Posts Tagged ‘john williams’

Music and Magic: The Harry Potter Soundtrack Retrospective — Part 4 of 10: The Prisoner of Azkaban


This is the fourth article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks. You may wish to refer to the previous entries in the series for more information.

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So, I’m just going to come right out and say it: of the three John Williams Harry Potter scores, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of them. After the juvenile nature of Stone (music-wise) and the gradually-growing-more-serious nature of Chamber, audiences had grown enough with the character and the franchise for director Alfonso Cuaron’s dark treatment of what was, to date, the most serious of the Potter stories. I think that, when Williams saw just what direction Cuaron had gone with the bulk of the film, he felt it allowed him to make a more adult soundtrack, although it did still have departures from the general feel for the humor sequences.

The soundtrack begins with “Lumos (Hedwig’s Theme)”, a much more mature version of the iconic musical phrase. It feels more sinister than ever before, even though that part of the movie is just Harry trying to teach himself lumos maxima. (And why did he never use that spell again, exactly?) And then, with “Apparition on the Train”, we are introduced to the Dementors with music that intensifies their creeping evil-ness. At that point, we still haven’t hit the film’s signature riff, but it’s not a problem.

Other standout tracks include:

  • “Buckbeak’s Flight”, which I’ll cover later. The frenetic drumbeats notwithstanding, it’s a great one.
  • “The Werewolf Scene” — great ambiance and use of established themes from within the film.
  • “Saving Buckbeak” — very understated in the beginning, to underscore the need for Harry and Hermione to avoid being seen by anyone once they’ve gone back in time.
  • “The Dementors Converge” — there are two parts to this track; this is the first one, when Harry is trying to fight off the Dementors as they attempt to kill him and Sirius. You hear hints of the patronus theme and the triumphant theme throughout, and when listening to the soundtrack you almost want to go back and hear this one again after you’ve heard “Finale”, just to pick up on what’s happening.
  • “Finale” — and now, the second part, when Harry finally knits together the tenuous logical threads that lead to this point and figures out that he’s the one who has to expecto that patronum all over the clearing to save the souls of himself and his godfather. Williams absolutely nails the triumphant theme with this one in a very understated fashion — just a lone brass and the chorus/synthesized “aaaaaahhhhh” underneath. Then he ends with a reprise of “A Window to the Past”, when Harry says goodbye to Sirius and Buckbeak.
  • “Mischief Managed”, a mega-mix of the entire soundtrack that, in the film, was played over the ending credits. I really like these sorts of tracks. I wasn’t hugely impressed with the gigantic orchestral sting at the end, but otherwise it was cool.

Owing possibly to just how heavy the film gets toward the end, there are several humorous sequences throughout, and Williams takes the opportunity to stretch out. “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” perfectly captures the feeling of Harry blowing up his aunt, and the acid-jazz of “The Knight Bus”, while feeling very out-of-place amid the rest of the music, nonetheless fits the moment as it was presented in film (the book didn’t fill the Knight Bus scene with quite as much levity). There’s also “Double Trouble”, which introduces both the Hogwarts chorus and Flitwick’s magical transformation from a gray-haired old wizard to a young-ish bespectacled black-haired wizard. I have no idea why a chorus was included, but there you go. I guess the students of Hogwarts also needed some extracurriculars beyond Quidditch, the Gobstones Club, and Dueling.

If the soundtrack has a weak point, it’s “The Whomping Willow and the Snowball Fight”, and only for the latter part. I think it was pretty clear that we were supposed to get a good kick out of Malfoy and his friends being snowed under by an invisible Harry (Emma Watson’s fake hysterical laughter notwithstanding); the music was almost too much. I also didn’t much care for the latter portion of “Secrets of the Castle”, which was too heavy on the higher-register wind instruments. I don’t even remember hearing some of that music in the film; it may have been spread out across several scenes.

