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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • Watertower Music 39212 / 2010 / 73:42

A book of such importance that it had to be split into two films, the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has arrived , with the second part coming to wrap up the cinematic franchise next year.  The kids have grown up and they have more serious matters to attend to, such as dealing with death and seeing off the evil Voldemort for the last time.  The film is, as with its two immediate predecessors, directed by David Yates; this time his usual composer Nicholas Hooper did not return, with scoring duties passing instead to the prolific Alexandre Desplat, whose earlier foray into fantasy led to him writing a wonderful score for The Golden Compass but then not being able to continue the work after plans to make the other two films in the trilogy were shelved.  

The score, predictably given its composer, is intricately detailed and rewards the patient listener willing to explore all its depths.  In many ways, this seems to have proved to be its stumbling block amongst many mainstream film music listeners, who (in the 21st century way) seek instant gratification.  I’m more a 19th century man myself, so to me this approach is wonderful – refreshing to see a film composer given the opportunity to write music of such colour when the landscape for scores for films of this profile is usually drawn these days in black and white.

Alexandre Desplat

However, this in no way implies that the score is lacking obvious thematic material.  While it is undoubtedly unlikely that many listeners will go away from it and start humming any of the new themes the way they might have done with John Williams’s “Hedwig’s Theme” after the first film,  they are there.  A sweeping darkness pervades the melody in the early “Snape to Malfoy Manor”, offering a beautiful sense of adventure while also leaving little doubt that the adventure may be rather misguided; there’s a haunting theme in “Harry and Ginny”, more suggestive of separation than togetherness; a devastating piece of sorrow and despair, “Godric’s Hollow Graveyard”; a playful, Golden Compass-style hint of comedy in “Ministry of Magic”; and the most typically Desplatian theme, frequently heard for cello, runs throughout the score.  The melodic highlight for many will be the heartbreaking “Farewell to Dobby”, so full of the kind of emotion which many of his detractors accuse this composer of not being able to convey.

None of the above is particularly surprising; what I did find surprising was the action music.  From the first big action set piece, “Sky Battle”, onwards Desplat offers a massive tip of his hat in John Williams’s direction.  I have read a lot of online chatter about this score in which Desplat is accused of completely disregarding Williams’s earlier work on the franchise (criticism which was rarely aimed at either Patrick Doyle or Nicholas Hooper in their respective scores, mysteriously); from the thunderous brass through the beefed-up winds in the lowest register, some of the action music in this score could barely sound more like Williams’s modern style, leaving me utterly mystified at some of the comments.  One review of the score says that the action music certainly doesn’t sound like The Emperor Strikes Back‘s “The Asteroid Field”.  No shit, Sherlock.  What it sounds like is the darker action music that Williams has written since the turn of the century, in such scores as Minority Report and certain moments of the second and third Star Wars prequels.  If John Williams himself had scored this film, this is what the action music would sound like.  The notion that he might score these very dark scenes with “Harry’s Wondrous World”, as suggested by many as the way Desplat should have gone, is completely absurd; Williams would no more have done that than he would have scored Anakin’s transformation into Vader in Revenge of the Sith using “Parade of the Ewoks”.

In no way am I suggesting that Desplat is simply impersonating Williams here – he isn’t, and nor should he have done.  But he has blended his own highly-individual style with that of the other composer (quite possibly aided by Conrad Pope, who worked with Desplat on the orchestrations here, a job he has done for Williams on numerous occasions) and this score is far closer to the one Williams would have written for this film than most people have admitted.  It has by far the most emotional depth of any of the Potter scores (the irony with this series is that until now, after Williams departed, the films got deeper and the scores got shallower).  I don’t think it quite reaches the rich heights of the composer’s work on The Golden Compass, but it’s still one of the year’s most highly-developed works.  I for one can’t wait to hear what the composer does for the second part.  **** 1/2

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  1. Luc Van der Eeken on Saturday 18 December, 2010 at 15:26

    Perfect review James! My sentiments exactly. I was guilty of some of that criticism myself but I’ve learned to love this score and after having seen the film and listening how beautifully it works I’m eagerly looking forward to part II. Desplat nailed it. And the movie critics were more than kind for his score. I don’t know if his music is eligeable for the oscars.

