Final Fantasy VII Symphony Listener’s Guide

finalsymphony

Overview

At this point I have given closer examinations of Roger Wanamo’s narrative “Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem” and Masashi Hamauzu’s thematic “Final Fantasy X Piano Concerto” from the recent Final Symphony album, released by Spielemusikkonzerte and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. In this final article, we turn our attention to the final major work of the album, Jonne Valtonen’s “Final Fantasy VII Symphony in Three Movements”. In this work, Valtonen makes use of the narrative approach with some abstract segments. He allows the themes to represent various characters and events, telling various aspects of the Final Fantasy VII story through the interactions of these themes.

There is a lot of material in this 40-minute work that might escape even the most ardent fans, and Valtonen has provided an official summary and walkthroughs in various other places. Here I will assemble that information, and also provide a little more detail on certain aspects for anyone looking to get a better understanding of this monumental work.

If you haven’t yet picked up the album, feel free to follow along with the album on streaming services such as Spotify, as I have included timestamps throughout this essay.

The Symphony

Valtonen depicts the story of Final Fantasy VII within a symphony. The form and structure of symphonies have developed immensely over the centuries, but at its most ordered a symphony had four distinct movements taking the forms of an opening sonata, a free slow movement, a minuet with trio, and a closing sonata or rondo. In the past century symphonies have become much more free in their structure, having fewer or more movements, and varying significantly in the form of each of these movements. Often the term now simply refers to a large scale work of longer length and complexity that scored for an orchestra.

Valtonen’s symphony is divided into three separate movements, which do not follow specific musical structures, though the second movement is essentially the free slow movement, and the third movement approximates a rondo (having a repeated theme throughout). Valtonen has mentioned that he was initially going for the more traditional four-movement form discussed above, but in the end he decided on a more free structure in order to better represent the narrative that he wished to convey.

The Story

Final Fantasy VII features many characters and story elements, and Valtonen focuses on the key elements in his symphony. The first movement “Nibelheim Incident” is dedicated to the villain Sephiroth, depicting his backstory. Here Sephiroth is seen to discover the history of experiments performed on him and ancient alien Jenova. This knowledge leads to his subsequent rebellion and the destruction of Nibelheim. The second movement “Words Drowned by Fireworks” focuses on the dynamic between three protagonists: Cloud (the central character), and his two potential love interests Tifa and Aerith. The final movement “The Planet’s Crisis” leads up to the final battle of the protagonists (Cloud, Tifa, and airship pilot Cid) and the villain Sephiroth. Sephiroth successfully summons Meteor, which he plans to use to do massive damage to the Planet in hopes of forcing the mysterious fluid known as Lifestream to appear. Sephiroth intends to exploit the Lifestream to become a god, but in the end Sephiroth is vanquished and the Lifestream prevents the impact of Meteor.

The Themes

The score for Final Fantasy VII includes over three hours of content, assigning themes and leitmotifs to the many different characters, locations, and events throughout the game. The score was composed entirely by Nobuo Uematsu. The following are the themes that are included within the symphony, with information about the context of the pieces within the games. Valtonen changes the context and significance of some of the pieces for the symphony, which I will also mention. I’ve provided samples of the recurring leitmotifs to help with identification throughout the symphony.

First Movement

”Those Chosen By the Planet” is the leitmotif for Sephiroth, originally playing at various points in the game, including during his final battle. The following is the central leitmotif for Sephiroth, which has several incarnations in other related themes in the original score.

ThoseChosenByThePlanet


”One-Winged Angel” is another track that represents Sephiroth, originally playing during the penultimate battle with Sephiroth in the game. The piece has several distinct figures, but the following is most often used to signify his character, and corresponds to the song’s choir singing “Se-phi-roth!”

