titled simply The Book Thief, which in very typical Williams fashion gathers all the major themes of the score into a full length end credits suite where the composer is free to conclude the development of his main ideas in the most satisfying way.

One could say that The Book Thief offers exactly what you would expect, which is a finely crafted, thematically diverse and strongly narrative John Williams film score. For those seeking an entirely new Williams sound with a completely new or extensive reinvention, you are advised to look elsewhere. At 81 the composer might not be prone to entirely change his stripes anymore. But this sense of familiarity is only one part of this equation however and the sheer emotional resonance and compositional skill at work here makes this score a highly enjoyable and a moving experience. While it might not reach the heights of his absolute best work (let’s face it, there are few things that can) to me this score shows that maestro Williams continues to do what he does best, telling vivid, engaging and compelling stories through music and in a musical vocabulary that resonates strongly with me and there are few who can do it with such seemingly effortless ease as he still exhibits here in The Book Thief.