Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > SCHINDLER’S LIST – John Williams

SCHINDLER’S LIST – John Williams

February 18, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The genesis of Schindler’s List lay with holocaust survivor Leopold Pfefferberg, whose tale of Oskar Schindler inspired Thomas Keneally to write his Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler’s Ark, in 1982. It came to pass that studio president Sid Sheinberg saw opportunity in the story and mailed Steven Spielberg a review of the book by the New York Times. Spielberg was deeply moved by the narrative and secured financial backing from Universal Pictures, which purchased the screen rights. Yet the then 37-year-old hesitated and ultimately delayed production ten years as he felt himself too young to take on the pathos of the Holocaust. When the time eventually came to begin production, he tasked Steven Zaillian with writing the screenplay, and the struggled to hire a director, soliciting several including Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese. Ultimately Spielberg took Wilder’s counsel to direct the film himself. For the cast he brought in an outstanding ensemble, which included Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, Ralph Fiennes as Captain Amon Göth, Caroline Goodall as Emilie Schindler, Jonathan Sagalle as Poldek Pfefferberg, and Embeth Davidtz as Helen Hirsch.

The film offers a classic morality play, set in Poland in World War II, which centers on German industrialist Oskar Schindler. He is an ambition driven businessman intent on making his fortune, and so uses bribes to the German Military and SS to curry favor so he can set up an enamelware factory in Krakow, which uses cheap Jewish labor. The business is very profitable and Schindler, who is a member of the Nazi party, enjoys great prestige. All is upended however when SS Captain Amon Göth arrives with orders to build the Płaszów Concentration camp. Upon completion, he orders the Krakow Ghetto to be brutally emptied and the Jews relocated to the camp. A massacre occurs, which horrifies Schindler and causes a spiritual epiphany. Henceforth he resolves to use his wealth, connections and prestige to save the lives of as many Jews as possible. He bribes Göth into allowing the construction of a munitions factory staffed with 850 Jews, which he personally chooses – the renowned “Schindler’s List”. Throughout the remainder of the war he manages, through bribes and guile and misdirection, to protect his workers from death.

With the end of the war, he convinces the SS guards to not murder the camp prisoners, so they could return home to their families as honorable men, not murderers. He is then forced as a Nazi party member to flee imprisonment or worse from the Russians. In gratitude for his efforts, the prisoners give him a signed statement as a testament to his noble role is saving Jewish lives, as well as a ring engraved with the Talmudic quotation; “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” Schindler is overcome, yet also disappointed that he was not able to save more lives. The film ends with the camp’s liberation by the advancing Russian troops and the released prisoners walking home to freedom.

The film was a massive commercial success earning $321 million or nearly 15 times its production cost of $22 million. It also won critical acclaim, securing twelve Academy Award nominations, winning ten, including; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Score. Spielberg’s effort continued to receive praise over the years, earning the honor of being ranked #3 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.

By 1993 the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams was long established and sacrosanct. There was never any doubt that Williams would score the film. After viewing the film for the first time, Williams was profoundly moved and at first declined, informing Spielberg that he deserved a better composer. Spielberg’s reply is now legendary; “I know, but they are all dead.” Williams relates that he was mindful not to go down the path of melodrama, instead choosing to compose music that was “loving and gentle”. He and Spielberg also resolved to use music sparingly, so when it was given voice it would have greater effect. Ultimately only 51 minutes of underscore was written for the three-hour film, and the music does not make an entrance until 17 minutes into the first reel, with most of the score unfolding during the final hour of the film. Williams also made the choice to prominently use a solo violin, the Jewish national instrument, and was ecstatic when his invitation to prodigy Itzhak Perlman was accepted. He would feature a recorder as well as Giora Feidman for solo clarinet.

