Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Magical Music of Harry Potter

My zeal to cover stuff that isn’t very well known regrettably allows me to disregard things I should probably pay more attention to. And for at least the last ten years or so, it’s been difficult to ignore Harry Potter. And boy have I tried.

The books and the films are so much a part of the contemporary zeitgeist of the English speaking world that it seems easy enough for a cultural snob like me to ignore it all. Still, I’ve been forced onto the Harry Potter train and have even long these many years now understood and appreciated its appeal and amazing popularity. My spouse drags me to the theater for every Harry Potter film. And I’ve made sure each DVD is here at home the minute they hit the shelves.

We watch these things over and over again (some episodes more than others) so I am as familiar with these films as just about any of the films I actually do revere, respect and/or appreciate.

Now my nephews have discovered Harry Potter and are so enthralled with his world that they come home from school to watch it all until they’re forced to go to bed at night. Somehow they find time to eat (at the table!), do their homework and get outside and play a little too.

It was watching these movies with these three young boys, fascinated beyond imagination with Harry, Hogwarts, wizardry and all of it, for me to finally realize what I liked most about these movies – the music. Often more than half of each two-plus hours of every Harry Potter film features original music and much of it is exceptionally good. Indeed, the music goes a long way to making these films as ultimately memorable and as timeless as they are.

Very few – if any! – serial film adaptations can make any such a claim.

