Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone

John Williams (2001)


Why You Should…
If you value John Williams’ memorably iconic work for the Harry Potter franchise, in which case you will be rewarded with highly sophisticated and novel artistry constructed with emotional reverence.

Why You Shouldn’t…
If the sum of prior references or derivative material from the composers’ previous works only hinders the listening experience, despite Williams’ extremely tight narrative. 

Release Date: 30th October 2001 (PHYSICAL RELEASE)
Composer(s): John Williams
Length: 73:34
Recorded By/At: Simon Rhodes at Air Lyndhurst Studios, and Abbey Road Studios, London
Label: Warner Sunset Records

Additional Information:
Conducted By: John Williams
Album Produced By: John Williams
Noted Performers: Marcia Crayford, Randy Kerber & The London Voices.
Orchestrated By: Eddie Karam & Conrad Pope.

A literary phenomenon in every sense of the word was British author J.K.Rowling’s game-changing franchise novella, Harry Potter. In recent memory, it has become increasingly difficult to even try and pinpoint just how many young children were inspired to take up reading as a result of the charms that Rowling so meticulously placed in her seven novels and eight films, the first of which being HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (or the Sorcerer’s Stone as released in the United States). Far more interesting in retrospect, years after the culmination of the overarching story-line had come to a heart-stopping end in the finale, is the collection of adults as part of the Potter fan-base, this titular tale of a boy wizard so deeply now rooted firm in recognizable cultural significance. For Rowling herself, the publishing of the first book was the biggest spell she’d ever cast in her life, transforming her wellbeing to an astoundingly affluent one, graced with immense showers of accolades and heartfelt appreciation, and when you read these books, you can’t help but tip your hat in her direction as to why. These Harry Potter films are a rare breed; that of when the cinematic adaptations of the written source material are equally rewarding, though it will be hard to sway the books’ fanatics in terms of which is superior. By far the most revolutionary franchise of the 21st century, Rowling centers her immaculate wit around an eleven year old orphan named Harry Potter, who is bestowed unfortunately upon his uncle and aunt’s doorsteps, the rather ungenerous Dursleys. Turning eleven changes his perspective of the world, however, when a chance meeting with a paternally friendly giant named Hagrid reveals his true nature  of a wizard, and labels his infamous lightning bolt scar as the cause of his miraculous survival against the malevolent wizard Lord Voldemort (He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, as per taboo in the wizarding world), the Dark Lord who killed his parents when he was an infant. The young protagonist is given the privilege to attend schooling at Hogwarts, a castle that houses students versed in magic and sorcery, and using the help of his newfound friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, becomes engrossed in investigating the mysterious happenings around the school. Blessed with universal approval from fans and critics alike, this fondly remembered first installment of a beloved saga remains a positive force of nostalgia for many an individual.

