The Sacred Music of Harry Potter: The Hogwarts School Song

For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.

Unknown artist. Dumbledore  would  own a combustable bird...

Unknown artist. Dumbledore would own a combustable bird...

This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.

For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:

  1. Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
  2. Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
  3. Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
  4. Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
  5. Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?

Here goes!

You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

1. Context

This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.


2. Musicology

Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.

However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.

The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaosDepending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.

*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!

**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!

***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!


3. Metaphor

I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.

First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.

Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.


4. Personal

Owens Valley, We Love You.png

My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.

In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.


5. Action

Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?

I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest? 

NEXT: Ghost music...


Music 15: Teaching and Learning

This last week marks the last time in my UCSB graduate student career that I will teach "Music 15", more commonly known as "Music Appreciation". The concept of "Music Appreciation" has a long history that presents particular problems to twenty-first century graduate students and their undergraduate pupils. Around the beginning of the 1900s philharmonic orchestras in Europe and the US began to cater to wider audiences by offering pre-concert lectures aimed at giving unfamiliar listeners—children, lower-class workers, etc.—the active listening skills, musical nomenclature, and conceptual frames necessary for making sense of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Listz's Les Prèludes, and other "great" works by "great" composers. A good example of these efforts is the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts, lovingly developed in the 20s by conductor/composer "Uncle" Ernest Schelling who used "PowerPoint" presentations done on illuminated glass slides, developed silly mnemonic devices to recognize themes ("This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished..."), and made use of various props. (Interestingly, the early Soviet government initiated a massive Music Appreciation program to involve the proletariat in "high" art, even during the famine and winter of the Civil War following the October Revolution!)

"Uncle" Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) and his well-dressed dog. He seems to have the sense of humor necessary to appeal to an audience of children. I'd  love  to write a book on this guy and spend some time in the University of Maryland archive collection.

"Uncle" Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) and his well-dressed dog. He seems to have the sense of humor necessary to appeal to an audience of children. I'd love to write a book on this guy and spend some time in the University of Maryland archive collection.

A century later, we still have Music Appreciation, both as part of educational outreach at orchestras, such as the New York Phil, and as undergraduate courses at universities, such as UCSB. I have taught this class (which has a capacity of ~70 in the summer to ~450 per quarter during the school year) seven times as a teaching assistant and six times as the lecturer/associate. In the summer of 2015 I spearheaded the department's effort to revamp the course and I've been fine tuning it ever since in the hopes that it's future will be bright. Here are some of our pedagogical concerns and solutions.

  • Music + Culture: Often "Classical" music is touted as a timeless, universal music, which has tends to make it untouchable and unrelatable. It was important to put this music back into a historical and cultural context to show how musical choices had value for those making and consuming it. This approach speaks to me because context is one of the things that excites me about music, it was possible get away from historical teleology by making units based on cultural issues, and it allowed me to get away from canonical pieces and composers (I developed a Music and Childhood unit from sections of my dissertation).  
  • Four Ways of Listening: It wasn't enough to have students learn to recognize selected "masterpieces" by ear using terminology (eg. melisma, sonata form, pizzicato, Klangfarbenmelodie) that they could barely define, not to mention use in a cogent sentence. Not to say that critical listening isn't important, but it should be taught in a more holistic way, which I divided into:
  1. Technical/Intuitive Listening: The use of any technical language a student may have from exposure to music—there's always one kid who raises their hand and starts talking about cadential hemiolas!—but also encouraging students to make attempts to put words to what they hear the music doing in an intuitive sense—getting louder, speeding up, building in energy, getting confusing, playing a singable tune. All of those observations are an attempt to interact with the development in the music and it's vital to encourage the innate human ability to notice sonic changes. Specialized language can come later.
  2. Performative Listening: We always try to either do live demos or watch high quality videos. Noticing the performers and the audience—how they are placed, what they look like, how they're behaving, what they're playing—emphasizes the human agency of music, reveals cultural values, and adds visual interest to a sonic experience. (There's nothing quite like seeing a small bass drum player pounding away for the end of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and have to leap upon his instrument in the end to mute the sound!)
  3. Extra-Musical Listening: Words, costumes, backdrops, stories, expressions, pyrotechnics! Some genres (opera, character pieces, tone poems) revel in the extra-musical combination of media. Other genres (absolute symphonies and chamber music) go out of their way to try to avoid these things. Noticing either stance gives us more insight into cultural values and context.
  4. Cultural Listening: This is the backbone of Music 15 as I taught it. I always tell my students that the stories we discuss are only part of the complex story, but also that knowing about the context of a piece provides a frame of reference that can change how you hear it. Palestrina's beautiful a cappella masses go hand in hand with Counter-Reformation views of Catholicism's role as spiritual orthodoxy. Berlioz's creepy finale makes sense in a context of Romanticism and gothic novels. Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositions mesh with the cultural disillusionment in the wake of WWI and the advent of composition as an academic discipline.
Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) directed the NYPhil's Young Person's Concerts from 1958-72, which were broadcasted on TV. Iconic.

Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) directed the NYPhil's Young Person's Concerts from 1958-72, which were broadcasted on TV. Iconic.

 Good luck Music 15! May future graduate students appreciate you (in all senses of that word).

Upon Watching "The Nose"

I took my wife to the opera last weekend. #tophatandspats The Met Live broadcast series was playing Shostakovich's The Nose, and I simply couldn't pass up this unique but admittedly bizarre experience. We prepared ourselves by reading through Gogol's short story and I attempted to lay out the musical expectations of modernist Russia and young, pre-censorship Shostakovich. (Gogol Spoiler Alert: a petty bureaucrat wakes up sans nose, finds it out in society pretending to be of a higher social class, the nose refuses to return to its rightful place, the bureaucrat is distraught at the social injustice of it all, but wakes up a few days later with it returned.)

Family friendly fun! Who doesn't love a fantastical tale of bodily dismemberment and anthropomorphicization? 

Family friendly fun! Who doesn't love a fantastical tale of bodily dismemberment and anthropomorphicization? 

Nevertheless, we were sorely unprepared for what was in store. There are doubtless many studies and essays that have been written on the piece that might illuminate the work more cogently, but as a Soviet music enthusiast, and a musicologist who's given opera a fair bit of thought, here are a few of the things that stood out:

  1. The piece is challenging from a musical standpoint. It's helpful to remember that this is the era of the poet Mayakovsky who delivered his poems through a bullhorn, screaming. The declamation is utterly violent, perhaps unmusical (especially the sycophantic or schizophrenic laughter ["ha ha ha" "ха ха ха"]), and the instrumental interludes pushed me to the threshold of pain, in their percussive, repetitious crescendos. This is difficult to handle and it's even more difficult to notice variations within the sonic world that would give subtlety to the various characters or moods.
  2. This type of music is not intrinsically bad; it has its place and communicates its message at a visceral level that few musical languages can. (Thank you modernism.) I wonder what this medium does to the subject. Opera as a multilayered amalgam of music, literature, and visual effects is generically polyglossic—a Bakhtinian word denoting the simultaneous presence of multiple discourses. I find Shostakovich's music to be dissonant with Gogol's original story, a tale that I interpret as hinging upon "decorum"; in presenting that decorum, Gogol essentially exposes its ridiculousness and shallowness, but it has to be there in the first place before it can be critiqued. Shostakovich's musical world creates a sense of musical chaos, a world in which decorum is merely a concept ("You should know your proper place") that is completely at odds with the musical mode of expression, ie. atonal screaming. 
  3. Without Gogol's restrained layer of subtle decorum (through which we see the delightful exposure of social folly), the opera feels monolithic and lacking in narrative drive. There is hardly any need for the main character, Kovalyov, to recover his nose. He already inhabits a world of bizarre relations, fragmented personalities, chaos barely held in check by some unseen social mechanism. Nothing essential changes when he recovers his body part. No decorous society (however empty and ridiculous) is resumed.
  4. This seems to be highlighted by the production choices of director, William Ketridge. He sets the scene in modernist, 1920s Russia (rather than in pre-Soviet, Imperial Russia, as Shostakovich envisioned), makes continual use of Monty Python-esque projections and visuals, and has several cast members inexplicably wearing masks worthy of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. If there is an order in this society, back to which an alienated outcast would desire return, it is completely covered up by the madness of visual cacophony. There is no impetus to return, no wholeness anywhere. (It was equally bizarre to have an actor lamenting the loss of his nose while no attempt was made to conceal it via makeup or prop at all.) In an of itself, the visual mastery was entertaining, but I found it to be extremely dissonant with Gogol's tale.
  5. Some musical moments were worth remembering and exploring further: The church scene was haunting and reminded me of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The mournful oboe music accompanying the futile attempts to reattach the nose (much like Peter Pan's fruitless attempts with his wayward shadow). And the balalaika-accompanied song of the valet, Ivan, which takes its text from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Picasso's  Demoiselles d'Avignon  (1907), some of whom seem to be having their own Kovalyov sort of day.

Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), some of whom seem to be having their own Kovalyov sort of day.

I liked it, but would want to study the score a bit more before seeing it again, as that might make clearer the aural relationships within this stage society and open space for musical/social critique. Once again, my wife is a trooper. (Her husband has now made her sit through this AND Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I'd better take her to some Mozart quick!)

What do you think?

Boris on Butterfly Beach

The past week and a half has been quite eventful. Jess and I pulled the trigger and came down from Roseville to our new duplex in Santa Barbara. We made due for the first few days with two chairs and a mattress on the floor - just until my bargain huntress of a wife found a free dresser, free bed frame and box spring, free couch, and $10 bookshelf. Things are starting to look like a house. Santa Barbara is starting to look like a home as well, with familiar beaches and streets, new discoveries and surprises, and the constant bumping into old friends in the most providential places.

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch  by Chris Potter. 

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch by Chris Potter. 

Amidst looking for summer employment and networking, I'm trying to keep loose by brushing up on my German ("shadowing" and "dictation" with a podcast), rereading some history books in preparation for the UCSB placement tests (history, theory, and musicianship), and going on very long walks with Jess and Numi on various beaches and through various parks (Numi is a complete nutter for the waves!). Check out Jess's blog for upcoming pictures that attempt to capture something of the outrageous beauty that overflows everywhere in this place. I'm going to write a bit on Boris Goltz and his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 2 (1934-35), getting some mileage out of my thesis and keeping up those writing and analyzing skills for the two months before school starts.

Boris Grigorevich Goltz (1913–1942) was born in the city of Tashkent. I wish there was more information on his family - their ancestry, how long they had lived there, why, what they did during the 1916 Basmachi Revolt, or where their sympathies lay in the violent anti-Bolshevik riots that lasted into late 1920s. All we know (thanks to a short monograph by Rafael Frid) is that thirteen-year old Boris moved to Leningrad in 1926. He worked, like Shostakovich several years earlier, as a silent movie accompanist, and took piano lessons, again like Shostakovich, from Leonid Nikolayev. It wasn't until the Leningrad harmony professor Venedict Pushkov saw the young pianists sketches for twenty-four preludes that Goltz gained the confidence to pursue composition. He graduated from the Conservatory in piano in 1938 and composition in 1940. Within that time he had composed or sketched out quite a wealth of pieces (almost all completely lost), got married to a piano colleague, and had every mark of excelling as a composer.

In 1941 Russia entered into WWII. Goltz, apparently not senior enough to be shipped off to one of those artistic refuge communities in Siberia, joined the Baltic Fleet Political Administration, a group of composers stationed in Leningrad, charged with the task of writing patriotic songs and plays for performing groups and military choirs. His songs in particular enjoyed wide success, one-hit-wonders like “The Song of Anger,” “The Song of Vengeance,” and “Shining Star in the Heavens.” Despite the idealized texts, Goltz and his colleagues worked in debilitating hunger and cold, crammed into a small room and composing without the aid of a piano. Seven months into the Siege of Leningrad, Goltz died of malnutrition.

It's a little ironic to write about the tragic, 1942, shivering-in-the-Leningrad-winter death of a Soviet composer with the sunny Pacific Ocean breezes wafting through my 2012 window. I can only hope that as I write about this composer and his music that I not be disingenuous and that I attempt to come from as good a place as I can - that of breathing a small measure of life into the memory of a nearly forgotten, but ultimately noteworthy individual.