Harry Potter and the Classic Film Score

Jonathan Rhodes Lee on December 29, 2009
For the last couple of weeks, a musical debate has been raging on MuggleNet, the self-appointed “ULTIMATE Harry Potter Fansite.” Nicholas Hooper, the composer who scored the last two Potter films, announced to If Magazine on July 23 that he will not work on the final productions of this now multi-billion-dollar franchise. One group of contributors is thrilled, and hopes that John Williams, who scored three of the first four films, will return for the final installments. The adjectives that pepper these posters’ descriptions of Williams’s style include “epic,” “legendary,” “fantastic.”

The other group of posters argue that Williams’s music has become “repetitive,” that he has followed a humdrum formula since his glory days in the 1980s, and that Hooper’s first contribution better matched the changing tone of the films’ emotional and dramatic trajectory. Hooper himself, in his If Magazine interview, indicated that his style better reflects the more “adult” themes of the new film: “Having looked closely at John Williams’ writing I decided that I would be better to find my own route rather than try to imitate such a master. This also met with David Yates' approval as he was looking for the music to take a different direction in these darker films.”

This debate is a microcosm of many of the questions that have surrounded film music since its earliest days. The debate whether Williams’ or Hooper’s approach best serves the Potter franchise reprises many of the arguments about musical taste in the 20th and 21st centuries. We see again how strongly “old-fashioned” Romanticism continues to capture the public’s imagination.

Inventing the Classic Film Score

One question that the posters do not raise, however, is why music should be there at all. Watching a wizard suck lamp fires into his scepter accompanied by a lovely oboe melody; being bombarded by a choir of trombones and tubas while a dark-caped, masked spaceman boards a rebel starship; seeing a woman stalked by a shark to a rocking two-note motive — these cinematic conventions have become so familiar that audiences never question anymore why the London Symphony Orchestra should be sawing away in outer space or in the middle of the ocean.

That wasn't always true. Max Steiner, responsible for such landmark scores as King Kong (1933) and The Informer (the film that, in 1936, received the first Academy Award for an originally composed film score, and a wonderful movie itself), once recalled the resistance to film scoring in the early days: “A love scene might take place in the woods and, in order to justify the music . . . a wandering violinist would be brought in for no reason at all.”

Steiner endured the dictates of numerous, unmusical, studio heads throughout the 1930s. Famous producer David Selznick, for instance, once told him that minor chords would no longer be used in his studio’s pictures, and another executive demanded he write more for the French horns in a film about France, to give the score a more “local” feel. Despite these philistine restrictions, Steiner and a handful of Hollywood studio heads managed to establish a unified musical procedure for accompanying films, a procedure so well-worked out that the phrase “That sounds like movie music” seems perched on the lips of every music-appreciation student ever introduced to the music of Richard Wagner or Beethoven.

That's not surprising. Many scores for silent pictures borrowed from the great composers of the late 19th-century. The familiarity of these musical idioms helped ensure “universal” emotional response. The music also had the ancillary benefit of raising the early cinema up from its early roots in the city Nickelodeon or the country fair, making it more respectable for middle-class audiences. Although it’s hard for us to imagine today, movies were once looked on with great moral suspicion. The presence of classical music helped give movies the acceptance they enjoy today.

By the time movies mastered screen sound, it was time for a change. Studio executives discovered just how expensive music licensing could be, and concluded that it was cheaper to hire composers to write original music. Steiner and the other pioneers of this early period didn’t abandon the principle of borrowing from the great moments of operatic and symphonic music, however. They transformed and disguised their themes, using tried-and-true procedures. Wagner's leitmotif system (the famous use of small melodic signatures that traced the dramatic arc of the story, bringing each of his characters and iconic symbols to audible life) proved the most influential. Classic film composers adopted this approach to the needs and requirements of cinema. “Every character should have a theme,” Steiner once posited.

The rest of film history has traced a gradual dissolution and resurgence of these practices. As beach movies and countercultural film experiments became more and more prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s, the nature of film music changed drastically. Pop music challenged the supremacy of the classic studio film score. By 1972, composer Elmer Bernstein could grumble in print, “Whatever happened to great movie music?”

The Classic Film Score Resuscitated

Well, what happened to it was John Williams. Williams is often credited with virtually single-handedly resurrecting these classical scoring practices, in part because of a happy series of accidents that occurred in the 1970s. The first significant one was the shattering popularity of his score to Jaws, which established the cultural and economic viability of big orchestral scores in the special-effects driven adventure films of that period. The second big break for Williams, and the one that sealed his immortal movie fame, was when George Lucas decided that he wanted to make a 1930s film classic set in outer space.

Complete with a scrolling reference to intertitles and a then-random reference to “Episode 4,” the first of the Star Wars movies capitalized on the serial classics of Lucas’ youth, and introduced a whole new generation to many of the conventions of old action and adventure films. It also introduced these audiences to the leitmotif system.

What I find really engaging is that American audiences can’t get enough of this style of film scoring, 34 years after Jaws and Star Wars started the resurgence. That means that they can’t get enough of a film scoring practice with roots going back to the beginnings of film history. Surely this says something about the collective unconscious of American popular culture.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is firmly in the traditional mold. Williams made extensive use of the leitmotif technique with this score, from the film’s outset. First, there’s the theme for Harry, which seems coupled with Hedwig the owl, who brings the mail from the Hogwarts School, and hence is himself a harbinger of magic. This theme is soaring, majestic, heroic; a triumphant French horn announces the musical beginning to the film, and we have no doubt of the type of score this is going to be. A heroic theme, of course, needs a villainous one as counterbalance to it, and we get one with Prof. Snape’s theme. A creepy, crawly bassoon marks his first appearance, as do trombones, those same dark instruments associated with death in Romantic composers’ symphonies, and with Darth Vader in Williams’ most famous musical essay on good and evil.