Because of the meticulous, extremely detailed loyalty with which director Chris Columbus adapted the first installment of the Potter novels to screen, an equivalent dedication was required in the technical areas of the film. All cast members were British, as per the books, and all filming was performed in England, using the privilege of Leavesden Film Studios and Alnwick Castle as the primary focus of location for Hogwarts. The main three protagonists were chosen with Rowling’s initial character descriptions in mind, but have since developed their own presence onscreen progressively with each installment. Revered character actors such as Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman were given further prominence as Professor Dumbledore, Hagrid, Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape respectively. The screenplay adaptation by Steve Kloves must be commended, if only for the consistency that Kloves brings from the novel without losing much of its novelty. Kloves described the task as “extremely difficult”, stating it to be less readily adaptable when compare to the successive two chapters, the Chamber of Secrets and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There are a small handful of differences between the source material and the final product, but casual audiences will easily overlook them, if not noticing them at all. When you consider the initial speculation that late composer James Horner had rejected this film in pursuit of a more character based drama such as A Beautiful Mind, then the inclusion of John Williams seems perhaps the only attributable choice. It’s difficult to not discuss his immense contributions to the world of Harry Potter without becoming stricken with hyperbole, as the Maestro ended up creating one of the most influential and memorable scores of the digital age, as well as the greatest theme in all of 21st century film music. The composer expressed particular fondness for the franchise, even having admired the subtleties of the book before production had begun, but only three entries in the overall tapestry were scored by him, with all installments from the fourth onwards to the end using his title theme as the familiar identity, whilst switching between a lesser focused leitmotivic approach over time. Despite the talents of Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat attached to the final four films, it is Williams who holds the crown jewel in the Harry Potter franchise to date. Given the earlier portions of the 2000s in which the composer made his franchise debut, he was bestowed with several awards nominations, but was overwhelmed by the hysteria regarding the fantastic Lord of the Rings scores by noted peer Howard Shore, who had just managed to shake off his dark mystery thriller cobwebs. Whilst Shore swept the awards season that year, Williams’ work benefits from a much more clear and precise approach to the respective cinematic world, whilst using several themes and motifs that ring more recognizably than any of Shore’s motifs for the concurrent franchise. A great test stood before him, for not only was it a reunion with the Home Alone director, but it was also his first children’s based score in a while. Interpolating his title theme in the trailers (a move last performed by the composer in Spielberg’s Hook), Williams began elevating the necessary anticipation long before cinematic release.

Unable to work with his usual preferred London Symphony Orchestra, he managed to request the help of other performers from the British capital city, and looking back, it’s warming to denote his childlike enthusiasm for the film. He describes having written a theme for Hedwig, Harry’s beloved owl that Hagrid first buys him as an 11th birthday gift, designating it as a concert piece of sorts, stating, “Everyone seemed to like it, so I will probably use that music as one thread in the tapestry.” Stressing the importance of understanding the novel, he asserts, “It is more valuable to me to be a tabula rasa; most of the audience doesn’t know what’s coming, and it’s important to place myself in that same position. I want the film to make the first impression, and it is also the film itself that has to give me the right sense of pace and timing.” He holds the entire franchise by this theme for Hedwig alone, branching other important secondary motifs from this alluring, gothic spirited dance. He first gave a fortunate audience at Tanglewood on the 31st of July 2001 a concert performance of “Prologue”, or Hedwig’s Theme as alternatively referred in the end credits summary. Several listeners often mistake this alternate title as the initial labeling of the theme, when it merely serves as the suite during the credits, and a concert theme arrangement. Opening to roaring applause and acclaim from noted outlets, this outstanding theme is attributed primarily to the owl, but also the overarching franchise theme, used specifically in scenes of Hedwig’s flight to deliver letters to Harry regarding his stay at Hogwarts, for example, when McGonagall purchases the Nimbus 2000 broomstick for the wizard following his revelation of natural talent at Quidditch, the leading wizardry sport. Additionally, several breath-taking statements appear beforehand, most notably in the title logo towards the end of “The Arrival of Baby Harry”, after Dumbledore deems the young infant safe with his Dursleys (a terribly humorous move in hindsight).  

This stunning theme is characterized by a series of twinkling notes on celesta, evoking imagery of the magic appearing at wand tips in faint but stealing glows. The chord progressions that Williams weaves this through is pure magic at its finest, and an array of layered tremolo strings create the movement of an owl’s wings restlessly fluttering, with crescendo excitement before a valiant French horn reprise pushes this identity to memorable heights, capturing the hidden secrets of the wizarding world so perfectly. It incorporates semblances of Wagner and Tchaikovsky in its alluring descent and minor-key misterioso, and uses deeply expressive string recapitulations of the theme to enunciate the magical aspect further. The actual identity for the franchise is split into two halves, both effective in serving as calling cards to the extent than it any form of delineation/extension, it warrants instant recognition from a wide plethora of listeners. The first half, or the “A theme” is that for Hedwig and the franchise, whereas the “B theme” serves as the primary motif for magic. The second theme that Williams introduces in the second half, is that of the identity of Hogwarts and the wizarding world of magic as a whole, highlighted by a series of puffing courtesy of celesta tapping and swirling strings, a typical trait of soaring desemiquavers that yield truly enchanting performances from the difficult instrument. This Hedwig identity is scattered dutifully in almost every cue, and Williams gains accessibility in theme by delineating it down to a 7-note statement, like a music-box fleeting in time. In the latter emboldened cue, ethereal female choir is heard atop a solemn statement of the main theme as McGonagall and Dumbledore witness Hagrid safely escorting baby Harry on his flying motorcycle to 10 Privet Drive. The celesta repetition of the theme signifies the boy’s story to have begun, incorporating spectral, shimmering choral performances and tremolo strings, as it swells to a thunderous burst of the main theme at 4:05 over the title logo.