  2. Mikal on Saturday 18 December, 2010 at 17:46

    It’s interesting that you think it has “by far the most emotional depth of any of the Potter scores”…for me, it’s the opposite. Well, it depends. If by depth you mean the listener has to really dig deep to extract the emotion, then I agree. However, this seems counterintuitive to me. I don’t think emotion should be something you have to work to feel, you know? I believe it should come naturally – you either automatically feel something or you don’t. This is a big reason why Desplat’s work, generally, doesn’t work for me. There’s too much fluff.

    Conversely, if you meant that this score is brimming with emotion, I’d have to disagree. I know that you, Jon Broxton, and many others can easily detect the warmth in Desplat’s music, but for whatever reason I cannot, for the most part. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, I suppose.

  3. Edmund Meinerts on Sunday 19 December, 2010 at 14:10

    …And it’s another misstep at Movie Wave. Or, to put it more fairly, another discrepancy between my opinion and yours, because I think you’ve got the ratings of Arnold’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Desplat’s Deathly Hallows the wrong way around. The former is full of memorable themes, sparkling fantasy moments, rip-roaring action and, to tie it together, a real sense of fantasy. The latter rambles along anonymously, always technically proficient but never memorable.

    Like Mikal, I don’t know what you mean by emotional “depth”. Also like Mikal, I think the concept of “buried emotion” is ridiculous. To me, the point of emotion – especially in a film score – is that you’re supposed to FEEL it, automatically, and not have to sift around in the murky waters of Desplat’s score to find it. Also, how you can denigrate Arnold’s score/album for being too long but not mention it here, with an album that is six minutes longer? I’d rate this score **** to **** 1/2 as well if it only consisted of the first five tracks, the Ministry sequence, “Ron Leaves”, “Lovegood” and “Dobby’s Farewell”. You could say that about practically any score, though, so what’s the point?

    Also, I don’t think people are expecting “Harry’s Wondrous World” to accompany the sky battle. What we WERE expecting was a bit of development on Williams’ themes to match them to the darker tone, something Williams himself would have easily accomplished given the way he handled the prequels. The end of Filmtracks’ Deathly Hallows review summarizes nicely the way I feel about the continuity issue.

    It’s astounding how often I find myself disagreeing with your reviews this year, but I still acknowledge that it’s your opinion, naturally. I like a bit of discussion!

  4. James Southall on Sunday 19 December, 2010 at 14:29

    OK, some points to respond to!

    The emotional depth – I don’t mean the emotion is buried so deep that you have to struggle to find it, I mean it’s multi-faceted. It isn’t just “the character’s smiling, so let’s do some happy music here” – Desplat aims for what they’re feeling inside rather than just what they may be showing. He gets under the surface of the film. That, to me, is what film music is meant to be, in many ways it’s the whole point of it.

    The Williams themes – the only one which will be familiar to the public is Hedwig’s Theme. Maybe, at a push, Harry’s Wondrous World (which would clearly have been inappropriate for this film). If the filmmakers wanted someone to just adapt Williams’s themes, I’m sure countless candidates could have been found who are far cheaper than Alexandre Desplat. But they didn’t, they wanted the right score for THIS film. Could Desplat have adapted some of Williams’s lesser-known themes for it? Sure, but that would come at the large risk of him losing his passion for the music (indeed, I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken the project on if he’d had that restriction). He did a lot more with Hedwig’s Theme than either Doyle or Hooper, neither of whom for that matter used any of Williams’s other themes. These characters in the film have grown such a lot since the last time Williams wrote music for them. You could look at Ottman’s Superman or Tyler’s Rambo to see how not to do it, where there are just jarring shifts in style purely to accommodate the familiar music by Williams and Goldsmith respectively – Desplat made an effort to write music which is demonstrably from the same universe as Williams’s (again, I point out that neither Doyle nor Hooper did that).

    Album length – the reason I said Narnia was too long and didn’t mention it for Potter is that Potter contains consistently interesting music (to me, obviously not to others) and Narnia doesn’t. I don’t claim there to be a “one size fits all” album length. Some scores have enough interesting music to sustain a 30-minute CD, others can stretch to 70 minutes or beyond.