OneWingedAngel

There are also several other themes in first movement. ”Opening” is the first song in the game, and is known for a 7-note figure on chimes that plays at the beginning of the piece. This figure also reappears at the end of the final scene at the end of the game. The second melody of the piece is also included in the symphony. “Prelude” is a recurrent theme throughout the Final Fantasy series, knowing for its rising and falling arpeggios. “Who…Am I?” originally plays in the game when Cloud is searching for his identity. Here it is used instead for Sephiroth’s search of the same. “J-E-N-O-V-A” signifies the ancient alien Jenova, originally used in battles with enemies derived from it. “Trail of Blood” plays in the aftermath of Sephiroth’s attack on Shinra Headquarters, but here is used for his attack on Nibelheim.

Second Movement

“Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII” plays in the world map, and has has many variations in other themes in the original score, many of which are significant to Cloud. Here, Valtonen uses it to represent Cloud, so I will refer to it in the symphony as “Cloud’s Theme”. The following is the fragment used outside of the context of the theme to represent Cloud:

Cloud

“Aerith’s Theme” represents Aerith, a character who is bright, determined, and full of hope. The following are the two fragments used outside of the context of the theme to represent Aerith:

Aerith

AerithFanfare

“Tifa’s Theme” represents Tifa, a character with a strong and tough exterior contrasting with her shy and caring interior. The following is the fragment used outside of the context of the theme to represent Tifa:

Tifa

“Words Drowned by Fireworks” plays during a scene where Cloud goes on a date with one of the characters and observes fireworks. In the game, the person who goes on the date with Cloud is dependent on the player’s actions up until that point in the game, and here Valtonen has Cloud go on the date with Aerith. The theme itself is a variation of “Cloud’s Theme”.

Third Movement

“Cid’s Theme” represents Cid, a gruff character almost always seen smoking. He pilots the airship in the game. His theme includes a variation on “Opening”. The following is the fragment used outside of the context of the theme to represent Cid:

Cid

There are also other themes in the third movement. “Countdown” originally plays during the rocket launch, but here is used to represent the urgency of the Meteor crisis. Its repetition throughout the movement gives the movement a feeling of a rondo. “The Great Warrior” is related to Cosmo Canyon, where the protagonists learn about the Planet. “Jenova Complete” is used in one of the final battles, against Jenova-SYNTHESIS. “Lifestream” is originally played during the scene where the characters learn more about the Lifestream, a mysterious liquid closely related to life and energy. “The Planet’s Crisis” is played during the events after the final battle.

The Work

The first movement “Nibelheim Incident” begins with the atmosphere of “Those Chosen By the Planet”, drawn out and ominous. The “Opening” 7-note motif appears (0:23) before exploding in fully (1:18) with the “Prelude” accompanying it in the background. However, this isn’t the “Opening” and “Prelude” to the heroes that we’re used to; Valtonen’s arrangement is dark and grim, adjusted to be the opening and prelude of the villain Sephiroth.

The character is more properly introduced with “Who…Am I?” (2:10), at first subdued but clearly troubled and disturbed. Appearances of “Opening” remain throughout this section. As it moves on the piece becomes more agitated; Sephiroth is suspecting that information has been hidden from him regarding his past, and he gradually learns about the experiments that were done on him. His villainous “One-Winged Angel” theme starts to come through in small motivic movements, before rearing an ugly head (4:00) in more concentrated, chaotic fragments; Sephiroth is going mad from the information. As he begins to try to make sense of what he is discovering, confusion turns to rage (4:30). He learns more about the project surrounding Jenova, as the “J-E-N-O-V-A” theme begins to play overtop of his own (4:42). Sephiroth finally discovers the truth (5:46), and now “J-E-N-O-V-A” comes into full view (6:10). “Opening” makes a reappearance (7:03) to signal Sephiroth’s new resolve, showing his full descent into darkness.

Over the descending arpeggios of “J-E-N-O-V-A” (8:04), the orchestra lightly plays “Trail of Blood” as Sephiroth quietly begins his killing spree. The music here sounds suitable for a horror movie portrayal of the events, with sudden jabs and strikes in a creepy atmosphere. Before long, Sephiroth comes into the open and the orchestra unleashes “One-Winged Angel” in full (9:27) as the town of Nibelheim begins to blaze behind him. While most renditions of the song are a bit bombastic and perhaps even self-indulgent at times, Valtonen keeps things darker here and more true to the character, coming across as representing something truly sinister and purely evil. Even though the choir is the staple of the original, the instruments more than pick up the slack here. Valtonen layers the different segments of the song as Sephiroth continues to wreak havoc, building them up steadily before the resounding crash of “Sephiroth!” that ends the movement.