The Hogwarts theme is heard over vast, expansive camera sweeps of the castle, with lasting impression. Williams creates a character theme for Harry, but neglects Ron and Hermione, a decision that while in the first film seems forgivable, the necessity of his two companions and the strong impact they have on Harry and the story as a whole would have benefited from individual character suites developed patiently in later installments, given William’s unparalleled counterpoint penchant. Far more rewarding (and somewhat compensatory), however, is the summary of ideas to come in “Harry’s Wondrous World”, the primary theme for this film, and the end credits opener. Drenched in alluring major-minor key interactions, this identity serves as Harry’s personal theme showing his innocence and wonder of his parents’ world, and also serves as the backbone of his friendship with Ron and Hermione. This dreamy cue makes the most of subtly inserting the Hedwig theme on woodwinds, whilst utilizing treble strings legato to introduce that personal warmth theme at 2:03. Its simplistic progression of melodic ascent and descent is harmonically satisfying, and Williams uses it well as a touching sentiment to show the boy’s isolation from his parents, and his sense of nocturnal loneliness whilst looking after Hedwig. The Quidditch theme is a superb fanfare that recalls the composer at his majestic and flightiest, interpolated in the suite cue at 2:59 using fragments, before exploding with bombast on brass at 3:23 with rambunctious piccolos and flutes. A second repetition of the newly introduced wonder theme at the start after the initial Hedwig theme serves as a lilting bracket, used in triumphant sequences in the film. “Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts” opens with a coy flute that segues into more masterful orchestration, using the Hogwarts theme on prancing flutes and bassoons to show Harry’s future to the audience before he himself is aware of the castle’s existence. At 1:15-1:18, a snippet of what eventually proves to be the calling card for the antagonist, Lord Voldemort is teased. This three note tritone will be explored further in this review, and its purpose across the first two films is no less than highly intelligent construct by Williams. With more soaring strings, Hedwig’s theme is now a generalized representation of the masses of owls that flood the Dursleys’ house with endless streams of Hogwarts acceptance letters.

