Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s affinity with family and adventure movies, a lot of John Williams’ scores are remembered for their bold, joyous melodies, magical glissandos and fat brassy statements that speak of worlds better than this one. In Schindler’s List, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Of course, not only does the movie deal with less family-orientated subject matter, but it is based on historically true events. And as a result, Williams shocked the world with a very “real” and melancholy score whose only connection with the theme tunes of Indiana Jones and E.T. was its emotional intensity (albeit emotions of a very different kind).
I find Schindler to be, along with Jaws, perhaps the composer’s greatest achievement, one that stands out amongst so many memorable scores despite lacking any of those catchy hooks. You can still tell it’s John Williams because of the way it sweeps you away so effortlessly, not to another world, but into the depths of history and the terrors of the Holocaust.
The main theme is carried by a solemn cello, with simple harp and woodwind counter-melodies. It grows more dynamic though, with a violin taking over and almost screaming with its vibrato. The piece, like others in the film, seems to be a warm blend of Baroque era dance and something akin to Parisian folk music, instrumentated with the thick ‘Old Hollywood’ instrumentation that John Williams re-popularised.
That chilling melody returns many times throughout the movie, so you’d have to be a robot not to survive the whole running time without reaching for those tissues. Meanwhile, ‘Jewish’, ‘Workforce’ and other cuts continue the use of solo string members, often recalling snippets of each other’s melodies. Williams’ use of character motifs is less noticeable in Schindler’s List than in other films, although Schindler himself seems to have a theme, as does the little girl with the red coat.
What is more apparent is the differences between the Jewish and Nazi passages. Both are dark, fearful even, but there is a complete lack of hope coming across in the former. Melodies are resolved, but in sad, uneventful way, and the music never develops beyond one idea. At times, the solo violin seems to have self-consciously given up. The effect is extremely moving.
‘Making the List’ is the first piece in the soundtrack to contain an element of hope, but it retains the fear of the preceding music. The only way it can bring in the more pleasant melodies is to keep them detached from the majority. Williams takes the urgency up a notch by bringing in the full orchestra after a period of smaller ensembles, and from then on the mood of the score switches from a general melancholy to the realised difficulty of getting all the Jews on the list to safety.
These kinds of moments are what makes this music more than the one-dimensional string of depressing themes it might first appear to be. This is a colder than usual score from Mr Williams, for obvious reasons, but it packs a lot of warmth in too. With Spielberg’s visuals, it makes for one of the most compellingly sad movie experiences ever made. It really has to be listened to, words can’t do it justice.