Since a grand musical wizard named John Williams established the sound of Harry Potter nine years ago with THE SORCERER’S STONE, new composing students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have capably added on to its ever-evolving foundations. These acolytes have ranged from William Ross to Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper, each bringing their distinctive touch of fantastical wonder and darkness during their sojourns.
The near decade of six POTTER films so far have certainly gotten bleaker for our young heroes with the rise of their nemesis Lord Voldemort, who makes the triumvirate of Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up like never before in the most terrifying, and exciting way possible for the first of the two cinematic chapters that will bring an end to Potter’s epic saga with HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PT. 1.
Yet in a film that truly thrusts its once cherubic leads screaming into the “real” world, the one thing about HALLOWS, where everything new is old again, rests in its terrific score by Alexandre Desplat. No stranger to gracing such fantastical sagas, Desplat has mixed the emotions of age and fantasy with BIRTH and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, not to mention brought in the symphonic thunder in the supernatural battles of THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON and THE GOLDEN COMPASS.
Now Desplat enters Hogwarts with an inimitably lush score that could be described as being more Williams than Williams, while more than retaining Desplat’s own thematically rich voice that has made him Hollywood’s most in-demand French musical import since the days of such Master melodicists as Maurice Jarre and Georges Delerue.
Where HALLOWS, set up of numerous deaths, might promise a black cloud of symphonic moroseness, Desplat’s approach here is thankfully light on its broomstick, and no less thrilling for it. Ominous choruses mix with swashbuckling action, the eerie strings of the Dark Lord wisping about like fog as exotically Oriental music casts its spell. A longing piano and violin tells of childhood’s end as brooding symphonic storm clouds speed us to the cliffhanger- all of course with the classic Williams theme making several, subtle appearances.
As bold as it is clear of orchestrational excesses, Desplat’s first DEATHLY HALLOWS ranks very high indeed in Harry Potter’s musical saga, casting the kind of old-school symphonic spell that fully takes this graduating class into a new world of suspenseful magic and emotional hurt, mixing a sense of wonder with the sinister rites of adulthood as the score starts to ring Hogwarts out with a bang.
ASSIGNMENT X: Were you familiar with the film, and literary worlds of Harry Potter before taking on THE DEATHLY HALLOWS?
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: I have read the books, seen the films, and heard all the scores. I watched the movies again before I started writing. I kept myself away from listening too closely to the previous scores. I already had quite a good sense of what John Williams had invented for the series.
AX: What do you think it was about your music that got you such a plum assignment?
DESPLAT: I think our director David Yates appreciates my approach of the dramaturgy more than anything else. This movie is different from the other HARRY POTTER films since the heroes are now young adults away from Hogwarts. Maybe it’s also the simplicity of my melodies and the transparent, but still refined orchestrations requiring virtuosity from the players.
AX: Your last huge fantasy film was for THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Though your score was superb, the film didn’t do as well as expected. Is there more of a comfort level entering a saga that you know will be successful?
DESPLAT: Actually, TWILIGHT: NEW MOON was a fantasy movie as well, unless vampires and werewolves are part of your reality! Although it didn’t live up to expectations in the U.S., THE GOLDEN COMPASS still performed well overseas, where it did over $300 million at the box office. It was a very rich experience working on THE GOLDEN COMPASS and I learned a great deal from it. But you know, it is always a challenge to write a film score, whether for a “small budget” or a “big budget” movie. I try to always deliver the most inspired and crafted music possible. You owe it to the director and the producers who trust you and you also don’t stand in front of the wonderful 105 musicians of the LSO without hoping to earn their respect.
AX: The first DEATHLY HALLOWS is your second score for a huge, young adult genre franchise after NEW MOON. Can you see any similarities between these pictures, and your approach to them?
DESPLAT: HARRY POTTER is a “thing” of its own which has become a reference. My goal was to write a score which would keep my identity, strongly, but which would also convey the extraordinary world of fantasy of HARRY POTTER which has already entered the homes of millions of people for the last 10 years…..
AX: How did you want your score to connect with what the past POTTER composers have done? And how do you think DEATHLY HALLOWS stands apart from them?
DESPLAT: By writing an orchestral score, with as many inventive sounds as possible.
AX: Perhaps more than any POTTER score, DEATHLY HALLOWS plays like a welcome return to the style that John Williams had used for the earlier films. Was that intentional, and what do you think the trick is to achieving the “Williams sound”?
DESPLAT: I cannot write like John Williams. Only he can and I wouldn’t even dare to try. He is the Master of film composers but, only by pursuing our own path, our own voice can we have a chance to challenge ourselves to do our best.
AX: How did you choose where to quote the famous Williams theme?
DESPLAT: David Yates and I chose to quote the theme at very precise moments, when Harry is slowly, but surely, drifting away from his childhood, losing his innocence — and when another major character gets killed.
AX: Could you talk about your major themes for DEATHLY HALLOWS?