“Diagon Alley and the Gringotts Vault” showcases crafty woodwind writing for the goblins in the magical bank, with jaunty cello lines as Harry accompanies Hagrid to collect his money to buy his school itinerary for the first year, whilst Hagrid requests a transfer of the mysterious parcel to Hogwarts. Subtle insertions of Hedwig’s theme imply Harry’s curiosity, and as things take a turn for mysterious descent, at 2:52, the repeated tritone of Voldemort makes an appearance, sustained over eerie string tremolo brackets and choral projections, as the gravity of the mysterious object is imposed upon young Harry. This young object of course, turns out to be the titular Philosopher’s Stone, a mystical, alchemic totem that guarantees immortality for the beholder, and the means of Voldemort’s return from his deformed, incomplete state after he failed to kill Harry eleven years ago. A small controversy has erupted in the rather awkward placement of this theme in the Chamber of Secrets, as listeners have commonly associated with this calling card for Voldemort as the primary identity for the stone, when Williams’ and orchestrator William Ross used it in scenes regarding the diary of one Tom Riddle (but more on that later…). One could effectively use these three notes as a symbol of representing the means by Voldemort seeks to return in both films, but this causes further headache when addressing that second entry. As the mystery behind this object is further unraveled, more clearer statements of the tritone are heard, but not as powerful as heard in this cue. “Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters and The Journey to Hogwarts” dissolves the Hogwarts theme to an ambiguous set of woodwind performances to show his journey towards the castle, laced with some of Williams’ comedy material carried  over from prior scores. This style of writing garners mild criticism, with similarities to Home Alone, sadly predictable from the composer. The choral blast of male and female choir along the brass statement of the magic “B theme” is simply spectacular, as we see the castle for the first time. This lighter density of texture is continued in “Entry into the Great Hall and Banquet”, where Harry is sorted into Gryffindor, one of the four houses (along with Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin). More emphasis is shifted on the woodwinds in higher regions when focusing on the scenes of students interacting, with technical accentuation as sharp as it was when first heard at the time of the film’s debut. The flighty spirit of magic resurfaces in “Mr. Longbottom Flies” with rapidly spiraling dynamics emphasizing Neville Longbottom losing control of his broomstick to comic results. A gentle minor-key string respite is given strong brushes of low cello washes, before tremolo strings and a wilder, manic performance of the Hogwarts theme represents Harry chasing after Malfoy to return Neville’s Remembrall, with some of Williams’ trademark sixteenth notes on trumpets and elegant lines of flowing strings. A secondary motif for Neville opens “Hogwarts Forever! and the Moving Stairs”, having faded outro the previous cue, as this cue spends its leisurely stroll around the brass realms. This Neville theme also serves as a pseudo-identity for the castle as a secondary motif. Mute trumpets characterize the moving flights of stairs as a dreamy woodwind rendition of the main theme appears briefly, before glissandi washes out. A tiny motif for the Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, Norbert (bless Hagrid and his fondness of animals!) in “The Norwegian Ridgeback and A Change of Season” is an interesting touch, if not for the warm oboe led statement wonder theme in the latter half that poignantly leads to Harry’s theme laced with mystery and relentless search, before a much more emotionally arresting performance.

Williams returns to the Quidditch fanfare in “The Quidditch Match”, in utmost energy and dynamism, inserting the first fully formed statement of the theme at 0:45 within the cue. This lengthy piece is consistently engaging, and to show the crowd’s community spirit, he infuses the Hogwarts theme on brass, with deft touches courtesy of the tubas and trombones, constantly overlapping it in counterpoint. Harry’s flight to secure the Golden Snitch and win the match for Gryffindor is complemented by the secondary Hogwarts motif, and as his broom begins to defy him, the triplet-based string passages become more intense as Hermione realizes Snape is seemingly tampering with his broom using magic. As she hurries to distract him in order for Harry to regain focus, Williams shifts focus on the percussive parameters, using an anonymous brass theme for Snape/the cursed broom. At 6:01, shrill strings signify Snape’s robes having caught fire, distracting the ballot box from the match temporarily, allowing the resurgence of the Quidditch fanfare. Mischievous of Williams is his sly nod to his other wizards and witches effort, The Witches of Eastwick, by briefly inserting the synonymous rhythmic movement on strings at 6:26, before the Quidditch theme appears two seconds later, as the rest of the cue focuses on Harry racing to catch the Snitch. This Snitch is served a 5-motif on trumpets, ironically so fast like the Snitch that you can miss it if unlucky! As Harry wins the game, Williams doubles on the triumphance using the fanfare and wonder motif in succession. “Christmas at Hogwarts” shows more of the derivative Home Alone material, but incorporating an original carol into the cue, with sparse ambience, and the usual festive instrumental tinkering and major-key warmth (despite no appearance in the film). More of this synthesized ambience is heard in “The Invisibility Cloak and the Library Scene”, Williams cleverly stripping the texture to bare minimum to indicate Harry’s invisible presence. The “B theme” returns in nocturnal fashion. As Harry uncovers the Mirror of Erised, he sees his parents in longing fashion, and Williams touchingly offers a gentle nudge of his personal theme. The rampant string lines show Ron and Harry racing back to the mirror.