Williams conceived two primary and two secondary themes to animate his score. The Main Theme reveals his supreme gift of capturing a film’s emotional core. His conception was a Hebraic lullaby and in a masterstroke of conception the unabiding sadness of the Jewish people gain voice, a voice that endures, that will not be silenced, born with a musical eloquence that is breath taking in its lyrical beauty. The theme has a classic ABA construct that is adorned with an opening prelude and closing coda. The long lined A Phrase is full of heart ache, while the B Phrase reveals elegance in conception with flute and contrapuntal violin unleashing a stirring lyrical ascent by solo violin, which brings a quiver, and a tear. The piece is fully romantic in its sensibilities harkening back to 19th century European sensibilities. When given life by Perlman’s virtuoso and peerless violin, Williams achieves the sublime. The Remembrance Theme is kindred to the Main Theme in its sensibilities and harmonic auras. It also offers a classic ABA construct, but one more complex and embellished. At its heart, it is a lamentation, an aching threnody for those who have been lost. Its A Phrase is forthright in its articulation and features violins doloroso with harp adornment emoting a profound sadness. The B Phrase is again more elegant with a stirring confluence of woodwinds, violins and kindred strings. A return to the A Phrase unleashes a more powerful and unabashed emotional statement, revealing an aching heart exposed and lay bare. For the two secondary themes we have the Requiem Theme, which offers a requiem chorale bearing a deep pathos of despair that uses as lyrics the Hebrew text “Im Hayeinu Anu Notim Hayim” (With our lives, we give life). It offers tear eliciting emotive power full of sorrow, yet within its core, dwells a kernel of hope. The other secondary theme, the Workers Theme serves as the collective identity of Schindler’s factory workers as they performed their jobs. It emotes with robust Jewish auras supported by a plodding low register rhythm over which dances Pearlman’s sterling violin.

Lastly, for authenticity Williams infused his soundscape with many traditional pieces including the epic “Exodus” for mixed choir and orchestra by Wojciech Kilar that was used as trailer music in the film, an instrumental arrangement of the song “Szomorú Vasárnap” by Rezső Seress, the famous tango “Por Una Cabeza” by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera, the tango “Celos” also by Gardel, the German schlager “Die Holzauktion” (“Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion”) by Franz Meißner, “Mein Vater War Ein Wandersmann” by Florenz Friedrich Sigismund, “In Einem Kleinen Café in Hernals”, the German marching song “Erika” by Herms Niel, the Polish songs “To Ostatnia Niedziela” and “Miłość Ci Wszystko Wybaczy”, Bach’s “English Suite No. 2”, Wilhelm Strienz’ version of “Gute Nacht Mutter”, “La Capricieuse, Op. 17” by Edward Elgar, and “Mamatschi” performed by German Cabaret singer Mimi Thoma.

The film opens without musical accompaniment. Script informs us that Germany has defeated Poland in less than two weeks and all rural Jews are ordered to register and relocate to the cities. We shift to the house of Oskar Schindler who is dressing for a night on the town. Williams supports the scene using the Hungarian song “Szomorú Vasárnap” by Rezső Seress, carried by solo violin. Known in the vernacular as “Gloomy Sunday”, the music bathes us is sad auras as Schindler completes his preparations and dons a Nazi Party Pin. As he enters the night club, Williams again uses source music to carry his progress, the famous tango “Por Una Cabeza”. The warm Latin rhythms support his seating by the maître d as he scans the room filled with beautiful women. The tango “Celos” sustains the ambiance as Schindler uses his charm and money to gain favor with the local SS officer and his party. As the SS officer gawks at the sight of beautiful women dancing the music shifts to a more Germanic tenor with the German schlager “Die Holzauktion”. We conclude with Schindler singing the song “Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann” with several drunk German officers. None of these source songs are on the album.

A scene shift to the next day reveals German troops marching on the streets of Krakow, empowered by the martial German marching song “Erika”. Later Schindler pitches a business deal to Itzhak Stern to create an enamel ware factory using Jewish invested money, which would be staffed by Jews so as to provide them with wages. He argues that since all Jewish property and businesses have been confiscated, his plan would provide much needed income to the community. Stern leaves the meeting uncommitted, unsure of Schindler’s motives. In a scene shift we see thousands of Jews being herded into a walled ghetto south of the city. Williams introduces his score to support the pathos of the moment with “Theme from Schindler’s List”. For Jews, they understand that their history was written with tears. Williams’ Main Theme carries this pathos of despair upon the many faces we see marching to an uncertain future. The album presentation provides a supreme score highlight, which offers a full exposition of the theme. In the scene the A Phrase supports the march of tears. As we switch scenes to the wealthy Nussbaum family being forced to leave their apartment, the B Phrase supports the visible pain of taking as many of their prized possessions and memorabilia as possible.

As the Nessbaums depart and are taunted by Poles we flow into “Jewish Town (Krakow Ghetto – Winter ’41)”, which supports a multiplicity of scenes. We see a very happy Schindler take possession of the Nussbaum apartment, juxtaposed by the distraught Nussbaums who take possession of their drab semi-private single room. At 1:15 we transition atop violin doloroso to a danza triste as we see various families registering so they may be assigned living quarters. We shift scenes to Schindler negotiating with two wealthy Jews in his car to secure financing for his company. The dance music perfectly supports the ebb and flow of the negotiations, and grows increasingly animated as the deal is consummated and Schindler revels in his bounty of cash. At 2:53 the dance becomes more pronounced and purposeful with woodwinds playing in counterpoint to the violin as Stern tries to recruit workers for the plant, and we see them begin learning how to make pots and pans for the army. The opening and closing soliloquies by an aching solo violin affanato were not used in the film.

