Welcome to another edition of The Scorescope, true believers! This feature takes a look at the soundtracks of games, movies, and TV shows across the nerdy spectrum. I’ve explored scores old (1997’s Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade) and new (the beautiful Ni No Kuni and the triumphant The Force Awakens).
Today’s Scorescope brings you some gorgeous music from the magical world of Harry Potter. We’re taking a look at Academy Award winner Alexandre Desplat’s score for Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows—Part 1. So open a music streaming app, cast your best Accio spell for the album, and dive in with me!
John Williams? Not So Much.
If you come to this soundtrack expecting the wholesome, uplifting melodies of Williams’ earlier Potter scores, check yourself. You’ll find snatches of Williams’ classic “Hedwig’s Theme” sprinkled in various pieces, but Desplat often subverts the melody by adding half-steps and whole steps up or down the scale. This gives it a recognizable but misshapen feel. (David Yates, the film’s director, said, “Yeah, we wanted it to feel like it was all getting a bit distressed. We wanted to sort of f— it up a bit.”)
For example, take the Order of the Phoenix’s flight to the Burrow, the first major action set piece of the film. Desplat wrote two accompanying pieces—“Polyjuice Potion,” which sets up action, and “Sky Battle”—in which Williams’ melody is both quite recognizable and quite different sounding. Desplat tips his hat to Williams by having the melody played on the famously magical-sounding celeste in “Polyjuice Potion” but hammers it into a blazing action piece during “Sky Battle”.
The scene climaxes in the death of Harry’s beloved owl, Hedwig, and Desplat’s pounding orchestration builds to the moment before fading away. It’s a striking reminder that this film will not be filled with the warm, cozy safety of the Gryffindor common room. People will die in the fight against Voldemort and his Death Eaters, even beloved and innocent characters like Hedwig.
In an interview with NPR, Desplat described composing Deathly Hallows—Part 1 in colorful, almost synesthetic terms. “I started ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1’ from a fresh palette…this question of colors, of light, of shadow, has always been very present in the way I approach movie soundtracks.” The interview ends with the color that Desplat associates with the film: “I’d say grey-bluish.”
That quick interview reveals a lot about Desplat’s approach and the resulting mood of the film. There is little light or lightheartedness in Deathly Hallows—Part 1. The evil plot that Voldemort and his Death Eaters have engineered over decades has finally paid off; Albus Dumbledore is dead, the Ministry of Magic has been infiltrated and subverted, and “pureblooded” wizards are exalted while “mudbloods” and Muggles are beings murdered en masse. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are running for their lives while also attempting to find and destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes.
There’s not much light in Deathly Hallows—Part 1, figuratively or literally. Even Bill and Fleur’s wedding looks more like a Cure show than a celebration of matrimony. Desplat’s score reflects those changes, the melancholy that haunts the film, and the loss of hope that the main characters feel at times.
Two of the most gorgeous pieces in the film, “At The Burrow” and “Harry & Ginny”, come in the minutes after Harry’s arrival at the Weasley residence early in the story. In the context of this film they represent two sides of the same emotion, love, and what that most complex emotion can feel like.
“At The Burrow” portrays what the ancient Greeks named storge: filial love, the kind that parents feel for their children. The piece opens with hesitation, like a parent facing the weight of their responsibility for the first time, with strings that waver back and forth between notes. Then it breaks out into a powerful statement of the deep, sturdy love the Weasleys feel for each other and for Harry and Hermione, the adopted members of their family.
“Harry & Ginny” depicts a different, more romantic love. It’s a brief piece, less than two minutes long, and an understated piano line opens the piece with intervals that evoke “Hedwig’s Theme”. Like Harry and Ginny themselves, the melody and countermelody are simple and strong; they’re almost unremarkable unless you take time to really listen. Desplat opens the piece up to the rest of the orchestra about thirty seconds in, and the dark, throbbing strings paint a lush picture of the yearning the two feel for each other.
Ron Saves The Day
This isn’t to say that Deathly Hallows—Part 1’s score is all doom and gloom. A wise wizard once said, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light,” and Desplat turns the light on throughout the film.
My favorite piece in the entire score is “Ron’s Speech”. Earlier in the movie Ron Weasley abandoned his friends, giving into the dark thoughts whispered by Voldemort’s Horcrux and forsaking Hermione and Harry. He returns in the nick of time, saving Harry and destroying the Horcrux with the legendary Sword of Gryffindor. This piece plays under his return to their campsite as he sees Hermione for the first time in weeks, possibly months.
Ron talks about following the light of the Deluminator, the magical device willed to him by Dumbledore, and how it guided him back to them—more specifically, to Hermione, since it was her voice that spoke to him through the light. Throughout the speech Desplat eases in harp arpeggios and strings that ebb and flow, cresting into luxurious waves before resolving into stillness by the end. It’s an unambiguously lovely piece.
Desplat packs the score with all kinds of great music from across the spectrum. “Obliviate” opens the film with sawing strings and a flute theme that conveys the urgency of Harry’s mission (and we’ll hear that flute theme in other pieces, too). “Ministry of Magic” is full of the pompous hustle and bustle of a magical government taken over by dark forces—it’s slightly silly, but with an underlying menace that can’t be ignored.
“Fireplaces Escape” is the most heart-pumping piece in the score. Desplat scores the piece to match the action in the scene, with full orchestra crashes and stabs accompanying spells and explosions as the gang try to escape the Ministry of Magic. (This is an old trick from the golden age of Hollywood called Mickey Mousing in honor of how closely the music in old Disney cartoons follow the action.) “Godric’s Hollow Graveyard” is an ominous yet beautiful piece from the halfway point of the film. It underscores Harry and Hermione’s visit to the graves of his parents. It’s a great example of the “grey-bluish” melancholy with which Desplat colors the film.
Next time you watch Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows—Part 1, pay careful attention to Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score. You won’t be disappointed!
Author’s note: J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, has a history of making statements that many perceive to be transphobic, the most recent of which were made just a few days ago. Given recent events and the powerful and positive forces of change surging around the world, the author of this article does not want to remain silent and, by extension, complicit in spreading confusion and misinformation about transgender people. The author does not support or condone Rowling’s controversial comments and views.