The second movement “Words Drowned by Fireworks” is less narrative, being more abstractive in its symbolism throughout. The movement opens with a short introduction to Aerith through her theme before starting the titular song “Words Drowned by Fireworks” (0:23), portraying the date with her and Cloud. Manifestations of “Cloud’s Theme“ make appearances throughout, and the two characters hit it off while chimes flutter around like birds. Just as the conversation starts to go places, it is halted as the fireworks cut in (3:20).

Afterwards, Aerith’s theme begins to show (4:30), but just before it fully blossoms the attention shifts back to Cloud for his exposition (4:50). His theme begins rather timidly as he begins to sort out his emotions. Fragments of Aerith’s and Tifa’s themes run throughout as Cloud’s theme becomes more confident, and his relationship grows with them. Just as Aerith is about to come back into the picture (5:51) Tifa’s theme cuts in almost intrusively (5:57), and Aerith’s theme gets drowned out. Tifa takes centre stage, and Cloud’s theme makes some appearances in good fit with Tifa’s. But as Cloud remembers Aerith (7:34), he is left with a dilemma.

Shrinking down, the second part of Cloud’s theme plays, again timidly (7:52). The birds return with Aerith, who tries to find her way back into his theme (8:11). Eventually the two cellos are able to harmonize, and Cloud realizes his feelings for her. Her theme is finally allowed to blossom (9:08), and Cloud’s theme fits in perfectly with hers. Aerith still has some reservations though (9:31) perhaps partly troubled by the resemblance that Cloud bears to an old friend named Zack. Aerith tries to shake off those feelings (10:08), but the themes are no longer in harmony as Aerith and Cloud’s themes play simultaneously in the higher and lower registers (10:28). Although they are able to find each other briefly, Sephiroth suddenly interrupts and leaves things in disarray (11:06).

Aerith and Cloud try to find each other again (11:30), as different fragments from each theme come in on different keys in desperate attempts to return to harmony. Things become more and more dire as Sephiroth steadily resurfaces, increasing the dissonance and tension. Aerith’s theme repeatedly tries to make it through but to no avail; Sephiroth impales Aerith with his blade, all she can manage now is quick, laboured breaths (12:56). Sephiroth draws out his sword (13:13), and Aerith’s breaths slowly taper off. She breathes her last.

The third movement “The Planet’s Crisis” begins with the start of “Countdown”, which serves as the recurring theme for the movement. Here, protagonists prepare for a showdown with Sephiroth before he can cast the devastating spell Meteor. Already being acquainted to Tifa and Cloud, Valtonen introduces Cid with a quick shot of his theme (0:30). From there, the protagonists begin to train and learn more about what they face with a rendition of “The Great Warrior” (0:49) chronicling their time in Cosmo Canyon. The countdown returns to remind of the impending danger (2:58), then “Cid’s Theme” gets full exposition (3:05) as he commands his airship through the dark skies to take the protagonists to the final battle.

The party first enters into battle with Jenova-SYNTHESIS, accompanied by its proper track, “Jenova Complete” (4:35). The countdown returns as Jenova-SYNTHESIS falls, and the music drops out for the final battle as Sephiroth makes his entrance (6:22). Valtonen makes the choice here to represent the battle in homage to the turn-based format of the original game, accompanying each attack with the motif of the character striking. Cloud strikes first. Then Cid. Then Tifa. Then Sephiroth. Cid again. The battle goes back and forth, slowly at first, then escalating as Sephiroth starts to gain the upper hand and shift form. The countdown returns (8:45) as Sephiroth summons Meteor, and Cloud uses this opportunity to go in for the kill. Despite his efforts, Meteor is now set on its path toward the Planet, and time is running out. The ensuing chaos overwhelms (9:14), and for a moment the world holds its breath to see what happens next (9:28).