As for the signature musical phrase in the film, its first major appearance is “Buckbeak’s Flight” (it’s just barely recognizable in “Apparition on the Train” but I don’t really count it because you only catch it at the very end). In the film, you hear it when Harry and Buckbeak hit the air and Harry realizes that he’s not going to die a horrible death by falling. It’s suitably poignant and triumphant, a powerfully-written theme for a film that had more “bad” moments than any of the others. There’s also a secondary signature phrase, first heard in “A Window to the Past”; it’s evocative of Kamin’s theme in the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Inner Light”, mostly because of the wind instruments but also because it gives you a chance to relax and recover amid a pretty heavy series of compositions. And, finally, there’s the occasional use of “Double Trouble”‘s riff, although it’s not strictly Williams’s composition so much as his interpretation in that case.

While the Prisoner of Azkaban soundtrack isn’t my overall favorite of the entire series, I definitely mark it as my favorite of the John Williams scores. It’s the most mature, most serious one of his three, and the signature cues he introduces are ones that I find myself humming every now and then. While Stone gave us the main theme of Harry Potter, I think it was Prisoner that really showed us how the music of Harry Potter can make us feel.

Music and Magic: The Harry Potter Soundtrack Retrospective — Part 3 of 10: The Chamber of Secrets


This is the third article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks. You may wish to refer to the previous entries in the series for more information.

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Given the success of the first film, and of the book series in general, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets would be made. The film itself turned the tone somewhat darker and exposed, among other things, that maybe Hogwarts isn’t as awesome and perfect as we saw in the first one.

Composer John Williams — and many of his themes and cues from Sorcerer’s Stone — returned for Chamber, including the “Hedwig’s Theme” cue that you really must have if you want a real Harry Potter film. To that, Williams added another cue, an eight-note phrase that sets this soundtrack apart from the previous film; it kind of sounds like the music you’d hear in a dance-of-love scene. It’s first heard in “Fawkes the Phoenix”. Then there’s a “silly” theme, heard in “The Flying Car”, which is vaguely “Flight of the Bumblebee” in tone and is supposed to evoke panic and danger — but since it’s only a few minutes into the film, it’s highly likely that Ron and Harry will not die.

This being a darker film in tone, Williams has cut down on the sheer amount of bells in the soundtrack, preferring to use warm horns and strings for the positive moments and other musical styles for the negative ones. I’m pleased that the Chamber soundtrack feels less juvenile — I’m not sure if the director (Chris Columbus, who also directed Stone) gave Williams a little better direction, or if Williams just knew what the film needed. Since we do know the world now, the music doesn’t have to tell us what to feel about Diagon Alley, or Quidditch, or Hermione being petrified.

Toward the end, the “silly” theme becomes much darker — it’s heard again in the battle with the basilisk, which has Harry fighting for his life, which is a very heavily-orchestrated scene containing both the “silly” theme and the Chamber riff. I did feel as though the basilisk battle scene really contained the best music of the film, as it incorporated both the new and old riffs, as well as the more serious tone of the film — in it, Harry actually has to fight for his life using his limited physical prowess against a foe that is many times his size and could probably crush him just by turning the wrong way.

Some of the hallmarks of Williams’s previous composition in the series are still present, including the epic mishmash of triumphant musical themes heard at the end of “Prologue, Book II, and Escape from the Dursleys”. Also:

  • Wizards doing wizard stuff.
  • The first-sight-of-Hogwarts phrase, in “The Flying Car”.
  • Exciting happenings!, first heard in the Quidditch match in Stone.

But there’s lots of new stuff, including a theme for Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix, and a cute little riff for Professor Lockhart delivered in a low-but-jaunty series of string phrases. In fact, most of the new music for the film is delivered in a lower register than in Stone, which allows the music to do more in terms of supplementing the story rather than completely directing the mood of it — the music in general sets the mood, but doesn’t try to force you into feeling a certain way. And even when it does, those blasted bells aren’t used — it’s more strings and horns. You can hear this in “The Dueling Club”, which has a string treatment of the Harry Potter riff.

