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12 March 2020, 16:13
The wonder and adventures of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard are perfectly captured in the music for the Harry Potter films. But who wrote the magical score, and what’s the story behind ‘Hedwig’s Theme’?
A truly great film score can do one of two things: blend into the background and serve simply to strengthen the narrative; or jump out of the silver screen and take on a life of its own.
It’s easy to see which camp the Harry Potter soundtrack falls into. As soon as we hear those opening notes of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) – or the Sorcerer’s Stone, as it’s known in the US – we are immediately whisked away into Harry’s wizarding world through a flurry of strings and that haunting, solo celesta.
Over the course of the franchise, the Harry Potter phenomenon saw a number of composers working on it besides John Williams. But let’s start where it all began…
By the turn of the millennium, John Williams was already regarded as one of the greatest film composers in history, with five Oscars and a slew of enduring soundtracks under his belt, including Star Wars, E.T. and Indiana Jones.
But before hiring him for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Warner Bros and director Chris Columbus tested out Williams’ wizarding chops by asking him to write some promotional material for the film.
Williams came back with a piece of music that would later become ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ – that’s the leitmotif we hear interpolated through all eight instalments of the film franchise, as well as in spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (listen above).
In ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, the wonder and adventure of J.K. Rowling’s first novel was captured.
The opening melody is played by a solo celesta, a small instrument that’s played like a piano but has a light, bell-like sound. It’s the same one used in the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ sequence in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker.
After the celesta solo, a flurry of violins enter, paving the way for the brass section to take over the main melody.
“I remember first hearing ‘Hedwig’s Theme’,” one of the film’s producers said in a ‘making of’ video. “It was so clear that this was it. It felt so appropriate, sufficiently majestic and magical.”
We hear ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ everywhere throughout the score – even in moments without the owl himself. But there are a number of other brilliant themes swirling through the franchise that deserve mention.
‘Leaving Hogwarts’ is a particularly beautiful motif that frequently appears to remind us of Harry’s connection to Hogwarts – the home where the young wizard has found he truly belongs (listen below).
The third instalment (The Prisoner of Azkaban), and the final scored by John Williams, took on a darker feel under new director Alfonso Cuaron.
‘A Window to the Past’ is particularly poignant, while ‘Double Trouble’, performed at the Hogwarts Welcoming Feast, uses lyrics from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and sounds straight out of an early Purcell opera.
Instantly, the Juilliard-trained composer’s themes became radio hits, and the basis for the next six films in the series. But after number three, Williams himself dropped out of overall responsibility for the scores.
Scottish film composer Patrick Doyle took the musical reins for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, composing the particularly memorable ‘Potter Waltz’ – the delightful piece you hear in the Yule Ball scene – and ‘Harry in Winter’, both of which retain the magical, ballet-like quality of Williams’ original work.
The fifth and sixth films (The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince) were scored by Nicholas Hooper (Mirror, Mirror), while Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, The Queen) scored the final two (Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 and 2).
Together, Williams, Doyle, Hooper and Desplat composed nearly ten hours of Harry Potter music.
Incredibly, the Harry Potter score was somewhat snubbed by major awards shows – including the Oscars.
Williams, despite being the most Oscar-nominated living person, just missed out on a ‘Best Score’ Academy Award for his first instalment, being pipped to the post by Howard Shore’s 2002 soundtrack for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (what a year to be competing for that Oscar…).
Between four composers and eight films, the music for Harry Potter was nominated for two Oscars (Philosopher’s Stone, Prisoner of Azkaban) and five Grammys (Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows Pt. 2).
You can also hear it in Harry Potter video games, ringtones, trailer music, and in the franchise’s dedicated shops and amusement parks around the world.