DESPLAT: Since Harry, Ron and Hermione are now on the road being chased by the dark forces of Voldemort, they are never twice in the same place. They are constantly on the move. I alternate between themes by situation or location (The Ministry of Magic, the Sky battle, The Borrows); themes by characters: Dobby, Dumbledore, Voldemort, Bathilda Backshot, Lovegood, or several other characters; The Oblivation theme, which conveys their loss of innocence, as well as the sense of danger and will be the leading them through their exodus; and themes for magical devices (The Detonators, the Locket, the Deathly Hallows).
AX: Do you have a favorite Potter character, in both story and music?
DESPLAT: I love Dobby. He is fun, innocent, brave and wears great, red sneakers.
AX: Though Harry and his friends face their gravest perils here, your score is far from being depressing, or overly dramatic. Was it important for you that the score not be too dark?
DESPLAT: I always try, in my scores, to add “Je ne sais quoi” to what is already on screen. I compensate for the darkness with propelling rhythmic motifs and by keeping in the music a gentle melancholy with a twist of innocence.
AX: How did you want your score to reflect Harry’s world of sorcery, as well as to place it in “the real world?” which HALLOWS deals with more than any other Potter film?
DESPLAT: We tried to keep away from the “magic world of Harry Potter”. The heroes are facing the real world. This is also why Hedwig’s theme is less present then before.
AX: The cues “Lovegood” and “The Deathly Hallows” bring in some distinctively exotic instruments. Could you tell us about them?
DESPLAT: Both are flavored with a “Hang Drum” which is a percussive instrument, played with hand or soft mallets invented a few years ago in Switzerland. It sounds like a steel drum blended with some gamelans. I also played some “singing flute”. And have used a shakuhachi flute here and there.
AX: Originally, you weren’t slated to score the second part of HALLOWS. What do you think sold the director David Yates on you wrapping up the saga?
DESPLAT: My accent? You cannot really hear it when I write music.
AX: What can we expect from your score to Harry’s finale? How many of the HALLOWS themes will crossover to the next film, and which new ones will be introduced?
DESPLAT: I don’t know yet. I’ve still a long way to go.
AX: Do you think you’re one of the few composers who can “get away” with a traditionally, and orchestrally melodic score in Hollywood these days?
DESPLAT: I like music for films that are interwoven with the movie, but can still stand alone once the lights come back on in the theater. All the great soundtracks have this quality. And this balance between function and fiction is always my obsession when I write. Many scores of the ’70s and ’80s, which are electronically driven, already sound very dated. A symphonic orchestra has such an immense palette of colors and of expression that it will last forever. To my ears, the orchestral sounds of Mozart, Ravel, Toru Takemitsu, Nino Rota, Alex North, Maurice Jarre, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith never sound dated.
AX: Your other big film this holiday season will be THE KING’S SPEECH, which is your second score to deal with English royalty after THE QUEEN. Could you talk about your new approach for this family, and how it reveals the human person underneath the crown?
DESPLAT: I am humbly hoping to be knighted one day. More seriously, THE KING’S SPEECH tells the story of a man who is suffering from a speech impediment. Stammering makes him miserable and unable to do his duty. The man, being the future King, makes the drama even more intense. But what interested me in the story is the suffering which the therapist tries to “cure” by going deep into the pains that this man has endured in his childhood. The music is following George VI as a reporter’s camera would, through his hopes and his doubts of recovery. We hear, as his musical motif a repeated note on a piano, stuck, like a trapped animal in a cage that cannot find its way out. A bird unable to sing. We recorded at Abbey Road Studios and Pete Cobbin, our sound engineer, found in the EMI archives the 3 “Royal” microphones. Yes: George V, George VI and the Queen mother had microphones made to order for their speeches, beautiful silver crafted microphones that we used to record the score. They create a gentle veil to the sound, very moving, like a distant patina, which is absolutely stunning and we can alternate from the Royal mics to the modern recording set up. Very exciting.
AX: You’ve been involved with Terrence Mallick’s TREE OF LIFE for years now. Could you talk about your score for it, and what it’s like to finally have the film come out next year?
DESPLAT: I am still waiting to see the finished film. Terrence has his own perception of sound and music. He enjoys mixing in pieces of the repertoire which he loves, along with the most unpredictable music. He asked me to write the score even before seeing any images. I have been working closely with him on and off for almost 3 years and am looking forward to watching the final result.
AX: More than most composers, you straddle the worlds of high-minded “art” cinema and the big sound of fantasy blockbusters. What’s it like having that balance, and do you think HARRY POTTER will shift it?
DESPLAT: To me, the HARRY POTTER series is beyond a commercial blockbuster. It has invented something new which is now part of the history of Cinema, like the STAR WARS series did. Cinema has always been for me an Art, and I will keep it that way. Therefore, I try to be involved in films whose directors have the same passionate vision of filmmaking that I do. I can go on forever working with Stephen Frears, David Fincher, Roman Polanski and Jacques Audiard.
AX: What’s it like to effectively be summing up the sound of Harry Potter with these two DEATHLY HALLOWS scores?
DESPLAT: It’s a great challenge, a lot of expectations to fulfill and a great deal of work ahead of me …
Take the first trip to Desplat’s HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PT. 1 here, and then listen with the composer to THE KING’S SPEECH here