I also really liked “Reunion of Friends”, the track heard after Harry has defeated the basilisk and they’re in the Great Hall, when Hermione and then Hagrid return from their various difficulties.

In a special on the Biography channel, Williams explained how he used music to accentuate parts of scenes, and you can really hear that in the action sequences, especially when you’re not actually watching the film. I’m not sure I really like it, but he’s the artist; I’m just the critic. Also, due to scheduling constraints, Williams was unable to do the full orchestration, so William Ross stepped in. Just a bit of trivia there, really, although some of the tracks feel less like Williams and more like… well… someone else, although I haven’t seen any of the other films IMDB said he’d composed for, so I can’t tell you who. William Ross, I guess.

While Chamber is a darker film, as noted before, the soundtrack — while certainly darker — is still a bit too juvenile to really pass on the feeling of peril, at least for most of it. The danger sequences — the flying car, Aragog, anything to do with Lockhart — are orchestrated in a mystical fashion, but don’t feel serious to me. Although, if you think about it, in the film the danger sequences are punctuated with humor — Hedwig looking back at the train (flying car), being rescued by the car (Aragog), and McGonagall (or was it Snape) saying “now that he’s out of the way” near the end, just before Harry and Ron confront Lockhart. The battle with the basilisk is suitably powerful, but other than that, it was still a pretty light soundtrack. I’d say it’s an improvement on parts of Stone — specifically, the forced emotions that were absent in Chamber, but overall I’d say Stone was the better of the two in most ways.

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* When I originally got my digital copy of this soundtrack, the tracks weren’t in the right order, and that turned me off quite a bit to it. However, the digital version you can buy on Amazon has them more or less correctly. It does annoy me when the tracks are incorrectly-ordered. Unfortunately, this prevents me from giving too many track names in the review without having to re-buy.

Music and Magic: The Harry Potter Soundtrack Retrospective — Part 2 of 10: The Sorcerer’s Stone


This is the second article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks. You may wish to refer to the previous entry in the series for more information.

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According to a recent special on the Biography channel, John Williams was asked by the studio to write a music cue for the upcoming Harry Potter film. He wrote the iconic composition now called “Hedwig’s Theme”, which as I noted in my previous article contains pretty much all the music for the first film, at least in part.

And then, when Warner Brothers hired the man who wrote the themes for Star Wars, Superman, and many others to score the first of what would become eight blockbuster films about a boy wizard, he expanded upon that theme to give us the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

From the opening notes in “The Arrival of Baby Harry” to the — for lack of a better term — megamix track of “Harry’s Wondrous World”, Williams takes the listener on a musical journey full of light, sweeping wind, string, and horn instruments, with a liberal dose of bells that simultaneously engender wonder and apprehension: what are these people going to do next, and how is it going to make me go “that’s amazing!”?

After “Arrival”, Williams sets the tone for the rest of the film with “Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts”, which contains a musical cue I like to call “wizards doing wizard stuff” — a sort of generalized positive theme. More even than “Arrival” or “Hedwig’s Theme”, I think the music in “Visit” really exemplifies what the film is about — Harry knowing he can do this magical stuff and then learning the full truth of it.

Unlike the other scores, I found it hard to discern a specific series of musical cues directly related to a specific character. Even as early as Chamber of Secrets we received a cue just for Professor Lockhart, but the music in Stone was really more about atmosphere. To wit:

  • “Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts” — the scene with letters pouring into the Dursleys’ house.
  • “Diagon Alley and the Gringott’s Vault” — the jaunty tunes of happy times, also repeated during the Christmas scenes, and then more bells and horns played triumphantly. This track also contains the “epic discovery theme” which is played again in various forms when we find out that it’s not really Snape who’s the bad guy*.
  • “Mr Longbottom Flies” — this is the scene where we’re truly introduced to just how much a spoiled brat Draco Malfoy is, and it would have been a good place to put a musical cue for him, but instead we are treated to the “flight theme”, which is writ large in the Quidditch match later. There’s also a very heavy-handed “you’re in trouble” cue which is used when McGonagall tells Harry to come along with him.
  • “The Quidditch Match” — every single positive theme is used in this track. Since Quidditch was one of the big things people were dying to see in theaters, it only makes sense that Williams went all out. Plus, in scenes where it’s hard to have a ton of dialogue — in Quidditch, the players are too far apart to really communicate effectively — the music has to play an additional role. That is, it is the dialogue. Still, that’s no excuse for cramming literally every triumphant cue into the ending of the track.
  • “In the Devil’s Snare and Flying Keys” — at this point we knew none of the heroes were really going to die, and Williams played that up by using bells, harps, and those hanging xylophone-y things that sound like pleasantly-jingling keys to communicate that.
  • “The Chess Game” — of course, we jump straight into the chess game, which finally gave Ron a chance to shine, and although it used lower octaves and lower-registered instruments, it still felt more silly than serious. There were the requisite horns, but the percussion threw it off for me. Honestly, the percussion made me think of what Ken Thorne used in Superman 2, and at the end of it, when Ron sacrifices his piece, that felt very Superman-y to me. But again, with Superman being a larger-than-life hero, you expect this kind of music; Harry Potter being such a larger-than-life film, I guess it’s no surprise.
  • “The Face of Voldemort” — for a “final battle” track, this had the right amount of gravitas, but since the battle in the film was more about “stuff happens to Harry” than “Harry defeats Quirrelldemort”, there really wasn’t a whole lot for Williams to work with.

There’s one track that really made no sense to me, which was “Christmas at Hogwarts”. The latter half, when Harry realizes that he has presents, is very strong (and again full of bells), but in the beginning there’s a chorus softly singing Christmas songs, and it sounds more creepy than anything else.

We hear a lot more music-for-specific-characters in the later films, likely because we’ve already learned about the world and don’t have to deal with all the sonic exposition. We know how we’re supposed to feel at certain times. Because there’s so much to explore in the first film, and so much that viewers have to be introduced to, it makes sense that Williams focused on trying to create the right kind of ambiance — that is, making sure you know that Draco’s supposed to be evil, that the Great Hall banquet is supposed to be happy, and that Quidditch is fun and exciting. The few times Harry is in true danger, at least early on (like when he first meets Fluffy), deep brass and low strings are used, with very few bells.

In fact, a whole lot of bells went into the soundtrack of this film. Listening to it, it feels more… I guess juvenile would be the right word. Again, that makes sense — the music is really telling you what’s going on in the way that an eleven-year-old can understand because the film is told mostly from the point of view of an eleven-year-old. There’s a lot of bells and harps, a lot of heavy strings that drag your emotions in the right direction, and remarkably few brass hits, the kind you might hear in one of the later films. Basically, the more bells you hear, the “better” the film is going for our heroes.

Overall, I think that the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack will forever live on in our hearts because it gave us “Hedwig’s Theme”. However, in terms of soundtracks, I’d say it’s only average. There was a lot of what I feel is “filler music” — “Hogwarts Forever! and the Moving Stairs”, for example — that, while useful in the film, was hard to reconcile when listening to it as its own piece of art. I’d rank it in the middle of the pack** — better than the sixth, not as good as the fourth, and probably the second- or third-best of the three Williams did.

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* I feel comfortable saying this and not giving a spoiler alert. Seriously, if you don’t know by now that Snape’s not the bad guy, you should stop reading these articles and go read the books.

** I tried to put them in order, best to worst, but I really had a lot of trouble doing that. Each of them has merits and downfalls, and anyway, what I say is best may not be what you say is best. So I skipped that for now, but I might come back to it after all’s said and done.

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.