In “Schindler’s Workforce” the opening A Phrase of the Main Theme and transition to the B Phrase are not found in the film. We join the film at 1:44 with a full rendering of the Workers Theme as Schindler and Stern plan their hirings. Stern then takes to the streets to recruit and one by one he selects workers, all claiming that they are talented and desirous of a job. Stern goes to great lengths to create illegal papers for some of the workers so they may be hired. We then switch to interiors scenes in the factory where we see the workers taught how to operate the machinery and make pots. This extended film sequence is animated by this rhythmic theme, which emotes with robust Jewish auras supported by a plodding low register cadence over which dances Perlman’s sterling violin. Later as Schindler ‘interviews’ (and leers at) one beautiful secretary after another, the parade of women is supported by “La Capricieuse, Op. 17” by Edward Elgar, performed by Itzhak Perlman and Samuel Sanders.

Schindler and his wife are awkwardly reunited when she arrives at his apartment and discovers his mistress. She overlooks his infidelity and they decide to celebrate their reunion at a local restaurant. A pleasant waltz carries them on the dance floor as he shameless eyes other women. She departs when she realizes that he is self-absorbed, no longer loves her, and will never give up his infidelity. We now come to “Remembrances”, a score highlight of profound emotive power, which graces us with Williams’ second primary theme, the Remembrance Theme. Thousands of Jews have been packed into railway cars that will transport them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. They have been told to mark their luggage, which will be shipped later. As the train departs Schindler orders it stopped and audaciously rescues Stern from certain death. He does so not for altruism, but because he did not want to lose his accountant. After the train finally departs the music enters as we see all the luggage being opened in a warehouse, and their contents catalogued and stored. What unfolds is a lamentation of unbearable sadness as we see hundreds of photos and other memorabilia tossed into piles. The music gains increasing heartache as we come to a huge pile of eye glasses. As a Jewish worker weighs countless wedding rings we build to an aching, unbearable crescendo of pain at 2:46 as an SS officer dumps a bag full of teeth with gold filings in front of Jewish worker. We bear witness to the horrible realization in his eyes as all is revealed to what is happening to his people.

SS Captain Amon Göth arrives with orders to empty the ghetto and transport its occupants to the Płaszów concentration camp. We bear witness to monstrous brutality and evil as soldiers carry out their orders. Music enters late in the scene in ” OYF’N Pripetshok/Nacht Aktion” as we see Schindler on horseback arrive on a bluff overlooking the ghetto and what is unfolding. Williams masterfully creates a brilliant juxtaposition to the carnage by interpolating the 19th century Yiddish song of the alphabet, “OYF’N Pripetshok”. The song is sung by angelic children’s choir and its 4th stanza brings home the unbearable suffering unfolding before our eyes;

“When, children, you will grow older
You will understand
How many tears lie in these letters,
And how much crying.”

It is nightfall, and as the SS search the buildings for those that chose to hide, including a 3-year-old girl in a red coat – a symbol of the world standing by, fully aware as the Shoah unfolded. Williams again provides a masterful juxtaposition as we see a German officer playing Bach’s “English Suite #2” on piano as his men systematically hunt and gun down without mercy all who the find.

In the next three scenes, Williams again brilliantly juxtaposes music and film imagery. As Captain Göth beats Helen in the wine cellar because he was tempted to love her, Schindler celebrates his birthday upstairs. When his workers bring him a cake, he kisses each, raising more than a few Nazi eyebrows. For these scenes he interpolates festive music from the operetta “Giuditta” by Franz Lehar. The next day new prisoners arrive from Hungary. They are ordered to strip and run naked through the camp. Williams supports the humiliation by interpolating the tender song “Gute Nacht Mutter” (Good Night, Mother), performed by Wilhelm Strienz, which plays diegetically on a phonograph through the camp’s loudspeakers as the new inmates are forced to run naked for inspection. Next all the camp children are assembled and directed to board open bed trucks, which will take them to be slaughtered. Williams supports the scene using the soothing song “Mamatschi” performed by German Cabaret singer Mimi Thoma, which plays diegetically on a phonograph through the camp’s loudspeakers as the children board. When the women see their children being taken away, they run to the truck, supported by horrific wailing of terror, which brings tears of heartache. None of these cues are on the album.

