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CD Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by John Takis

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ****


Warner Sunset/Nonesuch/Atlantic 83493-2

19 tracks - 73:34

This review must begin with an anecdote that will help put things in perspective. I am sitting in a crowded theater, waiting for Lord of the Rings to begin, and attempting to carry on a conversation over the crowd noise and constant undercurrent of muzak piping through the cinema speakers. Suddenly the muzak fades to be replaced by the haunting celesta that begins John Williams' score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I quickly realize that it is, in fact, the concert arrangement "Hedwig's Theme," and to my utter surprise the spellbound. They don't make a sound for about 30 seconds, and the volume never rises above a few whispers for the remaining four minutes. This is not an audience of children, either. This is a large crowd of every size, age and shape -- all held captive under the maestro's baton.

I offer this story as a testimony to the lasting power of John Williams to enchant an audience. I remember when the Potter soundtrack was first released, prompting a drove of self-important critics to cry injustice: "Derivative!" "Pedestrian!" "Has Williams lost his magic?" Rising to meet them was an army of Williams-fanatics in defense of their master: "That's not fair!" "You're listening to it wrong!" "It's his best score ever!" The reality of the situation got lost somewhere in-between. While Williams isn't really breaking any new ground here, neither is he running on autopilot, as some have alleged.

Part of the misconception regarding Potter was the popular notion that Williams had not scored a fantasy film for children since the early '90s, when he wrote Hook and Home Alone -- the two scores to which Potter is most frequently compared (and not totally without cause). In fact, Williams did score a children's fantasy prior to Potter -- that film was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and it is to this score, more than any other, that Potter bears a compositional resemblance. Here is the denser and more textured Williams of the late '90s, the more "mature" Williams who wrote Nixon and The Lost World. The slightly unstable innocence of Harry's theme parallels that of Anakin in Phantom, and it's impossible to listen to the Prokofien noodling of Platform Nine-and-Three Quarters and not be reminded of Jar-Jar.

If Hedwig's Theme is a by-product of music from Hook and Home Alone, it is only after being filtered through Williams' own The Witches of Eastwick. And then there are the Classical influences. Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets) is an obvious source of inspiration, as are Wagner and many others. But Williams is the glue that holds it all together. If anything, using Tchaikovsky as a stepping-off point only works to the film's advantage, simply and effectively evoking the qualities of a Christmas-shrouded fairy tale. For Potter, Williams is generally not interested in contrapuntal commentary. Instead, he writes vivid music for vivid imagery, with an emphasis on "magic and theatrical" qualities, as he stated in a Times interview ("They Shoot, He Scores").

Foremost in Williams' mind was that he was writing music for children. Even if interviews had not borne this out (he was introduced to Harry Potter not by Chris Columbus, but by his own grandchildren) there is the nine-movement orchestral suite, sure to be premiered soon, which will serve a similar educational function as Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." (At least one of these movements made it onto the album as Hogwarts Forever, a very English processional for horns).

Scoring with an eye towards a younger, less sophisticated audience may be a large part of the reason critics have derided Potter's music as "syrupy" or negatively unsubtle. Williams' score is certainly hard to miss; it fills the film wall-to-wall with an operatic sense of presence and leitmotif. In this sense, the score isn't any more subtle or emotionally direct than the original Star Wars. But what many fail to realize is that Potter could not have been another Star Wars, which almost single-handedly revitalized large-scale symphonic sound in film music. That sound helped birth the genre Harry Potter now inhabits, and a departure would have been alienating where it should have been captivating.

There's little to say about the actual music that hasn't been said by others. The album presents us with a wide range of moods and styles, from the haunted "Prologue," to the ethnic flutes of "Diagon Alley," spidery woodwinds for Voldemort, and even a languid passage for harp. Williams also treats us to an original, delightfully spooky Christmas carol. One of the album highlights is the lengthy and bombastic "The Quidditch Match," which recalls Phantom Menace's "Flag Parade" as well as Hook's "The Ultimate War" and features excellent brass writing.

Some have criticized the score for an over-reliance on material taken from "Hedwig's Theme" (which is the last track on the CD). This is less true in the film than it is on the album, which only includes about half of the music Williams composed, and tends to focus on the more "theatrical" elements, especially towards the beginning. This is a situation in which some judicious editing may have improved the final product.

But what we are left with is still a wonderful listening experience, especially for the very young who are perhaps experiencing film music for the first time. This ear-opening ability, as displayed in films like Star Wars and E.T., made Williams a household name. Perhaps we, for all our sophistication and experience, long for that sense of discovery in a familiar world -- something we might not find in Williams' umpteenth exposition on "the magic of flight." He is still capable of surprising and intriguing us -- A.I. demonstrated that much earlier last year. But Harry Potter was for the children of the world, and for the universe of adult "muggles" whose lives are sorely in want of a little magic. If you think you have any of that spirit left in you, buy this CD and enjoy.

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