The following is an overview focusing on the musical world of Harry Potter. There are some high points, which I try to note, and some parts that probably aren’t as worthy as others. But, like a symphony (or like life – the point of Harry Potter in the first place), you gotta take the bad with the good. None of these highlights should be isolated on some sort of compilation or compendium. Each work deserves to be heard in full – from beginning to end and some more than others.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone - John Williams (Atlantic, 2001): A magisterial musical statement and surely one of the most magnificent film soundtracks of all time, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone had to establish not only the mood and feeling for one particular film but for an entire and much-loved franchise that’s vigilantly protected by its creators and its fans. Perhaps only one composer could possibly accomplish such a monumental task and provide a perfectly idiosyncratic film score, memorable and surprisingly timeless themes and a classic that stands on its own brilliantly apart from the perfectly enchanting film with all the action and emotion of a symphony: John Williams, creator of many landmark film scores, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas. Williams develops a truly outstanding and now much-copied score here, brilliantly suggesting the wonder and delight of magic, the joys and terrors of growing up and the struggle for good over evil. In particular, Williams’ use of the celeste here is inspired and suggests, simply enough, the great library of emotions the score attempts to convey. The celeste also calls to mind such symphonic predecessors that have also successfully employed the three-octave keyboard over the last hundred years or so, from Tchaikovsky (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”), Mahler (Symphony No. 6) and Holst (The Planets) to Orff, Busoni, Britten and others – all of whom could be said to have provided some minimal inspiration to John Williams for this magnum opus. There is not one dud among this disc’s 73 and half minutes, but personal favorites here include the definitive “Prologue,” “The Arrival of Baby Harry,” “Diagon Alley and The Gringott’s Vault” (particularly the “Diagon Alley” part), “Christmas at Hogwarts” (the first minute of this cue is absolutely magical and reminds me a of Christmas tune Richard Evans wrote for Ramsey Lewis), “The Invisibility Cloak and The Library Scene” and, notably, “Hedwig’s Theme” (which is also considered a main theme for the series).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - John Williams (Atlantic, 2002): The continuation of the Harry Potter saga features the second of the three scores provided (so far) to the series by the masterful John Williams. This soundtrack, though, unlike the first and third of Williams’ entries is not conducted by the composer but is, rather, “adapted and conducted by William Ross.” Like “The Escape from the Dursleys,” this score’s first original theme, it is still an epic adventure filled with delightful wonders and dangerous surprises. The celeste, while present, is played down here quite a bit in favor of altering the flavor of the second score substantially from the first. There is actually a surprising Hitchcockian feel to this particular score (Williams, after all, scored the master’s last film, Family Plot, in 1976), where the composer sounds as if he’s balancing the film’s mildly comic misadventure with bracing daring do the way Bernard Herrmann might in a Hitchcock thriller. Again it’s hard to fault much of the music here but the highlights for me are “The Escape from the Dursleys,” the Humperdink-like “Knockturn Alley,” the Gounod-like “The Dueling Club” (and similar “Polyjuice Potion”), the seemingly Ravel-inspired “Dobby the House Elf” and the Herrmann-esque “The Spiders.” The most memorable music here, though, is certainly Williams’ majestic “Harry’s Wondrous World” and the sweeping and especially memorable Fawkes themes (“Fawkes the Phoenix,” “Fawkes is Reborn” and “Dueling the Basilisk”).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - John Williams (Atlantic, 2004): The third Harry Potter film benefitted by a particularly good story and the well-considered direction of a new filmic helmsman, Alfonso Cuarón, (surprisingly) of Y tu mamá también fame. John Williams seems inspired as well, providing a provocative score that’s several shades more interesting than the previous Potter score, which, like the film, good as it is, can hardly live up to the precedent set by the very first Potter. This one features considerably more percussion and horn passages (particularly woodwinds) than the two previous scores and Williams presents the variety and vitality of his first score (somewhat absent from the second entry) to this particular soundtrack. By Prisoner of Azkaban it is clear that much of the Harry Potter films’ “magic” comes from John Williams’ music. Like the film, the Prisoner of Azkaban score begins to get a little darker than the previous entries, and, significantly, more interesting. This almost necessitates the composer to take the comic edge out of the lighter scenes - probably the least appealing aspect of Chamber of Secrets - and replace it with genre motifs more suggestive of the underlying trouble of the fun that’s being portrayed: “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” (a twisted take on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”), “The Knight Bus” (Franz Waxman-styled jazz), “Hagrid the Professor” (renaissance music) and “Monster Books and Boggarts!” (Golden Age styled horror-film music). While these are some of the soundtrack’s most memorable moments – and it does seem like some of the film’s music is missing on the soundtrack CD - a fair amount of the disc’s real highlights are likelier to appeal more to film-music aficionados than casual Potter fans. These include the fully symphonic pieces “Lupin’s Transformation and Chasing Scabbers,” “The Werewolf Scene,” “The Dementors Converge,” “Finale” and the end-titles suite of Prisoner themes, “Mischief Managed!” The sumptuously folk-like “A Window to the Past,” though, is the disc’s loveliest and most memorable moment.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Patrick Doyle (Warner Sunset/Warner Bros./2005): John Williams declined the scoring of Goblet of Fire in order to work on the film adaptation of the best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha (significantly featuring Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman). Composer Patrick Doyle then stepped in for the pretty much thankless job of continuing the Harry Potter musical legacy. Doyle had a reputation for scoring quite a number of films that are adaptations from the higher echelons of great literature – Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, even Anne Rice. So he seems a logical fit here. He’d also worked with veteran director Mike (Four Weddings and a Funeral) Newell, who helmed this fourth Potter installment, on Donnie Brasco (1997) and Into the West (1992). Doyle contributes a rousing enough score that is more influenced by John Williams than an equilateral successor. To be fair, the two composers are quite different in their approaches. This becomes obvious in the bombast of their fanfares and the fact that Williams is probably more inclined toward classical melodic writing while Doyle’s music is emotionally episodic and when melodic, has much more of a popular ballad style to it. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other. But Doyle’s Potter score, nonetheless a fine piece of work when considered on its own, doesn’t project into the subconscious of the listener – in or out of the film – the way Williams’ do. Still, Goblet of Fire provides the composer with some of the series’ finest set pieces, best described by the ironically unimaginative song titles: “The Goblet of Fire,” “Golden Egg,” “The Black Lake,” “The Maze” and “Voldemort,” the first film appearance of he who is not to be named. Williams’ Potter theme (“Hedwig’s Theme”), like Monty Norman’s Bond theme, is of course required for referencing and is briefly heard in “The Story Continues” and “Foreign Visitors Arrive.” Also included here are the rock songs played at the big dance (“Do the Hippogriff,” “This is the Night” and “Magic Works”) which may endear this particular soundtrack collection more to the film’s young viewers who don’t normally get into CD scores. Highlights: “The Quidditch World Cup” “Neville’s Waltz,” “Harry in Winter,” “Potter Waltz,” the long “Voldmort” and “Death of Cedric” (the first death the teenaged Harry has to deal with in the film series).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Nicholas Hooper (Warner Bros./2007): The producers of Harry Potter brought in British TV veteran David Yates to direct the fifth installment of the series, which ranks with Sorcerer’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban as one of the very best films in the entire series. Indeed, J.K. Rowling’s book was also one of her best and Michael Goldenberg’s screenplay was one of the series’ most adept adaptations. It was Yates who probably brought in composer Nicholas (Nick) Hooper, long a composer heard on British TV series and films, to replace Patrick Doyle on Order of the Phoenix. Apparently composer Dario Marianelli (Atonement, V for Vendetta, Pride & Prejudice and, recently, Eat Pray Love) had been considered too. But it turned out that Yates and Hooper were both excellent choices for the Harry Potter franchise – and both have since turned out to stick with the series. Hooper, like David Arnold in the Bond films, turned out to be an especially welcome choice for the Harry Potter films: respectful and honorific of Williams’ template and resourceful and creative enough to provide some remarkably unique music of his own that works especially well for the series. I knew nothing of Nicholas Hooper aside from Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act, produced immediately before this. But after what he’s provided for Order of the Phoenix, it’s simply impossible to imagine a better composer to provide music to the Harry Potter series. Hooper’s ideas are not as complex as Williams’, which may actually further complement the action on the screen. The composer maintains the sense of magic and adventure with considerably more economy than Williams and succeeds in deriving a language that is absolutely perfect for the film(s). It is also, to be fair, a darker, more ominous tone the film required than those Williams scored, as the cue titled “Darkness Takes Over” more than hints at. (Here, the dementors attack Harry and Dudley in the real world, Harry is put on trial, Harry is vilified by many including his classmates and his friends, Harry has violent nightmares that are all too real, a mad woman from the Ministry takes over Hogwarts and tortures all the students, including Harry, and, ultimately, there is the death of someone very close to Harry.) The now standard John Williams theme (given the title of “Hedwig’s Theme”) is appropriately woven into Hooper’s “Another Story,” “Hall of Prophecy,” “The Room of Requirement” and “A Journey to Hogwarts” and the many highlights include “Professor Umbridge,” “Possession,” “The Room of Requirement,” “A Journey to Hogwarts,” “Umbridge Spoils a Beautiful Morning,” the exceptionally rousing “Flight of the Order of the Phoenix” and the nearly Philip Glass-like “Loved Ones and Leaving.” Additionally, two of the very best themes in the whole Harry Potter series can be found right here: the supreme anthem “Fireworks,” which though heard two thirds of the way through the film, oddly opens the 52-minute soundtrack (considerably shorter than previous soundtracks) and the superbly delightful “Dumbledore’s Army,” which Hooper says conveys “the children’s determination to defend themselves.” Nicholas Hooper’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix provides one of the best scores heard in this entire series other than Williams’ original Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Nicholas Hooper (New Line/2009): After Nicholas Hooper’s superb showing in the fifth Harry Potter film, Order of the Phoenix, the composer was fortunately invited back for the sixth film, Half-Blood Prince. Unsurprisingly, he even surpasses the previously excellent effort with this remarkably cogent and exciting score for Half-Blood Prince, breaking the mold of the less-than-exciting output of previous even-numbered Potter scores (and probably even the films too). As a whole, this score is often as wondrous as it is entertaining, even apart from the tragically uninspired film. Despite several major plot turns, including the death of a major character, there was just too much to show in one film and what was left was simply too much and/or too uninspiring. (I didn’t read the book. But I have been told that far more happens to explain the logic of what happens in the film, which is pretty unbelievable, even for a series dealing with magic and occult evil.) Hooper apparently composed far more music than the film could possibly hold. A mere fraction of all this music the film could not contain – probably left from hours of unedited film – is represented on the 63-minute soundtrack, including the great, swinging and rather too-brief “Wizard Wheezes” and the absolutely lovely “Harry & Hermione.” The soundtrack’s real highlights, heard in the film, include “The Story Begins,” the Williams-turned-Goldsmith inspired (really inspired) “Ginny,” “Living Death,” the Conti-esque “Ron’s Victory,” “School!,” “The Slug Party,” the Goldsmith-like “Into the Rushes,” the lovely simplicity of “When Ginny Kissed Harry,” the curiously analogue-sounding “The Killing of Dumbledore,” the always tear-inducing and perfectly understated “Dumbledore’s Farewell” and the lovely, folk romp “The Weasley Stomp” (reminding me again of Bill Conti for some reason). The music is much more interesting here than the film. But however you hear it, there are lots of great notes here to enjoy.

If you’ve read this far, then you and I are both looking forward to the upcoming two-parter finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, for even more great music. Apparently, Nicholas Hooper will score the first film, due out in November, and John Williams has apparently agreed to a triumphant return to the series for its absolute end in the film’s second part, due out in mid-2011.

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