Pottermania: a genre that defined a generation

It’s astonished me, the number of people who cite their viewing of the last Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, as being the moment that has defined the end of their childhood.

Harry Potter posterSince the first book was published in 1997, the first film released in November 2001, and the final film released in 2011, many have lamented the passing of their childhood as marked by the final film. That’s fourteen years of Pottermania, with its attendant hysteria over red-carpet premieres, midnight readings, sales records and the like.

The Harry Potter genre has bequeathed us many things: seven books, eight films, a manic Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, an intense and yet quirky Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, the elegant Emma Watson as Hermione Grainger, some stunning special effects, and a lively literary debate as to the relative merits and shortcomings of JK Rowling’s literary style. The second best thing, to my mind, has been the marvellously understated, sullen menace of Alan Rickman’s Snape: his highly condensed and clipped delivery makes Voldemort’s camp theatricality look hilarious in comparison.

Best of all, though, the movie franchise has yielded some wonderful music.

John William’s filigree melody ‘Hedwig’s Theme,’ featured in the prologue of the first film, has become a defining part of the Potter film canon, instantly and unmistakeably recognisable, used as a leitmotif throughout subsequent films as a linking device.

Hedwig’s Theme

Or there’s the relentless urgency of ‘Forward to Time Past,’ as Harry and Hermione race backwards in time to prevent the death of Buckbeak.

Forward to Time Past

Not forgetting  the jazz-inspired, manic intensity of ‘The Knight Bus’ music, written to accompany the frantic, lunatic dash through London of the phantom bus with its madcap driver,  sounding like something Satie might has written, had he composed Parade in this century instead of the last;or the ominous, Bartokian nightmare of ‘The Dementors Converge.’

Then there’s the choral magic for the ‘Patronus Light’;

A simple figure: as the top line descends, the bottom one moves upwards – the kind of pattern you might play on a synthesiser to experiment with a vocal patch sample, for instance, but wonderfully effective in clothing the casting of a powerful, redemptive spell at this moment in the film.

Patrick Doyle took over the composing duties in the fourth film in the franchise, The Goblet of Fire, followed by Nicholas Hooper  for the Order of the Phoenix and the Half-Blood Prince, before the final two films were scored by Alexandre Desplat.

Williams in particular, has often been accused of writing highly derivative scores, distilling Walton, Holst and others in his music – this is not the place for a close analysis of Williams’ musical borrowings, although one can’t help but draw references even here – but it cannot be denied that he has written successful, memorable music for the first three Potter films that has contributed enormously to their success, and which has cast a spell of its own over the scores for the rest of the films in the franchise. No small feat.

(There’s even a thematic link between the motives for Hedwig / Harry and Voldemort, which will be the subject of a later post).

I can’t remember the moment which defined the end of my childhood – actually, I think I prefer not to – but I will certainly remember the music that helped define and influence the whole Potter film canon.

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Strauss and Superman: but not what you think…

I’ve become aware recently that there’s a particular moment in Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung when the brass blaze out with a triumphal theme – and it’s almost exactly the same as the love theme written by John Williams for Superman.

Williams is well known for his thematic ‘borrowings,’ a fact which should take nothing away from his fantastic film scores. The Love Theme from Superman is a wonderfully rich theme, perfect for the expression of the relationship between the Man of Steel and Lois Lane.

Unfortunately for the Strauss, though, which is a tiresome half-hour’s worth of orchestral blustering, Williams’ lyrical gem has now made it impossible for me to listen to it without visions of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder on a nocturnal flight through space; actually, I find that’s an improvement.

I noticed it whilst having the grave misfortune to sit through the piece in a concert last year which had some pieces that I did actually want to hear. I hadn’t heard the Superman reference before, but now I’ve heard it, I can’t now not hear it. Still, it’s made future hearings  of the piece bearable from now on.

Television teme tunes: Dr.Who : why the percussion ?

Who'd have thought...The original theme to Dr. Who, written by Ron Grainer and given its eerie electronica-infused shrouding by Delia Derbyshire, was a wonderfully exciting theme; pulsing with excitement, and the promise of intergalactic misdeeds, fearsome enemies, and humankind under threat.

