Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Fifteen years after J.K. Rowling first introduced the world to Harry Potter, the saga has finally ended. The interim has seen the publication of seven books and the release of eight films about the life and adventures of the eponymous boy wizard, culminating in this film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the second installment of the series’ epic finale. It’s been a long journey for both Rowling and her teenage protagonist – the books have become some of the most successful literary works of the last 100 years, the films have grossed a combined $2.3 billion at the US box office alone – but at the end of it all, Harry Potter will likely remain one of the most beloved series of novels and films for many generations to come.

Be warned; from here on in, there are spoilers, because it’s impossible to talk about the music without revealing some important plot points. That plot, of course, picks up where the last movie finished, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) running for their lives from the clutches of the evil dark wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Everything finally comes to a head with Harry and his friends desperately searching for the last Horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort’s soul hidden in magical objects) while his school – Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – is defended from hordes of Voldemort’s Death Eaters to the last by it’s staff and students. As always, the crème de la crème of British acting talent is on display here, and the film is ably directed by David Yates, marking his fourth time at the helm of a Potter movie. Also returning – thankfully – to score the conclusion is French composer Alexandre Desplat, who stepped into Nicholas Hooper’s shoes after the end of Half-Blood Prince, and wrote one of the best scores of his career for Deathly Hallows Part I.

What’s interesting about Desplat’s score is how he completely understood what the series is actually about, and built his score around those ideas. At its core, as Rowling herself has said, the stories are about death, and loss, and how one copes with those things. One of the main driving forces behind Harry’s actions throughout the series is the memory of his mother, Lily – her sacrifice for him when he was a child, her enduring love for him, and his likeness to her, especially in his eyes. As such, it stands to reason that Desplat’s theme for Lily should be the emotional cornerstone of the score.

An exotic, vaguely Celtic theme which lilts and weaves ethereally, the main melody of “Lily’s Theme” is often carried by the performance of Japanese vocalist Mai Fujisawa, the daughter of composer Joe Hisaishi, who contributed so memorably to her father’s score for Ponyo a couple of years ago. It has a haunting, searching, appropriately ghostlike quality, and when it appears later in “The Resurrection Stone”, by far the most emotionally devastating scene in the film (in which he walks to face Voldemort in the company of the ghosts of his mother, his father, Sirius and Lupin), you can feel Harry’s pain and desperation through Desplat’s music.

However, not only does theme accompany Harry at his most emotional moments, but it also provides context for the actions of others. When Snape dies, it is not generic sad music we hear in “Snape’s Demise”, but a glassy, otherworldly performance of Lily’s Theme marking his passing. When Snape shares his childhood memories with Harry, it is an idyllic version of the theme we hear in the early parts of “Severus and Lily” – although as the cue develops it becomes more strained. It was Snape’s unrequited love for Lily which fuelled his loyalty to Dumbledore, Snape’s anguish over the fact that it was his actions that lead to her death which turned him away from Voldemort’s side, and Harry’s resemblance to her that ignited his hatred for the boy, who was a living reminder of all that he had wanted but could never have. As such, the musical choices Desplat makes here are wholly appropriate, and emotionally fulfilling.

The tremendous “Dragon Flight” gives Desplat his expansive moment of soaring thematic grandeur, and although he chooses Lily’s Theme as his melody, one can forgive him a lack of contextual application in this instance and simply marvel at the beauty of it – after all, John Williams wasn’t above sacrificing leitmotivic integrity in exchange for emotional release himself, notably when he played Princess Leia’s Theme at the moment of Ben Kenobi’s death in the original Star Wars.

The other major motif new to this score is the Hogwarts Defense Theme, a strident, muscular ostinato which underpins the actions of the various members of the Order of the Phoenix as they repel Voldemort’s invaders with the might of their magic. After a brief appearance during “A New Headmaster”, the theme gets its first full airing in “Statues”, during which Professor McGonagle bewitches the school’s immense stone guardians to protect those within. It’s a vaguely Remote Control-ish theme, making use of a powerful repeated string figure, militaristic bass-heavy drums, metallic percussion, and a choral wash which gives the entire piece a sense of epic grandeur and solid defiance. Its subsequent performances, in the gargantuan “Battlefield” and the devastating “Courtyard Apocalypse”, are wonderful.