“Fluffy’s Harp” acts as a bass clarinet and harp interaction for the three headed dog guarding the entry to the stone, with pretty harp plucking for the enchanted instrument. The sudden jump in pace is jarring and alarming, to say the least, but this is more of an issue with the film, rather than Williams’ otherwise remarkable narration. “In The Devil’s Snare and The Flying Keys” uses a wavering alternating mute trumpet idea for the deadly plant, as the three protagonists decide to stop Snape from taking the stone for his own purposes. Fast-paced movement depicts Harry using the spellbound broom to retrieve the key to open the door to the chess chamber, and to reinforce that notion of flight even further, Williams drops the Quidditch motif but uses its rhythmic propulsion to intelligently show this. Once inside the wizard chess chamber, “The Chess Game” returns to the percussive implements taken out of The Phantom Menace, coy trumpets blurting gentle phrases for the lifelike pieces in militaristic attire. 5-note ascending brass serves as a motif for the chess match, with Williams inserting a quick statement of a muted variation on Voldemort’s eventual theme, foreshadowing his ghastly being past the corridor. As Ron prepares to sacrifice his piece to allow Harry to progress, the chess motif swells on trumpets to a smashing conclusion, before falling unconscious. “The Face of Voldemort” reinforces that tritone on ambient backing and tubular bell-brass interactions, before dissolving to silence. As Harry realizes Professor Quirell, his unassuming Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is the true perpetrator, the title theme returns on celesta, and the first tease for Voldemort’s theme occurs at 1:25 on horns, before flourishing at 1:46 with his eventual reveal behind the professor’s turban. As Harry faces the sorcerer who killed his parents and inflicted that wickedly cool obtrusive scar upon his forehead, the counterpoint of the stone theme and his personal theme sets up the inevitable confrontation, harps wildly throbbing as Harry tries to stop Quirell from killing him. Since Voldemort’s reveal does not occur until the final act, Williams refrains from using this longer-lined motif for the villain until this cue. The stone theme is the centre of this fight, and Williams’ diminishes Voldemort’s theme to allow the main theme on celesta to shine as he destroys Quirell, before a vengeful He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named takes one last swipe at Harry and flees, having been yet again defeated by the Boy Who Lived. The final fragment of the stone theme briefly counterpointing with the title theme shows the end of this ghastly duel. By the time Harry’s theme reappears in “Leaving Hogwarts”, you’ll be relieved that this softer identity makes a more pronounced appearance, and for anyone who grew up with these films, the quick switch of the ending phrase from minor-key to major-key as Harry boards the train home is enough to evoke the most heartfelt of tears, Williams ending the tale with a beautiful statement of this theme in utmost resolution, teasing Harry’s return in the ensuing sequels with one final twist of the theme.

