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...

 

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:

  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:

  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Retro LEGO add from  Fat Brain Toys

Retro LEGO add from Fat Brain Toys

Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:
 

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!

Preludophilia: Slonimsky's Preludes and Fugues

Sergei Mikhailovich Slonimsky was born in Leningrad 1932, the son of the well-known "Serapion Brotherhood" author Mikhail and nephew of the prolific musical emigré Nikolai. Every genre is represented in his long list of compositions, including operas (one entitled "Mary Stuart") and symphonies (the Tenth Symphony subtitled "Circles of Hell after Dante"). His pieces make use of his experience as an ethnomusicological researcher in Russian folk musics, his improvisational concertizing à la nineteenth-century preludists, and his use of both dodecaphonic techniques and jazz styles. One word that has been used to describe his compositions is the term "poly-art", a holistic aesthetic that freely and unexpectedly combines influences from all historical periods, including popular and folk styles. More info at the Saint-Petersburg Contemporary Music Center.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky wrote a set of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key in 1994, published in 1996 (Saint-Petersburg: Kompozitor), and recorded in 2000 (Nikita Fitenko, Altarus). The CD is particularly good as it was performed under the composer's supervision and really brings to life the notes on the page. It takes about an hour and a half to play or listen to. The pieces progress in "Bach Order", that is chromatically with each major key followed by its parallel minor (C c Db c# D d etc.). Each prelude is marked attacca and various cyclical properties exist between preludes and their accompanying fugues. The majority of fugues have 3 or 4 voices with one 2-voice fugue and two with 5-voices. The fugal expositions tend to introduce the answering voice in the subdominant, and you can read more about it at this doctoral thesis by Yun-jin Seo.

There are definite aesthetic challenges to "poly-art" music, especially in those instances where our expectations of "serious" music (especially something in the tradition of J.S. Bach's WTC) come up against overt simplicity, vagueness, or even awkwardness. At times I am reminded of the improvisational antics (read: sloppiness) of 24 Preludes by Zhelobinsky or the (sometimes forced) folksiness of 24 Preludes by Kabalevsky. But this is not an attempt at socialist realism from the 1930s, nor is it a patriotic overture to Russianness during WWII. It seems far removed from those sorts of cultural-stylistic arguments. I feel myself relaxing even as I write that last sentence. It's all going to be ok.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by  Vasco Morelli (buy it here).  It's all about space.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by Vasco Morelli (buy it here). It's all about space.

Here's a few more specific observations.

Catchy: I've had some serious ear-worms with this music. Especially engaging, Fugue 6 in D minor and Fugue 20 in A minor get the toes tapping with snappy rhythms. I also tend to hum the opening melody of Prelude 1 in C Major, a gorgeous but slightly manic hymn.

Contrapuntal: Fugue 1 in C Major can't leave it alone with constant 2-voice stretto, but pulls out all the stops with simultaneous 4-voice stretto with two voices in inverted augmentation and one in augmentation, and a final 4-voice stretto with one voice in augmentation. It's saturated with theme! As if that weren't enough, the theme also makes use of a 32nd-note turn that recalls Bach's WTC1 C Major fugue. Also the 5-voice fugues are crazy-sauce (to use a technical term)!

Neo-Something: Prelude 11 in F Major could be called a Neo-Baroque romp that reminds me of Bach's Italian Concerto III. Prelude 6 in D minor is a genuine passacaglia in almost functional harmony with four embellishments. Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major is almost completely pentatonic with definite appeals to "exotic" gestures (see below). Prelude 18 in A-flat minor (so many flats!) has no measure lines and functions like some free-floating Renaissance recitative. Prelude 19 in A Major could have come right out of Bach's Inventions and many other pieces make use of Baroque-flavored, melodic inversion. The most intense moment of Prelude 7 in E-flat Major upsets an otherwise charming aria with activated bass motion with a harsh shift into bursts into a disjunct section redolent of serialism and melodically coming close do dodecaphonic writing.

Time Signatures: Shostakovich's single 5/8 fugue from the Preludes does not prepare you for Slonimsky's rampant and consistent use of interesting time signatures. By the time you're done, 5/4 (5/8) and 7/8 don't feel nearly as foreign when compared to Fugue 15 in G Major's use of 9/8 (2+3+4) or Fugue 23 in B Major's squirrelly alternation between 3/2 and 4/2 or Fugue 21 in B-flat Major constantly switching between major and minor prolation (thank you Hoppin!) in 6/8.

My Favorite: By far the one I enjoy the most in playing is Prelude and Fugue 10 in E minor. They work excellently as a pair and each use melodic themes that are capable of various moods and conjure beautiful thoughts in my imagination. Nice use of augmentation in the fugue, which is nevertheless not forced, and almost happens imperceptibly.

For the history of the prelude-fugue set, Slonimsky's combination of styles fits right into the genre's age-old mandate to present unified diversity. His frequent changes in style, sometimes within a single piece or between a prelude and its fugue, constantly open the imagination (and critical faculties. The added accessibility of his style with an emphasis on rhythm and harmonic color allow listeners of all types to find something to enjoy. Prelude and Fugue 13 in F-sharp Major performed by Anton Tanonov below. Enjoy!