“Immolation (With Our Lives, We Give Life)” is an extraordinary score highlight, which is brilliantly conceived and profoundly moving. We bear witness to what is, unimaginable, what is unbearable, as Captain Göth is ordered to incinerate more than 10,000 Jews killed at Płaszów and the Krakow ghetto massacres. In the surrounding downwind town Schindler realizes what is occurring as ash begins to rain down. He journeys to the site to see Jews wheeling thousands of dead bodies for incineration to a massive pyre, including the young girl in the red dress. Williams supports the terrible pathos with a Requiem chorale, which uses the Hebrew text “Im Hayeinu Anu Notim Hayim” (With our lives, we give life). A prelude by strings affanato opens the scene as we see ash being wiped off a car fender by Schindler, and ushers in the tear evoking Requiem of mixed chorus at 2:40, which achieves a crescendo of agony. In a scene change we see Schindler return to his factory, and in a discussion with Stern he admits that it is over, that he has more money than he could spend in a lifetime, and has decided to return to Germany. For the first time Stern accepts his offer to toast as they part ways. A harp bridge ushers in the scene and a transfer of the melody to a tremulous solo flute doloroso and kindred woodwinds, which dissipate in a diminuendo of tears as Schindler and Stern part ways.

Back in his apartment Schindler packs several large suitcases filled with cash, but we see in his eyes that he is troubled. The song “God Bless The Child” sung by Billie Holiday plays as Schindler spends a tortured night awake. We discern that a spiritual epiphany has occurred and he visits Captain Göth to obtain his permission to relocate his plant and resume operations with ‘his’ Jewish workers. Göth believes this to be futile, but acquiesces after receiving a massive payoff bribe offer by Schindler. We change scenes to the factory on “Making the List”, which offers an exquisite score highlight where the Main, Requiem and Remembrance Themes join in a sublime confluence. As Schindler and Stern begin to fashion the list of Jews who will be saved, a mournful prelude by strings dolorosi supports the typewriter’s listing of the names. At 0:53 the A Phrase of the Main Theme joins as Schindler insists that the children must accompany their parents. We build to a writhing crescendo at 1:26 as we see Captain Göth open a suitcase filled with his bribe money. At 2:38 the Requiem returns on woodwinds as the list number reaches 850. It joins with the Main Theme emoted by solo flute and clarinet that transfers to solo oboe, which then joins with the Remembrance Theme as they complete the list. “Give Me Your Names” offers a score highlight with stirring emotive power. It reveals Jews registering to confirm that their names are on the list. Williams supports the scene with a warm, hopeful and sublime joining of the Main and Remembrance Themes, which offers one the film’s most evocative moments as we are graced by Perlman’s peerless violin.

“Auschwitz-Birkenau” offers perhaps the darkest composition in Williams’s canon and a score highlight. We are offered a testament of pain and despair, as we bear witness to the score’s nadir of darkness. All has gone terribly wrong as the train is mistakenly diverted to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. Williams sows’ anguish and sorrow using a soliloquy of despair born by Perlman’s violin affanato. A dark pall of impending death descends as kindred strings and low register orchestral rumbling sow a swelling terror as we see in the many Jewish faces the realization of the horror of their situation as their hair is cut off, and later as they are herded naked into a chamber. As the lights are turned off a crescendo of terror rises, which dissipates as water, and not gas descends from the shower heads. We close mournfully atop Pearlman’s solo violin, which dissipates into nothingness as the Jews prepare for a restful sleep.

On the day Schindler runs out of money Germany surrenders to the allies. He assembles the workers and guards on the factory floor to announce the good news. He states to the Jews that they should not thank him but instead thank themselves for surviving. He then counsels the German guards that they should not carry out their orders to kill the workers so they may go home honorably as men, and not murderers. The guards all leave as their hesitant Commander finally joins them. Schindler knows that he is viewed as a Nazi war criminal by the approaching Russians and must flee. In “I Could Have Done More” as he departs, he is stopped by the workers and presented with a letter of thanks, which they all signed, and a gold ring in which they inscribed a saying from the Talmud; “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” As Schindler confides that he could have done more and begins to weep Williams supports the heartfelt parting with a warm and I believe to be, the score’s most expressive rendering of the Main Theme, a testament of thanks seen in the faces of Stern and his fellow workers. The next day in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” a Soviet officer arrives to declare them liberated. He advises that they go neither east or west, but instead south to the nearest town. As they walk in the fields to an uncertain destiny, the unofficial anthem of Israel “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” or “Jerusalem of Gold” carries their progress. Within the heartfelt words and notes of the song is offered dignity, and hope for the future, reflected in their many faces. As the song continues, we change scenes where we see Amon Göth hung by Soviet troops for crimes against humanity. Script informs us the Schindler failed in his marriage, and several business ventures after the war, yet was declared a righteous person by Israel.