There are many more classic film-score techniques in this film. When the self-changing staircases are first viewed, a rapidly ascending theme aurally depicts the massive stairs towering above the rows of children touring Hogwarts School. Williams adopts classic cinema’s fondness for quotation of great music in the scene where keys with insect wings buzz tantalizingly above the children’s heads. At that moment, there is a snippet of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous Flight of the Bumblebee — just a tiny bit, but enough to be instantly recognizable, if you know it’s coming. In fact, there’s a theme for just about every object, place, or character in the film.

How does Williams squeeze in so many motives? By employing another trait of 1930s scoring: what film composers call “wall-to-wall” or “saturation” scoring. He famously wrote 117 minutes of music for the 127-minute The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. I'd wager that the ratio in the first Harry Potter is not much different. Music is present throughout the film, accompanying every little bit of wizardry with a precision that 1930s commentators referred to as “Mickey Mousing” because of its prevalence in cartoons.

In fact, the only unscored scenes are when Harry is with his adoptive parents in their humdrum daily existence. There, Harry lives in a joyless world without magic, without hope, and without music. When the magic arrives, in the form of Hedwig and the fateful letters from Hogwarts, the music comes along with it. That magic is so frequently orchestrated with “special effects instruments” like the celeste and glockenspiel that these timbres, along with the French horn, continue to echo in my ears long after the final credits rolled.

Threat and Alienation

The difference between this sound world and the one that Hooper creates in his scores is immediately evident in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the first of the series that he scored. Hooper makes use of the Potter/Hedwig theme as the first music that we hear, just as in the other films, but the theme is slowed, truncated, and presented out of any larger musical context. It is as if Hooper felt the need to present the Harry Potter calling card, but altered the mood of the theme to let us know that this is no children’s film.

Cinematographically, the opening shots differ wildly from the photography of the opening installments of the series, too. There’s no magic in the opening to The Order of the Phoenix. There’s not even any particular optimism. There are just cars, zooming back and forth on a gray highway, surrounded by a bleak and bland, dry suburban landscape. Empty playground equipment squeaks in the wind, and we see Harry, sitting alone on a swing, being taunted by his oafish cousin and his bully friends.

Through all this opening tableau, there is minimal music, a stark contrast to the saturation of Williams' score. No soaring French horns here, just a cycling, repetitive, and mournful piano figure, accompanied by mysterious violin harmonics that seem to be in harmony with the squeaking playground equipment. The music soon fades away to nothing, and we hear a barrage of sound effects through the entire adventure-filled opening sequence, when monsters called Dementors descend from the sky and attack Harry and his cousin.

Now the soundtrack is filled with creative design: the characters’ panicked breathing, thunder, traffic, a flickering fluorescent lightbulb. The appearance of the Dementors brings a dramatic flare from the strings, and a grunting chorus and string line that could have been drawn straight out of a Schoenbergian atonal work. Harry’s magic spell is accompanied not by the celestes and glockenspiels of Williams’s score, but by an unidentifiable electronic sound. And when the attack is over, the music again fades down to nothing. A whole sequence with no immediately identifiable musical structure: such a concept would have been unthinkable in Williams’s musical soundscape.

When we do finally get extended musical treatment, several scenes into the film, as characters zoom on broomsticks over the River Thames, it's a pop-music sound, worlds away from the Romantic composers who influenced Williams. And the next extended musical cue is equally modern. As Harry enters the subway station of the Magical Ministry, a rocking repetitive string line begins, around which long held notes soar on top and bottom while those rotating figures move at various rates of speed. It’s a cue clearly taken out of minimalism, the sound world of Philip Glass and John Adams. Not until a full half-hour into the film do we hear the famous Potter/Hedwig theme presented in full, and it doesn’t last long — only about 40 seconds.

Epic Disillusionment

There are many other moments of Romantic swelling in this film, but there are just as many moments of alternative musical aesthetics. Unlike Williams, who drew on a lush orchestral palette within a unified Romantic musical style, Hooper has employed multiple sound worlds to convey the richly textured story, with its contrasting hues of hopefulness and dark despair.

Both composers have responded sensitively to the demands of their films’ plots. Williams’s characters were naive children being inducted into a magical world. Hooper’s characters are somewhat disillusioned teenagers, learning that their elders are not as honorable as they once believed. They sit around and listen to rock 'n roll — the music of teenage rebellion — and inhabit a world whose soundtrack is, like the adolescent experience itself, filled with hope, doubt, and, above all, variety.

Perhaps the entire debate on MuggleNet is a reaction to the developments of the story line. Maybe it reflects the moral concern raised when actor Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry Potter) appeared smoking a cigarette and nude on a London stage in 2007. Do those fans who wish for Williams to return to the Potter series also long for the unencumbered optimism of the earlier films? The seriousness of the debate just shows how sophisticated filmgoers have become about the musical staging of a movie, and how much cultural weight rests within the fantasy world of mainstream Hollywood cinema.