Classics to Read Harry By

by Robbie Fischer

I’m not knocking John Williams, but the hour or so of film soundtrack for your favorite Harry Potter movie just doesn’t stretch long enough for you to use as a musical background to reading the Harry Potter books. Even the shortest of them would require you to repeat the disc so many times it would start to drive you crazy. So if you’re like me, and you like to have an “orchestral score” to everything you read, what should you do?

You could take a bit of advice from a passionate student and lover of Classic Music. There is plenty of magical music out there, waiting for you to find it, and lots of it would be “just right” for the background of your trip to Potterland… or even just to enjoy by itself!

Here are my top 25 picks for “do it yourself scoring” of the Harry Potter books (in no particular order)…

1. Felix Mendelssohn is one of the all-time masters at writing fairy-tale music. Try his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you’ll get the picture. If you like, you might also try his cantata “The First Walpurgis Night,” his Italian and Scottish symphonies, and his luscious Violin Concerto.

2. Next to Mendelssohn, the most magical composer has to be Franz Schubert, who was mostly an Austrian songwriter. And whether you know German or not, I would recommend his lovely songs! Some of them are VERY magical, including the haunting “Erl King.” However, you don’t need to know German to appreciate the “smurfy” magic of his Unfinished Symphony, as well as his very fairy-tale-ish Fifth Symphony. Schubert’s pen dripped melodies, as you would also know from his Trout Quintet, his String Quintet, his Octet, and the spine-tingling String Quartet Movement in C minor.

3. Everyone has heard at least bits and pieces of The Nutcracker ballet suite by Peter Tchaikovsky, who wrote equally airy-fairy music for the ballets Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. You may not be aware of his other magical music, which include the four Orchestral Suites, the First Piano Concerto, and the gorgeous String Serenade. For those depressing passages in Order of the Phoenix, those of you with a stronger emotional make-up could also try his Pathètique Symphony, which is virtually a musical suicide note.

4. Some say that the secret to a successful artistic career is to know what is good and how to steal it. Apparently a lot of film composers think a lot of Gustav Holst‘s orchestral suite The Planets, because unless my ears deceive me, a lot of film composers, including John Williams, steal… er, that is, borrow from The Planets all the time. It’s hard to find anything else by Holst on disc, but if you do, I think you’ll enjoy it– for example, Egdon Heath, St. Paul’s Suite, The Somerset Rhapsody, and The Cloud Messenger.

5. Those of you who saw Disney’s Fantasia 2000 will have heard at least one piece by composer Ottorino RespighiThe Pines of Rome. From this master of sparkly orchestral color and a sense of mystery and antiquity, you may also enjoy the Ancient Airs and Dances, Roman Festivals, Church Windows, and The Fountains of Rome.

6. Another composer who is mostly known for his use of orchestral colors (like the way a technically proficient artist uses colors of paint), is the Russian master Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. That’s a mouthful! Though perhaps not the greatest music, his works make a good background for colorful happenings and tales of magic. Try Scheherazade (related to the tales of the Arabian Nights), and if you like, there is lots more of his stuff to look into.

7. If you’ve ever heard of Sergei Prokofiev, it’s probably because of his narrated piece Peter and the Wolf. You won’t care for that, though, because the narrator can be very annoying when you’re trying to read something else. However, this Soviet composer, who died on the same day as Stalin, has lots more to offer, including theLieutenant Kijé Suite, the Romeo and Juliet ballet suite, the celebrated Classical Symphony and his even better Fifth Symphony. But personally, I think his Piano Concerto No. 3 and his Violin Concerto No. 2 have his best tunes!

8. Czech composers Bedric Smétana and Antonín Dvorák are hard to pronounce, but easy to love. Smétana wrote a set of “symphonic poems” called Má Vlast, which means “My Country,” which are simply to die for! A better-known and well, probably better in general, composer is Dvorák, who is mostly known today for writing the New World Symphony. His other symphonies are just as good, and he also wrote good concertos for Violin and Cello, plus “symphonic poems” (one-movement orchestral pieces that tell a story) such as The Noon Witch. Plus, you have to hear his String Serenade and Wind Serenade!