Out of the stillness, the Lifestream pokes out, and then begins to flow (9:54) accompanied by the end of “The Planet’s Crisis”. The music grows as more and more Lifestream appears in an attempt to stop Meteor, and Valtonen appropriately adds the “Lifestream” theme overtop (11:09). The Lifestream and the music almost become too much, enveloping the Planet and the audience on the way to thwart Meteor. Soon, safety is assured, and Cloud’s motifs play victoriously (11:42), resounding in full force in orchestra with the entire Planet. While the audience is submerged in this ocean of sound, the seven-note motif of “Opening” signals the end of the story (13:11). The music and the scene slowly fades away.

Closing Thoughts

That’s it for our journey through Jonne Valtonen’s Final Fantasy VII symphony! I hope you enjoyed the tour through his monumental work, which features great characterization of the various elements at play in the game while displaying it all rather uniquely. It’s interesting that Valtonen does not tell the story necessarily straight, and avoids scoring the music as if it were simply accompanying the game’s events. Rather, he reinterprets the events through the music in a compelling manner. A bit risky perhaps, but I think it payed off immensely.

This is also the end of our journey through the major works of Final Symphony, but it is far from the end of the journey for video game music. Even before their arrangements in these large, orchestral works, the scores of these games and many others have employed great songs at the service of incredible stories with plenty to study in terms of the usage of themes and leitmotifs. But also, Final Symphony has marked another great success in Spielemusikkonzerte’s history, so hopefully it won’t be too long before they give us some more to chew on. I look forward to it.

Side Notes

-The entire symphony is framed in C minor, beginning with C minor in “Nibelheim Incident”, moving to the close with G minor in much of “The Planet’s Crisis”, and ending on C major as the Lifestream appears.

-“Who…Am I?” features a darker variation on “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII”. Valtonen chose these to accompany Sephiroth and Cloud respectively, possibly showing that while they are two opposites (darkness and light), they share a lot in common with each other.

-Sephiroth’s melodic motifs never really get displayed throughout “Words Drowned By Fireworks”, but anyone doubting his involvement needs to look no further than the E-D#-F keys of “Cloud’s Theme”, “Aerith’s Theme”, and the underlying timpani and bass notes from the polytonal section (11:31). It’s a very subtle nod to that first three-note figure of Sephiroth’s “Those Chosen By the Planet” leitmotif. A terrible joke can also be made in regards to Sephiroth coming in on F.

-Valtonen’s lead up to Aerith’s murder is considerably more drawn out and dramatic than the original scene (which was mostly in silence and was a huge surprise), but if you don’t believe me about his representation of the impalement (12:56) and the drawing of his sword (13:13), go check the original and see how long Aerith is on that blade for.

-“Countdown” has a great contrast with the Lifestream segment of “The Planet’s Crisis”, which shares a similar melodic pattern but a different tone, giving the entire movement a nice, unified framework as a modified rondo of sorts.

-Valtonen’s depiction of the final battle “The Planet’s Crisis” lends itself to another interpretation, different from the canon. Rather than Cloud escaping with the others after having defeated Sephiroth, the final appearance of “Cid’s Theme” (8:07) matches the escape on the airship from Meteor, and in the context of the symphony leaves Sephiroth (8:25) and Cloud (8:46) alone together for their one-on-one battle. The end of their battle is at first ambiguous, but Cloud eventually surfaces in the midst of the Lifestream (11:42). Not quite what happens in the game, but I think it works just as well.

-The chimed “Opening” motif has seven notes, and the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII”’s central melodic figure spans a beautiful 7th interval. Did anyone notice the number 7 anywhere else?

 

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the guide to Roger Wanamo’s Final Fantasy VI symphonic poem, as well my essay on Masashi Hamauzu’s Final Fantasy X piano concertoAlso check out the official website to find out where you can purchase the album.

Posted on March 19, 2015 by Christopher Huynh. Last modified on September 1, 2015.

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About the Author

recently finished an undergraduate degree in Physics at McMaster University. He has some proficiency in singing, piano, organ, cello, and gaming. He hopes to continue exploring the vast world of music while sharing it with others however possible.



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