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Music and Magic: The Harry Potter Soundtrack Retrospective — Part 1 of 10: Introduction

This is the first article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks.

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With the release of Harry Potter 7.2: Potter Harder or whatever they’re calling it, we’ve reached the end of the saga of the Boy Who Lived. The internet is home to hundreds of reviews — from the fangirl SQUEE to the more reasoned likes of Roger Ebert — and, while I certainly feel satisfied after seeing the film, I don’t think you really need my review to help you decide whether to see it or not.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was watching a special about creating the world of Harry Potter, one that focused on music and sound effects. It reminded me that, for completeness’s sake, I needed to purchase the 7.2 soundtrack.

So I did, and I listened to it, and I liked it.

Music is an integral part of a film, and something I’ve been specifically listening out for ever since my dad took me to see Star Trek V. I was waiting in line, straining my ears, trying to hear the ending credits music, because I was that interested in what it was going to sound like. And, for what is universally considered the low point of the Star Trek film franchise, Jerry Goldsmith’s score was pretty great — so good, in fact, that he reused some of its cues in Star Trek: Insurrection (also a movie that was panned a fair bit, coincidentally).

When you have a movie franchise as huge as Harry Potter — and, believe me, the producers knew they had a gold mine on their hands, both creatively and monetarily — you have to have the best of everything. From Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman as the professors at Hogwarts to directors like Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron, Warner Brothers seemed to spare no expense to bring the magical world of Harry Potter to life.

The filmed version certainly made a convert out of me — I’d resisted reading the books, but one Thursday night my then-girlfriend and I decided “hey, let’s go see this Harry Potter thing everyone says is so good” and that, as they say, was that. I’m sure that story is repeated among many thousands of people; I can’t be the only one.

And one major part of the film was the music, composed by John Williams. The iconic composer, who’d previously scored Star Wars and Superman — walk up to anyone on the street and I guarantee they can hum the music from at least one of those — helped bring the film to life by defining the musical cue that, for all intents and purposes, is Harry Potter’s theme song.

“Hedwig’s Theme” contains the eight-note trill, the rising-and-falling violins, the “wizards doing wizard stuff” theme of Diagon Alley, and just about every other element of music found in the first film. Moreover, every composer (albeit reluctantly in one case — I’ll get to that later) has found a way to incorporate “Hedwig’s Theme” into his orchestrations.

While listening to the Deathly Hallows Part 2 soundtrack, I thought that it might be time to take a look back at the adventure of Harry Potter’s cinematic journey by listening to the soundtracks independent of the films. I pitched the idea to Escape Pod’s editors and they agreed, and here we are.

Note that I said “independent of the films”. I’m not going to go back and watch the movies with the soundtracks playing in my ears, or try to modify the audio coming out of my TV so that I only hear the music. Instead, I’m going to listen to the soundtracks and review them as their own elements of the film.

As some have said (I can’t find any quotes with a quick googling, but if you can, feel free to drop one in the comments), music can be its own character in the film. It’s not just atmosphere, not just accents; it’s almost like the chorus in old plays — it can tell you how you should interpret a scene, how it should make you feel (at least, according to the director), and even what the characters are thinking in a way that images alone cannot. So, from the sweeping nature of “Hedwig’s Theme” to Nicholas Hooper’s distinctive-yet-disappointing cues in Order of the Phoenix, from “Harry Potter’s Love” (meeting Cho in the Owlery) to the truly-beautiful music of Hermione obliviating her existence from the minds of her parents, we’re going to take a listen to the music of Harry Potter.

So join Messrs. Williams, Doyle, Hooper, and Desplat — and, of course, yours truly — over the next several days. And if you’d like to pick up the soundtracks, here’s some links:

Let the magic begin.

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Important Note: I am not a musician. Not really. I just appreciate music, and I have a limited understanding of the technique that goes into composing an entire soundtrack. I’m just writing from the point of a fan and average listener. You should expect that I’m going to mess up terminology and maybe occasionally completely miss the point of something one of the composers did. Just remember… not a musician.

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I tried to embed video, but something about the CMS keeps stripping it out. So I just linked to the videos for now. If I manage to figure out the embedding, I’ll come back and fix it.

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