9. One of Britain’s most celebrated composers was Sir Edward Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstance marches are still famous (they were also featured in Fantasia 2000). In my opinion, though, you haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard the Enigma Variations. An enigma is a mystery, like the puzzles Harry and his friends always have to solve. In this case, the enigma is the theme the variations are based on. To this day, no one has been able to find out what the theme of the variations is!

10. Another British giant, and in fact my favorite English composer, is Ralph Vaughan Williams (pronounced Rafe). I don’t know what it is about Fifth Symphonies, but his is also particularly magical. Most of his music is the kind you really have to listen to with undivided attention, but other piece by Vaughan Williams that would do well in the background include The Lark Ascending and the Concerto Accademico.

11. I hesitate to mention Finnish composer Jan Sibelius here, because half of you have heard Finlandia and have drawn the unfair conclusion that Sibelius was a hack, and the other half know from his other masterpieces that it simply isn’t safe to play Sibelius in the background; he demands your full attention. However, some of his music has a vein of very powerful magic in it– the mythical river of death in The Swan of Tuonela, a dance with Death Himself in Valse Triste (Sad Waltz), the spirits of the forest in Tapiola, and other images of nordic mythology in En Saga. He also wrote several symphonies (natch, my favorite is his Fifth, but you’ll also like his Second and Third without a doubt) and a Violin Concerto, before mysteriously deciding not to compose another note for the last 30 years of his life.

12. Another composer whose work was enshrined in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 is Soviet artist Dmitri Shostakovich (emphasis on the second “O”). His music veers between heartbreaking tragedy, sickening terror, brutal irony, and not-quite-innocent good humor. The steadfast tin soldier marched to one of his Piano Concertos. His set of 24 preludes and fugues for solo piano are touched by the sort of magical wistfulness that only a Russian composer can achieve. I also personally guarantee his Fifth Symphony (of course!), though he wrote 15 of them in all. (The Sixth and Ninth are also pretty accessible. Lovers of military history will enjoy his musical depiction of the heartbreak of World War II in the Seventh and Eighth.) Shostakovich made “modern music” seem classical again. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is!

13. G. F. Handel originally wrote his Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music to be background music anyway, and it really does a good job keeping your ears busy while your eyes are reading a good book. If you like Handel but don’t want to listen to lyrics (as in The Messiah), he also wrote a ton of concertos for various instruments, as well as Concerti Grossi (which aren’t quite what the name sounds like).

14. If you like the glowing sound of a piano in your background, you might also enjoy the delicate miniature Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

15. Another piano composer you must acquaint yourself with, is the Polish-bornFrederic Chopin (show-PAN), whose multitudes of brief, stylish, and often melancholy piano pieces are still the bread and butter of pianists today. The Mazurkas have a folksy flair, while the Waltzes are polished and metropolitan; the Ballades, Polonaises, and Scherzos are vast and dramatic, while the Etudes will leave you wondering how the heck the pianist did that. And there are many other wonderful pieces yet, ranging from delicately sad to tremendously powerful. I recommend the recordings by pianist Maurizio Pollini, who is an absolute wizard.

16. Franz Liszt‘s sparkly pieces for piano also sit nicely in the background. Most of it doesn’t stand up too well at center stage, in my opinion, but again you haven’t heard finger-magic until you’ve heard Maurizio Pollini playing Liszt’s B-minor Sonata. And fans of the Smurfs will also get a thrill from the same composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Liszt also wrote a lot of one-movement “symphonic poems” and the famous Hungarian Rhapsodies, plus lots of magical piano music such as La Campanella.

17. The French master of the colors of the orchestra is Hector Berlioz, whose life story is as bizarre as any fairy tale or fantasy story. Appropriately, his autobiographicalSymphonie Phantastique includes such fantasy elements as a witch’s sabbath and a march to the gallows, all portrayed by pure music. Personally I think Berlioz was taking something (not prescription, either) when he wrote this. Among his other pieces of dazzling beauty are Harold en Italie, a short opera on Romeo and Juliet, and a religious work called The Infancy of Christ. French is an easy language to listen to in the background, it doesn’t intrude on your concentration as English or German do. (Now I’m in trouble.)