The re-booting of the Dr. Who franchise for the new age has seen the theme tune being given a make-over, primarily involving adding a wholly unnecessary pounding hi-hat and a kick-drum.

There’s a misapprehension, fostered by clumsy Hollywood film scores perhaps, that, in order to add pulse-raising excitement to a programme, you have to add thrashing percussion to the accompanying music. This is manifestly not true: consider the latent menace imparted by the theme to Jaws: the use of timpani is deft, occasional, and not overpowering.

Even in the 80’s, surely the unkindest decade of all for music, the re-incarnation of the Grainer’s original theme managed to keep the authentic looming menace whilst including electric guitar and synthesiser – normally the kiss of death for music, but here somehow managing to retain the feel of the original, without overpowering it with unnecessary instrumentation.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s original creation, throbbing with latent menace, has now become a heavy-booted adolescent, thrashing around in its fury. The fleshing out of the original haunting electronica into a fully-fledged orchestral piece is interesting, with some majestic brass and string ostinati, and the portamento-infused melodic line is still present; but overall the effect is, well, disappointing.

Great brass chords: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

As evil Walter Donovan (evil, therefore played by British actor Julian Glover, although sporting an atrocious American accent) dips what he thinks is the carpenter’s cup, the cup of Christ from the Last Supper, into the font, he believes he is about to gain eternal life. In reverential tones, he declares  ‘This certainly is the cup of the King of Kings.’

As he dips the shimmering cup into the clear water, a wonderful brass chord is struck in the orchestral soundtrack (1’41” in the clip below).

(Excuse the fact that this clip is dubbed in Spanish: it’s the only instance of the music I could find on-line. It adds an interesting dimension…).

It’s a terrific moment: the chord combines a sense of anticipation (Donovan about to drink and become immortal – boo, hiss…) with a looming sense of dread; the glance that Elsa and Indy exchanged as she gave Donovan the cup she had chosen – was that significant ? Does she know something about the cup she picked – is it the wrong one ? And if so – what will be the consequences ? Is something dreadful about to happen ?

It’s almost that chord from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments – here’s the great Edo de Waart conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic – the chord occurs fourteen seconds into the clip.

The use of the brass is a wonderful touch, the texture of the chord directly mirroring the nature of the cup from which Donova drinks, and the uncomfortable harmony weighty with foreboding. John Williams: genius.

Television themes: Home and Away: what were they thinking ?

Theme tunes for television programmes have a crucial role to play. They need to establish the nature of the programme they introduce very quickly, in order that viewers don’t change the channel; they must grab the viewer’s attention if it’s an action programme or provide calm reassurance if it’s a programme about evaluating antiques. They need to convey Anxiety and Righteous Indignation if they’re for a consumer rights programme – a hint of menace combined with justice needing to be meted out – or the atmosphere of relaxed, sun-kissed destination spots if they’re for holiday shows.

Think of the great themes from the 1960s – Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, or the music for the film Bullitt; Neal Hefti’s Batman; Quincy Jones’ Ironside; punchy, exciting themes that instantly and effortlessly used to let viewers know what they were in for, and which are still in use today. Or the synth-tastic introductions from the 80’s, the mock-heroic bombastic fanfare that was the signature tune to The A-Team or the ostinato-electronica of Knight Rider. 5/4 time-signatures, driving percussion, fat brass textures, bubbling synthesizer lines.

Now remember, if you dare, the theme tune to the long-running Australian soap Home and Away.

Drenched in anodyne harmonies clothing lyrics of almost exciting banality. The melody hangs desperately around the mediant, as though it’s not confident enough to move away from it for too long; and the modulation at the end of the whole theme, instead of returning to the tonic of G major, moves to the alarmingly bright key of E major, which is not technically allowed, as there’s no G# in G major.

The whole thing is unremittingly awful. How could anyone have heard it and thought “Yep: that’s the one!” ?

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