James Newton Howard deftly combines orchestra, choir, and electronics in his new score for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the third installment of the Fantastic Beasts series. Howard has previously scored the first two films in the franchise and successfully builds upon the themes and motifs composed there. Influenced and informed by the work of previous Harry Potter composers John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper, Howard’s work deepens and expands the themes of the Wizarding World in an elegant and beautiful way.
Who is James Newton Howard?
James Newton Howard is one of the top film composers currently working. He has scored over 100 films including Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight in collaboration with Hans Zimmer, and Paul Greengrass’s News of the World, for which Howard was nominated for the Academy Award.
Howard’s career has taken an interesting creative trajectory. Originally from Los Angeles, Howard grew up in a musical family and began studying piano at a young age. A brief stint of study at the University of Southern California led him to work as a studio musician with Diana Ross, Ringo Starr, and Harry Nilsson among others. His big break came when he was offered a gig touring and performing with Elton John in 1975.
While working with John, Howard composed string arrangements for the band and performed keyboards and synthesizer on four studio albums. Later, a collaboration with the band Toto would lead Howard to his first film scoring credit: a cue from David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. From there, Howard’s career would take off.
The Fantastic Beasts Series
The Fantastic Beasts series is a part spin-off, part prequel to the Harry Potter series. Set in the decades before the birth of The Boy Who Lived, Fantastic Beasts follows the adventures of magi-zooligist Newt Scamander as he becomes entangled in the epic struggles of the wizarding world. After nearly losing his privileges as a wizard in the first installment, he becomes wound up in the growing tension of the wizarding world brought on by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in the second installment. The third installment, The Secrets of Dumbledore, continues the plotline following the rise of Grindelwald and his shared history with a younger Albus Dumbledore, who at this time is a professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
With an ear to the long-form development of the Fantastic Beasts characters throughout the series, Howard has developed a number of themes that add depth and richness to this wonderful, musical world. Let’s dive into some of the cues from The Secrets of Dumbledore.
“I’m Expecting Someone”
The cue “I’m Expecting Someone” sets the mood for the meeting between Dumbledore and Grindelwald at an unknown restaurant at some unknown time. From the audience’s perspective, we are unsure when the meeting takes place, but the cue covers a wide range of emotional depth. It is also the first time we are privy to the secret, teenage romance that Dumbledore and Grindelwald shared.
The cue opens with a descending melodic figure in a high-register choir, doubled with violins. A low string-bass pad emerges and a whimsical harp glissando ushers in a gentle, nearly-nostalgic bell melody. There is a certain density to the cue that conveys a great deal of meaning, both subtle and overt.
Eventually, the low pad fades into a romantic violin melody accompanied by harp and choir. We learn of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s long-standing affections for one another and the magical bond that brings them together as the cue fades away.
“Young Man’s Magic”
“Young Man’s Magic” is another exquisite cue in the evolving saga of Dumbledore and Grindelwald. We first hear the cue when Dumbledore explains the nature of the blood pact he made with Grindelwald in their youth. As such, the cue shares similarities in tone and texture with “I’m Expecting Someone.”
The cue opens with a slight tremolo string section and a melodic motif in the harp and woodwinds that bears some resemblance to the opening intervals of John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme.” The harmony begins to shift underneath the repeating melodic figure, building until a delicate, ostinato choir motif appears over the top. A sudden shift in the mood takes the cue to a darker place, when the nature of the pact is revealed. The talisman containing both Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s blood will suffocate either of them if they should even think to harm one another.
The final section of the cue is punctuated by a pointalistic figure in the string-bass while a swirl of dissonant harmonies floats over the top, as if the characters are left with a dark cloud floating over their heads as they grapple with how to shatter this seemingly unbreakable bond.
A huge, orchestral fantasy fanfare opens the cue “Countersight.” The cue underscores the scene where Dumbledore begins to explain his plan to foil Grindelwald’s attempt to sabotage the upcoming elections of the International Confederation of Wizards. As this is the first major meeting of the collected ensemble of characters, the cue covers much ground and attempts to musically blend many disparate story lines together.
We get hints of the film’s romantic themes, but also of the darker themes of Grindelwald and his chosen hitman Credence Barebone – all masterfully arranged and orchestrated. This cue is a prime example of James Newton Howard’s skills as an orchestrator.
“I Was Never Your Enemy”
A darker, melancholic and post-climactic cue, “I Was Never Your Enemy,” appears after the duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald at the elections. Part of what makes Grindelwald a compelling character is just that – he does not view himself as an enemy of the wizarding world. Instead, he views himself as a savior of sorts; one who will bring the wizarding world out from the shadows and re-shape society.
The cue opens with a deep, melancholic string melody, nodding to the realization that the blood pact shared between Dumbledore and Grindelwald was broken during the duel and, so too, has the last remnants of a young romance died with it. The string figures continue to build their energy, while a haunting choir motif blends in over the top, quickly fading out in a wisp of synth-smoke as Grindelwald disappears into the clouds of Bhutan.
A Fantastic Score
James Newton Howard’s score for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a masterclass in fantastical, orchestral scoring. He is a master of blending orchestral elements, choir, and electronic instruments and creating emotive, strong themes that are well-orchestrated throughout the score. It will be exciting and profound to see how he continues to build this thematic sound world, developing the sonic relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, along with the rest of the characters, in the two additional movies planned for the series.
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Cover Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.