18. Anything instrumental by Joseph Haydn or W. A. Mozart will stimulate the gray cells and enhance the mood, while staying gracefully in the background. Frankly I think it’s ALL magical music, especially Mozart’s Piano Concertos and Wind Serenade, and the numerous symphonies by both composers (Haydn is actually my favorite composer of all time). If you’re into musical sci-fi and fantasy, look no further. Mozart has an opera called The Magic Flute and Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna (the World of the Moon) may be the first science-fiction opera ever written!

19. It really seems obscene to include Ludwig van Beethoven in this list at all. No one makes a louder noise and demands more immediate attention. However, even Beethoven had his calm, fantasy-like moments, as the Pastoral Symphony shows. His Eighth Symphony is also pretty light and easy to keep in the background. Then there are his scintillating Piano Sonatas, his introspective String Quartets, and some overtures and concertos that fit right in with adventurous stories.

20. Robert Schumann is another composer who does magic and childhood very nicely. His piano pieces include an Album for the Young, and his songs have quite an impact. But you will probably enjoy his symphonies and Piano Concerto best, background or no. Symphony No. 2, for some reason, is my favorite.

21. Sergei Rakhmaninov (also spelled Rachmaninoff) was a great Russian-American creator of gushy, sentimental music, some of which has already been used as background music in films. Try his Piano Preludes, Paganini Variations, Symphonic Dances, and Vocalise for Orchestra. For some of you, the sound of a choir caroling away like the angels in the sky is all that you need to put you in Seventh Heaven. If you can block out the text (which is easier if you don’t understand the words), you will probably enjoy such a capella (or nearly a capella) glories as Sergei Rakhmaninov’sVespers. Other choir music I ought to mention here includes Heinrich Schütz‘s Four and Five Part Motets, Psalms of David, and Swan Song, and Anton Bruckner‘s motets and Mass in E Minor. (Bruckner also wrote symphonies that some people would prefer to ignore, but I think they deserve your full attention.)

22. If you dig the organ and/or harpsichord, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a TON of keyboard music, including Preludes and Fugues, Variations, Toccatas, Chorale Preludes, Fantasias, French and English Suites, and Partitas. Lovers of the orchestra will also enjoy his six Brandenburg Concertos and other concerti. They’re fun to listen to and even more fun to play, let me tell you, but they can also make a good stimulating musical backdrop for any book you want to concentrate on. Bach also wrote Partitas for solo Violin and solo Cello, unaccompanied, which are somewhat hypnotic in their effect, as is The Art of Fugue.

23. If you’re trying to find The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but can’t remember the composer’s name, it’s Paul Dukas. I don’t know of anything else he wrote. It probably wouldn’t be so famous if it weren’t for Mickey Mouse.

24. If you’re trying to find that scary piece for orchestra and choir that you always hear in trailers for scary movies, it’s called Carmina Burana, it was written by Carl Orff, and it’s actually not scary at all. It’s perfect for college students, with lots of feasting, drinking, loving, and similar college sports. Some people seem to think it makes good background music, but I think your best bet is to read the translation in the liner-notes and pay attention to every note.

25. Finally, I urge you to take a look at some of the works of the underrated Paul Hindemith, whose Mathis der Maler and Symphonic Metamorphoses are his best known works. He wrote some very good symphonies and chamber music that deserve to be heard in detail, though they also shine in the background with a kind of light that you can practically read by.

I know that I have probably not mentioned your favorite composer or piece in this list. At least, if you have one. I haven’t mentioned some of my favorites– such as Brahms and Mahler– nor some that are loved by others, such as Wagner and Richard Strauss, simply because I think their music is too demanding to shunt into the background. But perhaps you will give some of these 25 (actually, 29) suggestions a try and find out that you don’t have to be a total geek to enjoy Classic Music, any more than you have to be an egghead to read a 700-page book!

Robbie Fischer, musician, music-lover, and Potterhead