Mr. Williams, meet Mr. Potter

So it’s official, Border’s wants to bankrupt me.  I wandered into another Border’s store, and they had all the Harry Potter scores marked with the magical red sticker.  At 40% off, I couldn’t help but pick up the five CDs, especially with movie 6 coming out this summer.

So far I’ve only gotten through the John Williams scores for films 1-3, so that is what I shall discuss right now.  Originally, I had a much different post planned for this weekend, but I need to do some more viewing/research before I write it.  C’est la vie.

John Williams is a composer who, as an academic, I have some problems with.  Mainly because, even though I wholly believe in the worth of popular culture, John Williams is so damn popular.  If anything, Williams is part of the reason I love music and film music so much.  I loved the Star Wars scores, I even used to imagine conducting the ‘Imperial March’ when I was in Sixth Grade.  I could hear the music so clearly in my head that I wouldn’t even need to listen to the CD while doing it!

But as a scholar, I feel the need to find more obscure things, more profound revelations, etc.  The curse of the Ivory Tower.

But screw it, I love Star Wars and Superman and Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark and I won’t frakkin’ apologize for it!

Anyway, on to Harry Potter.  As many know, Williams only fully scored films 1 and 3, and even though he substantially scored 2, parts of it were left to William Ross to adapt and orchestra for the film due to time concerns, and it really does show in many way, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

First I want to contrast briefly Sorcerer’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban, because they really aurally depict that vast differences in the directorial styles of the film (Chris Columbus vs. Alfonso Cuaron).  Film 1 is pure children’s John Williams, same type of music you might have heard from his Home Alone score (also directed by Columbus).  It has some “creepy/scary” elements to it, but on the whole it is a children’s adventure score.  The creepiest part, I feel, is ‘Hedwig’s Theme,’ but that is due to the celesta, which just sounds creepy to me.  (Which is caused by the end of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, first movement…he uses the celesta in such a way…creepiest moment ever!)  But that is what the film is, a children’s adventure movie, and that is how Columbus directs it and its follow up.

But When Cuaron comes on board for Prisoner, he changes the visual style to one that is more realistic.  The kids dress how kids might when they are forced into uniforms, the film itself has more grit to it, and on the whole, the film looks darker and busier.  Williams, showing just how versatile he can be when he wants to, changes up his own style to match.  Most noticeably he introduces medieval/renaissance musical timbres into the ensemble.  In some ways, it feels like they should of been there the entire time, it fits the magical tone of the seriesso well.  The wood flutes, period reeds and brass instruments, fit in seamlessly (for a good example, go to track 11 on your CDs, “Hagrid the Proffesor”).  And of course, this cue is based on the song that introduced us to this new musical sound, Williams’ setting of the classic Shakespeare quote “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble,” plus other lyrics that all come from MacBeth.  This one song, performed in the movie by Hogwarts students, signals a shift in musical timbre, plus solidifying the darker turn of this and the subsequent films (the ominous lyrics “Something wicked this way comes,” which comes from Act IV of MacBeth).

In many ways, this score as a whole might be one of Williams best of recent years.

This is in complete contrast to Chamber of Secrets, which reflects, in a bad way, just how rushed Mr. Williams was when writing it.  I won’t harp too much on the Chamber score except to point out what might just be one of the saddest moments of musical borrowing from yourself that I’ve come across.

One of the “new” themes for the film was for Gilderoy Lockhart, the unfortunate new teacher for the students.  Lockhart is a fraud, a phony, and a vain man.  He is a caricature for so many celebrities that the fact that Williams, or Ross, I’m not sure who, blatantly stole from an earlier score is either cheap or a brilliant piece of meta-criticism.  Listening to the score, I immediately recognized the tune as something from an earlier score…I could see Nazis running around, so I was pretty sure it was from an Indiana Jones films…just listen…in this scene, it starts when Snape ascends the stairs…

I was fairly sure that it was from a Jones movie, but it took Wikipedia to point me in the direction of the correct scene…the classic “No Ticket!”

Different keys, but the resemblance is uncanny.

It’s unfortunate that such a great performance by Kenneth Branagh is undercut by this recycling of music.  But as I asked earlie, is it cheap re-using or meta-criticism?  I’ll let you decide.

In the end, though, it’s strange that of the three scores, Chamber “sounds” the most like a John Williams score.  Perhaps because it borrows so freely from other material he had done in the 15 or so years prior.  Look at the Wikipedia page for the score for even more examples. 

I don’t have much else to say.  I’ll post a bit more on the next two scores when I’ve had a chance to listen to them.

3 thoughts on “Mr. Williams, meet Mr. Potter

  1. There’s so much to talk about here but going to stick to Chamber of Secrets.

    I’m going to argue a point in favor of Williams’ borrowing from himself the Gilderoy Lockhart/’No Ticket’ material. Bypassing the similarity of the material itself, in both instances the writing is almost entirely in unisons/octaves with occasional flourishes representing (to this listener) the shallow nature of Lockhart’s character.

    This kind of unison writing is actually a hallmark of John Williams’ technique (along with chains of dominant sevenths in 3rd inversion, atmospheric chromatic writing and doubling everything). It’s especially useful when time is of the essence, as it nearly always is in scoring feature films.

    Also, as I understand it, the sequence of events on Chamber of Secrets is as follows: Williams spotted the film with Bill Ross, suggesting themes and providing some sketch material. Ross then scored the film. Then Williams was brought back after he finished scoring Catch Me If You Can to rescore a handful of sequences.

    All that being said, I almost never reach for my copy of The Chamber of Secrets.

    Also, forget what the Academy “likes”. Follow what interests you.

    1. My understanding of the sequence of events is roughly the same, and as always, I bow to your deeper knowledge.

      As I know we’ve talked about, the is almost no mistaking a traditional Williams score, mainly thanks to many of the hallmarks you listed. As to the Lockhart/Ticket, the Dueling Club scene isn’t as good an example as the actual “Gilderoy Lockhart” theme on the disc, unfortunatly I wasn’t able to find a good YouTube clip with it. I think it was clearly spotted/temped with that cue inserted to be his theme, and Ross reworked it to its final form.

      But as I said, part of me could care less. I love Williams’ music. Still to this day. I actually just rewatched ‘Chamber’ and the score really does work well, even with all the other stuff that was borrowed in some way from other scores. It really is the most “Williams” sounding score of the three.

      That being said, I also really like ‘Prisoner’ for the more daring chances he took with changing up the sound, something that I really think helped transition the series just as the books did between parts 2 and 3.

      I remember Roger Ebert saying that he didn’t care for the third film because of the change in tone, but he really missed the point. It had to change because of what was to come, and the music had to change too.

      That being said, it might have been nice had Williams had the time to properly write a score to hear what he might of come up with for Lockhart. It might have made up for the one of the greatest crimes against his Music: Jar-Jar Binks. Great theme wasted on such a terrible character.

  2. My favorite of the Williams scores so far is certainly Prisoner of Azkaban. There’s certainly this feeling that he really put some extra effort into it (more so than Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith, anyway). Supposedly he’s pursuing The Deathly Hallows, but that’s just the rumor mill grinding away (though, for myself, I hope he lands it).

    If you’re interested in hearing what ‘Harry Potter’ sounded like 10 years before it was written you should get your hands on Johnny’s Hook score. Lots of similar gestural ideas and a similar orchestrational approach.

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