    Thanks for all the comments! It is nice to know that someone is reading, even if you don’t agree with me!

  5. Kevin on Sunday 19 December, 2010 at 23:28

    If I could jump in here, it seems like there are some people who object to Desplat’s approach to this film, and to film music in general. To the claim that emotion is something you’re supposed to automatically feel, I vehemently disagree with that. Some composers don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves with their music. They take a more subtle and introspective approach to their work, and demand that you take the time to appreciate it. I don’t consider that “working” or “sifting around in murky waters”, but reflecting upon it and giving the score the full attention it deserves.

    Some of my favorite scores didn’t impress me after the first listen. Indeed, when I first listened to a previous score by Desplat, “Lust Caution”, I found it interesting but not very memorable. Now, months later, after having listened to it numerous times, and after seeing the film it accompanies, it’s my all-time favorite Desplat score. It’s a testament to his talent that I can still uncover layers in his music after all this time.

    Desplat is not like James Horner or John Williams, composers who definitely wear their emotions on their sleeves. He’s not someone you would enjoy if you’re expecting his music to immediately jump out at you. In that way, he’s a lot like Thomas Newman, another favorite composer. Frankly, I consider his more subtle approach to film music vastly refreshing in a time where depth is considered secondary to breadth and volume.

  6. Josh on Sunday 19 December, 2010 at 23:42

    Is it just me, or did Desplat quote Hedwig’s theme at the beginning and end of “Farewell to Dobby”? I’ve heard that Dobby is Desplat’s favorite character, and he’s also one of the last connections to the innocence of the previous Harry Potter films. If I remember correctly, Desplat also stated in an interview that his primary use of Hedwig’s theme was to suggest the loss of innocence that occurs throughout this film.

    Either way, the cue is gorgeous and heartbreaking.

  7. Josh on Monday 20 December, 2010 at 02:16

    Actually, “Destroying the Locket” also seems to contain clever references to Hedwig’s theme; in fact, the entire track is built from it. Or am I hearing things? If that was intentional, I must say it’s a genius incorporation of the theme.

  8. Lucas on Monday 20 December, 2010 at 03:09

    “He [i.e. Desplat] did a lot more with Hedwig’s Theme than either Doyle or Hooper”. I have to disagree. Just listen to Doyle’s Foreign Visitors Arrive”, “The Story Continues” or the suite at the beginning of the end credits. There are clearer and bolder reprises of Hedwig’s Theme in DOyle’s music. It’s true that Desplat deconstruction of the theme integrates it better into his music, but he doesn’t bother to work it enough.

    And by the way, Desplat’s theme for Harry (Polujuice Potion, Harry and Ginny, Ate the Barrow, Ron Leaves) cannot be compared with, again, Doyle’s (Harry in Winter, Dead of Cedric). The French composer has better orchestations than Doyle or Williams (not to mention shallow Nick Hooper) but lacks not just passion, he lacks the sense of a dark adventure going on and a good narrative flow to organize his music. Even his well-know talent at waltz-writing doesn’t make the motif for the Locket a good piece as it did for New Moon’s Volturi Waltz.

  9. Michael on Monday 20 December, 2010 at 13:32

    Overall this score didn’t really do it for me, however great cues like Obliviate and Sky Battle give me hope that in the more action-packed second movie Desplat will write something that I can really enjoy. Glad you liked it anyway.

  10. orion_mk3 on Thursday 4 August, 2011 at 16:22

    How soon can we expect your review for Part 2?

  11. Enrico on Sunday 22 September, 2013 at 19:39

    Hi dear James!

    I’m Enrico and I usually read your great website.
    Nice to see that you wrote so many beautiful things about this installment of HP.
    I’m a huge fan od Desplat, I’ve almost everything about him from 2001 to now.

    I think that DEATHLY HALLOW – PART I rapresent a milestone in his wonderful firmament and I was impressed to see that you consider PART II better (I found PART II a bit too Hollywood-ish in some ways, think to some action cues).

    Anyway, great AD on this HP movie! And I’m much happier to see that he outdone himself with some great adventure stuff such as RISE OF THE GUARDIANS.

    See you soon!

    Enrico