The rest of the action music is, of course, as superb as Desplat’s action music always is; “The Tunnel”, the desperate and chaotic second half of “Underworld”, “Panic Inside Hogwarts”, parts of “The Grey Lady”, and several others throb to powerful percussive writing, tremulous brass blasts, helter-skelter string runs, several moments of full-throated choral majesty, and an unexpected amount of impressive volume. The familiar woodwind trills that abound are of course a hallmark and have underpinned Desplat’s action material throughout his career. It’s all wonderfully exciting and energetic, skillfully crafted with layer upon layer of instrumentation giving the pieces weight and depth, but not so much that the individual layers cannot be identified. This clarity of performance and orchestration has always been one of Desplat’s hallmarks, and it is one of his most endearing traits. Note, for example, the eerie piano-and-clarinet combo towards the end of “The Diadem”, and especially the thunderous staccato string rhythms and wailing trombone outbursts in the too-brief “Broomsticks and Fire” that are as ground-shaking as anything Elliot Goldenthal ever wrote.

As one would expect, Desplat revisits several themes from his first score here too, giving his noble horn-led Order of the Phoenix motif from the first film a stirring recapitulation at the end of “Neville” at the beginning of “Battlefield”, and in “Showdown”. Whereas the theme accompanied the adventures of the adult Order members first time round, here the adults have the new Hogwarts Defense Theme, leaving the heroic actions of the children – Neville, Ginny, Luna – to be underscored by those warm, patriotic horns. The explosion of heroic battle music that accompanies Neville’s heart-stopping moment of personal triumph in “Neville the Hero” is excellent.

Similarly, the full context of the Obliviate theme from the first score becomes clearer here too, as Desplat uses it to illustrate the desperate personal sacrifices the characters make in order to defeat the forces of evil. In the original film, it was Hermione intentionally wiping her parents’ memories to keep them safe from Voldemort. In this film, it is Harry’s revelation to his friends that he must walk knowingly to his death in order for everyone else to live. The moving performances of the Obliviate theme in “Harry’s Sacrifice” and “Harry Surrenders” are two of the most emotional moments of the score, with the former being made even more poignant through a tender performance of Hedwig’s Theme at the end of the cue.

Indeed, fans of John Williams’ original scores will be pleased to know that Desplat makes reference to some of that material in this score, as he did in his first. Hedwig’s Theme makes a mournful return in “A New Headmaster”, a desolate echo of all that Hogwarts once was, and what it has now become under Voldemort’s corrupt new regime, as well as making brief cameos in “Dragon Flight”, “In the Chamber of Secrets”, “The Diadem”, on a gently tinkling celeste in “Snape’s Demise”, and with deathly sorrow in “Procession”. Desplat does miss a couple of moments where he could have revisited some of Williams earlier material – a brief tip of the hat to the four-note chamber motif in “In the Chamber of Secrets”, or a nod to Fawkes the Phoenix in “Neville the Hero” perhaps – but these are easily overlooked.

The finale of the score – “Showdown” and “Voldemort’s End” – is a 7-minute extravaganza of powerful leitmotivic writing, in which Neville’s Order theme, Lily’s theme, the Hogwarts Defense Theme, and even snippets and variations of Hedwig’s Theme do battle under a vast cacophony of action material which showcases Desplat’s both intellectual structuring of the music in thematic terms, and the boldness of his writing in terms of sheer adrenaline.

In the film, there are three tracked-in pieces of music from both Williams and Hooper’s scores which do not appear on this album. A lovely statement of “Dumbledore’s Farewell” from Half Blood Prince is heard immediately after “Severus and Lily”, while the 19 Years Later epilogue and the first portion of the end credits feature full concert performances of “Leaving Hogwarts” and “Hedwig’s Theme” from the original Sorcerer’s Stone score. It would have been nice to have had these three cues on the score CD for completeness sake, but for those who own the original soundtracks it’s easy to program them in to the appropriate place to form a deeper listening experience, as I have done.

I can’t speak highly enough of Desplat’s achievement in concluding the Harry Potter franchise the way he has. Contrary to popular belief, he not only remained respectful of Williams’s original musical ideas and used them where appropriate – something that neither Patrick Doyle nor Nicholas Hooper achieved to the same extent – but he also managed to capture the emotional and intellectual development of the entire series from Harry as a wide-eyed child to Harry as a beaten, battered man, culminating in this mature, profound work. By building his two scores around Rowling’s philosophical driving force for the stories, he gave Harry’s sendoff a sense of seriousness of purpose, but laced it with an appropriate flavor of pathos and tragedy as befitting the tragic nature of Harry’s life. In losing virtually everyone that mattered most to him in his life – his parents, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Remus Lupin, and even Snape – Harry’s story was always about death, and Desplat’s decision to build his score around a musical motif representing those departed souls was a perfect one. This is one of the scores of the year.

