Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Soundtrack, James Hannigan / Evan Jolly, 2009
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix turned to be industry veteran James Hannigan’s breakthrough work – a delectably luscious orchestral game score that topped Jeremy Soule’s previous contributions to the franchise and could proudly aside John Williams and Patrick Doyle’s Harry Potter soundtracks. It’s no surprise then that Hannigan’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack doesn’t change the winning formula. Hannigan’s follow up work is as riveting as Order of the Phoenix, but does introduce a few noteworthy changes.
The most important thing first: Half-Blood Prince once again features near-symphonic depth in its orchestrations and counterpoint. And of course, its melodies once more are gorgeous, full-bodied creations. Like Order of the Phoenix, it’s a work that sits very near the top of Western orchestral game soundtracks. The most significant difference between Half-Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix is a greater sense of scope and scale. Outside of its roaring battle cues, Order of the Phoenix mostly pivoted between light-hearted mischievousness and hushed nocturnal wonder. The Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack tips the balance in favour of a sweeping sensation of adventure.
Right off the bat, “Return to Hogwarts” begins proceedings with a soaring all-guns-blazing opening that catapults listeners into the skies above an immeasurably large fantasy world, bursting with joy and anticipation. As always on Hannigan’s first two Harry Potter scores, the composition rarely stays in one spot for too long. Order of the Phoenix’s Friendship theme is reprised and led through a number of permutations, from bombastic to a solo flute rendition against humming choir.
Speaking of themes, less is heard this time of Hedwig’s Theme. However, Hannigan doesn’t compensate through increased use of his own themes. His Friendship theme does arguably feature several times on the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack. Still, it doesn’t establish a sufficiently strong presence to function as a structurally binding device – although its moving final performance on closing track “Friendship Theme” does achieve a heart-rending effect. Elsewhere, “Fred and George Returns” brings back Fred and George’s melodic material from Order of the Phoenix. Other than this though, there is not much thematic coherence on Half-Blood Prince.
Once caught up in Half-Blood Prince’s orchestral splendour – an easy undertaking – such concerns matter little though. Following “Return to Hogwarts”’ spectacular curtain-raiser, “Quidditch Tryouts” bursts forth, full of youthful energy and a dancing mood that can still burst into bombastic, more combative strains. Again, Hannigan and orchestrator Allan Wilson handle such changes of atmosphere with absolute ease through their dazzling orchestrations. “Race Ginny”’s whirlwind of orchestral colours is the most impressive display of their virtuosity. Keeping in tune with the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack’s desire for more grandeur this time around, a track like “Quidditch Tryouts” merely prepares the ground for “Quidditch” – which plays with so much choral-backed drama that most other fantasy games would be happy to accept this as their final battle track. In a similar vein, the music underscoring the benign activity of “Mixing Potions” is determined and driven rather than upbeat.
Order of Phoenix’s whimsy and mischievousness rarely return on the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack. Only “Fred and George Returns” brings back some good-natured zaniness, while “Wandering” and “Wandering Day 5” are charmingly carefree. Thus, the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack plays more like a ‘typical’ fantasy epic than its predecessor. But when a formula is executed as successfully as it is here, there is little reason to complain.
From Half-Blood Prince’s more serious inclinations, Hannigan also derives the license to indulge more often in long-winded, emotional string melodies. Compare “Hogwarts by Night” with similarly nocturnal tracks on Order of the Phoenix. As a calm string adagio with harp accompaniment, “Hogwarts by Night” is allowed to revel in its melodic beauty. Like on “Boathouse at Night”, this time Hogwarts’ nightly locations project restful serenity, rather than intertwined tension and bewonderment.
This greater melodic focus allows Hannigan to tug at listeners’ heartstrings effectively when the game’s narrative requires this. Witness how “Loss at Hogwarts” makes its statement with a sorrowful, yet noble variation of the Friendship theme. That sort of emotionality is the main reason why Half-Blood Prince’s album finale hits hard, despite some issues on the way there. “Sadness at Hogwarts” is one of the album’s melodic highlights in its calm sorrow and yearning. At the same time, it never makes the same mistake as Nicholas Hooper’s movie score – to underplay the tragedies at the heart of Half-Blood Prince’s story. Album closer “Friendship Theme” is even on par with the finale of Patrick Doyle’s Goblet of Fire. Both scores manage to convincingly snatch optimism and hope from the jaws of defeat and death.
All in all, the biggest difference between Half-Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix lies in each album’s arc. The Order of the Phoenix album producers arranged its music clearly to move from light to sombre to blazing finale. The Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack is more flexible in its progression, but also less focused. Moving through the album, there is little sense of momentum or urgency building. Instead, Half-Blood Prince feels like roaming through stunning vistas in a familiar, but enchanting landscape. The album’s scenic qualities particularly shine through on the idyllic, sun-kissed “Get to Potions” and “Wandering Day 4”. While Half-Blood Prince’s narrative might then be less predictable, it can also feel disjointed. The way “Wandering Day 1” segues into “Final Battles” is a bit baffling, so jarring is the transition and lack of build up to the soundtrack’s final battle cue.
However, one positive effect of Half-Blood Prince’s more varied running order is the earlier introduction of Hannigan’s outstanding battle cues. “Duelling Club” hits early on and announces the album’s greater rhythmic focus during its action tracks. While on “Duelling Club” it’s the ever-changing orchestrations that make such a focus on potentially repetitive material work, on “Slytherin Combat” it’s the awe-inspiring intensity that Hannigan forges from its relentlessly hammering ostinati. Hannigan’s avoids listener fatigue by turning these ostinati into catchy melodic hooks that push the composition with white-hot single-mindedness. It all culminates in a triumphantly gigantic climax that is impossible to resist.
Even “Final Battles” doesn’t quite reach the same monumental heights. Still, 99% of game soundtracks would be glad to call its crashing waves of brass, choir and percussion their own. And so it is with the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack as a whole. It falls just short of perfection, but still outguns almost everything else in its genre.
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