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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Intrada / 52m

Much of the power of John Boyne’s wonderful book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – a child’s eye view of the holocaust – comes because the reader is discovering the true horrors of the situation in line with Bruno, the young son of a German officer. Over time we discover that the officer is in fact the commandant of Auschwitz, and the “boy in the striped pyjamas” that Bruno befriends is of course destined for the most evil of fates. Mark Herman’s film can never reach the same level of power because the situation is explicit from the start – but is still a moving experience, particularly the devastating ending.

James Horner lobbied to work on the film, having loved the book so much. His touching score hits just the right tone, starting with all the joy and innocence of the 8-year-old Bruno before later moving to reflect the total lack of innocence of his 8-year-old friend Shmuel and the total horror of the film’s conclusion.

James Horner

The score’s main theme is light and lovely, heard in full in the opening “Boys Playing Airplanes”. It was previously heard in Horner’s score for Swing Kids (a film also set in Nazi Germany), an interesting example of what he saw as his musical “tapestry” where he liked to link different projects together even when they came decades apart; it sounds like it’s almost certainly a classical piece (quite Mozart-like, I’ve always thought) but no amount of Googling has managed to reveal what it is. In any case, it’s stunningly beautiful, the lightness of the piano and strings reflecting boys’ joy at playing with each other.

In “Exploring the Forest” we get an oft-heard facet of Horner’s music, man’s relationship with nature, bringing to mind similar music in The Spitfire Grill and The New World. The main theme returns in “The Train Ride to a New Home” but with more darker sound emerging as the piece nears its conclusion; then “The Winds Gently Blow Through the Garden” is quite subtly, suggestively tragic. One of the highlights comes in “An Odd Discovery Beyond the Trees” as a pastoral sound from a lovely piano solo is joined alternately by synth choir and real choirboy – quite eerie, certainly haunting.

The choirboy is also heard in the following piece, “Dolls Are Not For Big Girls, Propaganda Is…” but this has a very different sound – a dark, twisted version of the main theme cleverly noting that Bruno’s sister – a little older than he is – has a little more understanding about what’s going on around them and is, horrendously, rather proud of it. And the horror continues into “Black Smoke” – the theme, interestingly presented with synth strings this time, is interspersed with dramatic piano phrases, the tragedy (which the viewer is well aware of, but the boy watching in the film is not) is laid bare.

“Evening Supper – A Family Falls Apart” features harrowing synths mixing with real strings – the family in question is the German commandant’s and so it isn’t sympathy we are expected to feel, it’s a cold and distant observation and the music again gets that pitch-perfect. In “The Funeral” we get the score’s only appearances of Horner’s four-note calling card, used here in an appropriately sorrowful fashion (muted trumpet) amongst mournful strings.

In “The Boys’ Plans, From Night to Day” we hear some beautiful warmth representing a loving relationship between friends – warmth immediately crushed in the harrowing “Strange New Clothes”, ten minutes of raw emotional power (and not the sort of emotional power most frequently associated with this composer). The piece features a series of little phrases for the strings which are individually developed as the scale of the horror unfolding on-screen continues to rise (there are distinct similarities to the darkest moments of A Beautiful Mind). It’s so emotionally draining but Horner then contrasts it with a full performance of the beautiful main theme in “Remembrance, Remembrance” for the end title but this time it has a much darker feel than the exuberance and innocence of its appearance at the start of the film and album.

This project meant a lot to James Horner and you can hear it in his score, including explicitly in the piano solos (which he performed himself). It must have been very hard to strike the right tone but he managed it. So dark are the events portrayed that – of course – it is far from easy to listen to some of the music, but these contrast with other moments of sheer beauty. It may seem an odd thing to say given all the fame and fortune he achieved in his career, but I’m not quite sure he ever really got enough credit for how good a film composer he actually was – ignore the recycling, the classical borrowings – purely in terms of putting the right music into films he had a very rare skill. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fine example – and a very fine album, too.

Rating: **** | |

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