Rating: *****

Buy the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Lily’s Theme (2:28)
  • The Tunnel (1:09)
  • Underworld (5:24)
  • Gringotts (2:24)
  • Dragon Flight (1:43)
  • Neville (1:40)
  • A New Headmaster (3:25)
  • Panic Inside Hogwarts (1:53)
  • Statues (2:22)
  • The Grey Lady (5:51)
  • In the Chamber of Secrets (1:37)
  • Battlefield (2:13)
  • The Diadem (3:08)
  • Broomsticks and Fire (1:24)
  • Courtyard Apocalypse (2:00)
  • Snape’s Demise (2:51)
  • Severus and Lily (6:08)
  • Harry’s Sacrifice (1:57)
  • The Resurrection Stone (4:32)
  • Harry Surrenders (1:30)
  • Procession (2:07)
  • Neville the Hero (2:17)
  • Showdown (3:37)
  • Voldemort’s End (2:44)
  • A New Beginning (1:39)

Running Time: 68 minutes 09 seconds

WaterTower Music 39255 (2011)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, Clifford Tasner, Jean-Pascal Beintus and Bill Newlin. Special vocal performances by Mai Fujisawa. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Gerard McCann, Peter Clarke and Stuart Morton. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat, Conrad Pope, Peter Cobbin and Gerard McCann.

  1. August 15, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Great review. I agree about how Deslat managed to capture the sense of tragedy and death in the final two films. The reason is because he’s a big fan of the books and films, and the scores.

  2. Craig
    August 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Well said, I think Desplat did an excellent job scoring the last two films. The Obliviate theme is amazing and truly a great melody outside the films too.
    It’s great to have you back writing soundtrack reviews, Jon. We missed your input during the last couple of months. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on other summer movie scores too.

  3. August 16, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    I think the album would have been much stronger had it featured some of the music that Desplat arranged for the movie, especially the “19 years later” scene and the end credits. As is, the album ends on a really weak note.

    • August 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      I agree alexpo1, but I think that there may have been some contractual and rights issues which kept the Williams (and Hooper) material off the soundtrack. Had Desplat been allowed to make a purely artistic decision I think they would have been there. I created my own full listening experience by inserting “Dumbledore’s Farewell” from HBP after “Severus and Lily”, and both “Leaving Hogwarts” and “Hedwig’s Theme” from TPS at the end – it works quite well!

  4. Craig Lysy
    August 16, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Well done my friend. This is a fine effort to mark your return! Once again you demonstrate an uncommon capacity to discern the essence of the score. I aspire to someday achieve the quality of your reviews.

    All the best.

  5. August 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Great review!!

    All the best.

  6. Luc
    August 19, 2011 at 12:57 am

    Good to have you back, Jonathan! Fantastic review for a fantastic score, Desplat nailed it and indeed one of the best of the year.

  7. August 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    I agree, Desplat get 5 stars for his score for Part 2. I want to point out that the use of “Dumbledore’s Farewell”, “Leaving Hogwarts”, and “Hedwig’s Theme suite” are new performances recorded by Desplat for the film and Leaving Hogwarts is even greatly extended by Desplat in the middle section so, sadly, its not quite the same if you just pull them in from the previous scores. =( Also Snape disliked Harry because he looked so much like James who he hated and having his mother’s eyes is kind of what made not hate Harry completely. Great review, thanks!

  8. August 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Kyle :

    Also Snape disliked Harry because he looked so much like James who he hated and having his mother’s eyes is kind of what made not hate Harry completely. Great review, thanks!

    Well, that’s all a matter of interpretation. I always saw it as that Snape saw Harry as the living embodiment of everything he never had – a family, especially with Lily. In an ideal world, from Snape’s POV, Harry would have been Snape’s son. The fact that Lily also had the son with James – who he hated so much – compounded the issue… and then the resemblance to James ignited his hatred for the son… and the eyes were a constant reminder of what he loved and lost. Thanks for the nice response though 🙂

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