In sum, the narrative storytelling and presentation orchestrated by Williams is of atypically high caliber, and this deserves a round of applause. His dedication to the book and film is to be commended dearly, for beyond the criteria of film scoring, these stories and characters have endured as a positive memory for many a child since the novels began, and a selection of material for concert performances by renowned orchestras and schools have cemented their approval. There are a few minor complaints to be addressed however, primarily being the expectations of Williams’ enthusiasts high to such a fault that when compared with other scores in his works for fantasy films, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone falls short in comparison, though is still far more accomplished than what any other composer could have produced. The absence of Williams after the third installment plagues the collectors of the subsequent scores, but his primary identity is more than robust to live on in the films. The absence of motifs in these installments, most notably the Quidditch fanfare is a shame, especially given the more challenging circumstances in which the matches are conducted, particularly in the third one, with the dominance of the terrifying Dementors flying over the castle, eliminating any logical placement of this fantastic spirited identity. Because the innocence of Harry is slowly delineated over the novels and tonal progressions become more darker and troubled, even with the Chamber of Secrets managing to retain some of that curiosity concerning the world of magic at large, this first score really is the most adventurous and relaxed experience when compared to the other entries. The repetitive styles of comic writing can make the most trained of listeners roll their eyes, (even if the Sorting Hat was placed on their head), and some of the underscore isn’t as dynamic enough to gain appreciation from scrutinizing crowds. This derivation from other scores was poorly timed in the sense that aside from the prequel Star Wars scores, easily recognizable material from prior scores can be heard in Williams’ later works, a popular root of discovery being A.I. Artificial Intelligence and shades of the Indiana Jones works. The composer’s love for sixteenth notes is reduced on brass presence, surprisingly, given his string treatment of this tendency in the aforementioned scores. Contrastingly, the abundance of string passages is what seals the emotional appeal of the score, with gorgeously haunting woodwinds, and majestic horn input. The celesta is a brilliant stroke of genius to open each chapter with, and fondly serves as a calling card for more magical discovery, Williams’ staying loyal to this technique in all three of his scores. The dip in action and energy in the middle portions of the score, however, are a characteristic trait of any Williams’ score, the composer’s mastery really overt in the opening cues that introduce the thematic material, and the final sections that deliver exhilarating cues of astute complexity.

A bootleg release in 2002 was of interest, especially the unreleased content from the film, divided into two CDs. These provide alternate and unused variations of material, making up for the sudden jump in pacing, between the discovery of the Mirror of Erised, and the three’s decision to stop the Stone from being misplaced in the wrong hands. In spite of all this, it is most bizarre that considering the wisdom and counsel that Professor Dumbledore gives to Harry in all the books, there is no theme for him here, especially considering him saving Harry at the end after Voldemort’s departure, and his protective nature towards Harry as a whole. This contains more subtle references to the overall plan, as proven by a subtle Stone reference in “Who’s Nicholas Flamel?”, and even tiny Easter eggs such as “Chocolate Frog”. However, unlike its successor score, the bootleg release doesn’t dramatically improve upon the overall presentation, and harder fortunes concerning the sound quality is of discomfort. Ideally, the standard release is more than enough to warrant a sufficient product, and a worthy listening experience that at least confirms how overlooked this gem truly is in Williams’ career. The absence of the composer is a shame, with Williams even vocalizing his interest in finishing the tapestry that he started, a move that could have been potentially rewarding given the dissolution of the thread over the sequels, and the heart-stoppingly epic persona of the finale requiring depths of emotion and brilliance on another level entirely. Filled with various concert suites and thematic dearth, this score is one of the very best of the 21st century, and possesses a standard of sonorous, evocative and enchanting wizardry not since paralled in any respect.

Rating: *****


Track Listing:
(all music written by John Williams)

1) Prologue (2:12)
2) Harry’s Wondrous World (5:21)
3) The Arrival of Baby Harry (4:25)
4) Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts (3:22)
5) Diagon Alley and The Gringotts Vault (4:06)
6) Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters and the Journey to Hogwarts (3:14)
7) Entry into the Great Hall and The Banquet (3:42)
8) Mr. Longbottom Flies (3:35)
9) Hogwarts Forever! and The Moving Stairs (3:46)
10) The Norwegian Ridgeback and A Change of Season (2:47)
11) The Quidditch Match (8:28)
12) Christmas at Hogwarts (2:56)
13) The Invisibility Cloak and The Library Scene (3:15)
14) Fluffy’s Harp (2:38)
15) In the Devil’s Snare and The Flying Keys (2:20)
16) The Chess Game (3:48)
17) The Face of Voldemort (6:10)
18) Leaving Hogwarts (2:13)
19) Hedwig’s Theme (5:09)

BMI Film Music Award (2001)

Academy Award for Best Original Score (2002)
Broadcast Film Critics Association for Best Composer (2001)
Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media (2001)
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Original Score (2001)


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