We conclude the film with “Remembrances” where we see the walking survivors transformed into their descendants. One by one in a procession they approach Oskar Schindler’s tomb stone and place a stone on it, which symbolizes the permanence of memory – a testament that they would never forget what he did for them and their posterity. Williams commemorates the moment with a sublime rendering of the Main Theme in all its beauty born by Perlman’s peerless violin, which left your author weeping, overcome by the confluence of music and film imagery. We flow into the End Credits with “Theme From Schindler’s List (Reprise)”, which display over the road of Jewish tombstones used for the camp’s entry road. The film ends with a full rendering of the Main Theme by solo piano tenero played by John Williams himself. We conclude with a transfer of the melodic line to strings tutti, which close solemnly with reverence. Lastly, I was unable to discern a scene in the film for three of the album cues; “Stolen Memories”, “Reflections” and “The Perlman Family”, so I believe them to have been excised. “Stolen Memories”, suggests to me a threnody filled with sadness and regrets. It opens with a plaintive choral supported rendering of the B Phrase of the Main Theme, which ushers in the Remembrance Theme on recorder with strings tenero. At 2:10 the melodic line transfers to strings with harp adornment. We conclude at 3:04 when the Main Theme returns on harp and guitar. This final segment duplicates “The Perlman Family” cue. The “Reflections” cue features a joining of the Remembrance and Main Themes in a heartfelt confluence.

I offer my sincere praise and heartfelt thanks to Mike Matessino, MV Gerhard, Matt Verboys and La La Land Records for this superb 25th anniversary reissue of this John Williams masterpiece. As can be expected, the digital mastering by Matessino is pristine, flawless and perfection itself, providing an excellent listening experience. This effort by the Maestro affirms his supreme gift in scoring a film, and gains him immortality. His two primary themes masterfully brought home the sorrow, suffering and unbearable tragedy of the Shoah. In scene after scene we bear witness to a remarkable synergy of film imagery and score rarely achieved in the cinematic experience, a confluence of such sublime beauty as to elicit a quiver and tears. His immolation scene requiem was perfectly conceived and profound in its application by using as lyrics the Hebrew text “Im Hayeinu Anu Notim Hayim” (With our lives, we give life), which informs us that despite the desolation and unbearable sorrow, that a kernel of hope remains. Folks this is a score for the ages, one of the finest ever written. A score that you feel, and which leaves an indelible mark on your soul. I consider it as one of the Maestro’s finest and a gem of the Bronze Age. I highly recommend you purchase this exemplary album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to his primary Remembrance Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPif8xl_13s

Buy the Schindler’s List soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Schindler’s List (4:14)
  • Jewish Town [Krakow Ghetto–Winter ’41] (4:38)
  • Immolation [With Our Lives, We Give Life] (4:43)
  • Remembrances (4:19)
  • Schindler’s Workforce (10:36)
  • OYF’N Pripetshok/Nacht Aktion (OYF’N Pripetshok written by Mark Warshawsky, performed by The Li-Ron Herzeliya Children’s Choir cond. Ronit Shapira) (3:51)
  • I Could Have Done More (5:52)
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau (3:41)
  • Stolen Memories (4:17)
  • Making the List (5:06)
  • Give Me Your Names (4:56)
  • Yeroushalaim Chel Zahav [Jerusalem of Gold] (written by Naomi Shemer, performed by The Ramat Gan Chamber Choir cond. Hana Tzur) (2:14)
  • Remembrances (5:16)
  • Theme from Schindler’s List [Reprise] (3:57)
  • Schindler’s Workforce (Film Version) (12:10) – 2018 LLL Bonus Track
  • Reflections (2:39) – 2018 LLL Bonus Track
  • Theme for Recorder (2:15) – 2018 LLL Bonus Track
  • Remembrances (Alternate) (4:33) – 2018 LLL Bonus Track
  • The Perlman Family (1:14) – 2018 LLL Bonus Track
  • I Could Have Done More (Film Version) (5:54) – 2018 LLL Bonus Track

Running Time: 64 minutes 30 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 96 minutes 25 seconds (Expanded)

MCA Records MCAD-10969 (1993)
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1485 (1993/2018)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Williams. Featured musical soloists Itzhak Perlman and Giora Feidman. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams. 2018 LLL album produced by Mike Matessino, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

  1. Kjell Neckebroeck
    February 19, 2019 at 9:27 am

    This review of Schindler’s List is yet another entry in a steadily growing series of wonderful in-depth analyses that bring out the subtlest nuances in excellent film music. Many congratulations on an article that is as informative as it is well written.

  1. January 16, 2022 at 9:40 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: