Final Symphony II – Listener’s Guide
With the release of Final Symphony II – music from Final Fantasy V, VIII, IX, and XIII, Thomas Böcker’s Merregnon Records has presented us again with arrangements of video game music that are best appreciated with attentive listening, as there are many subtle details included that reward those who are more familiar with the game’s themes and with techniques of classical music. More than just presenting orchestrations of memorable melodies, the four orchestral suites of Final Symphony II tell musical narratives through developments and interactions of the games’ leitmotifs and themes. The following will be a guide to the musical themes and their developments within each suite, though it will not be exhaustive; there is much more that these suites can reveal on repeated listens and deeper analyses.
Final Fantasy XIII – Utopia in the Sky
The first major suite is dedicated to Masashi Hamauzu’s score for Final Fantasy XIII and bears the title “Utopia in the Sky”. Hamauzu returns to the provide arrangement, with orchestration and partial arrangement by Jonne Valtonen. The suite does not utilize overt classical structures, and instead functions more or less as a medley unified by its focus on the brighter moments of the original soundtrack, as its title suggests. Hamauzu’s priority was to finally produce orchestrations that he would be satisfied with. This means there are fewer surprises here than in there other suites, but with Hamauzu’s complex composing style, there is still plenty to pay attention to.
“Utopia in the Sky” begins with a quick version of “Lightning’s Theme”, the theme for the main protagonist and a central motif to the soundtrack. The version here is borrowed from “Humanity’s Tale” from Lightning Returns, and is a slight reharmonization of “Lightning’s Theme” which sets up the later resolution into the regular version of the theme. But from here the suite pivots to focus on Vanille, the other protagonist whose theme recurs substantially in the soundtrack. “Vanille’s Theme” (and the extended melody found in “Memories of Happier Days”) shares a segment with “Final Fantasy XIII – Miracles”, itself an extension of the melody from “Prelude to Final Fantasy XIII”.
Of these, the suite first covers the “Prelude” (0:33) with its atmospheric buildup leading to a beautiful and bright main melody, here including the “Miracles” expansion (2:21), all quite faithful to the originals. But rather than returning to the opening militaristic texture and fading out as the original does, the arrangement remains soft to transition into the newly orchestrated version of “Vanille’s Theme” (3:37). In comparison to previous orchestrations of it, this version is much more lush, featuring more spotlights on different instruments and textures with many countermelodies sprinkled throughout to depict the harmonious “utopia” being presented by the suite. The arrangement includes the “Memories of Happier Days” expansion (5:32), and then brings back the “Prelude” percussion to close out the segment.
“Nautilus” then bursts in (6:05), which is the theme for the city of entertainment and spectacle that Vanille passes through. At first the arrangement is fairly faithful, but then it deviates as it further explores the central melodies of the piece; rather than sticking to the original’s more playful and complex harmonies and sounds, the harmonies here are simpler and the textures are more lush, all in line with the “Vanille’s Theme” orchestration. The effect is that “Nautilus” comes off more lyrical, giving it more continuity and unity with what came before it.
After “Nautilus” there is a transition that is at first suggestive of an impending battle (8:47), but what comes is actually the lighter “Fang’s Theme” (9:12), though it still contains the drama and energy of a battle theme. This second half of the suite will cover the character themes for Fang, Lightning, and Serah, and each contains within it a connection to the theme that will follow. Hamauzu and Valtonen strip away the piano-focus from “Fang’s Theme” to focus on the rest of the orchestra, allowing us to better appreciate the interplay between the different instrument groups. As “Fang’s Theme” already includes within it a segment of “Lighting’s Theme” (10:19), the suite naturally continues the excitement with “The Song of the Savior – Grand Finale” (11:11), a reworking of “Lightning’s Theme”/“Blinded By Light” that plays during a diegetic stage performance in Lightning Returns. The arrangement sticks quite close to original, though again removes the piano in order to focus on the wider orchestra. The glorious climax gives a glimpse of “Serah’s Theme” (12:53), and then begins it in earnest (13:34) when the drama is over. The theme is presented first in a delicate strings arrangement, growing to the full orchestra for the “Ending Credits” version of the theme with interpolations of “Vanille’s Theme” and the “Prelude” percussion to tie things together and end the suite. Although there isn’t much in the way of major transformations or new interactions of between motifs, the interconnectedness already built into the themes chosen for the suite give it unity and direction throughout, painting a beautiful and bright world.
Final Fantasy IX – For the People of Gaia
The suite for Final Fantasy IX bears the name “For the People of Gaia” and takes the form of a piano concerto, where the piano is accompanied by and is in dialogue with the wider orchestra. Here Roger Wanamo provides the arrangement that is based on the original compositions of Nobuo Uematsu. The concerto is in four movements though there is no pause between the movements, and each movement draws influence from a different era or composer of classical music. Thematically the movements are centred on the protagonists Zidane, Vivi, Garnet, and then their battle with the antagonist Kuja respectively, so that the concerto depicts the heroes and their fight for the planet Gaia.
The concerto begins appropriately with a fairly faithful rendition of “Memories Erased By A Storm”, which plays during the opening FMV of the game, and which is a variation of the later “Melodies of Life”. The piano then makes its presence known with a solo introduction before launching into “Zidane’s Theme” with orchestral accompaniment (1:46). While the opening was more 20th century in character, “Zidane’s Theme” takes things back to the Classical era of Mozart and Beethoven. Here the textures are lighter, while the parts for piano and orchestra are mostly constant and act more as accompaniments for each other rather than as dialogue partners, which will later be seen. The more straightforward classical style is a good match for Zidane’s character. Wanamo makes sure to include the passage of “Zidane’s Theme” that later becomes “Unrequited Love” (3:19), as it will become significant. The largely classical balance between piano and orchestra remains as Zidane shows off his combat prowess in “Festival of the Hunt” (3:55), although this section is much less classical in texture. “Kuja’s Theme” also peeks out of the background in the strings (5:13) as an omen of things to come.
As the orchestra pulls back, the piano uses a quick nod to “Kingdom of Burmecia” (6:05) to transition to the second movement, dedicated to the playful “Vivi’s Theme” and functioning as a sort of scherzo. Wanamo presents the theme as a Prokofiev gavotte, with many grace notes and punctuated staccato chords. Again it is a great choice for the character, capturing Vivi’s awkward yet charming demeanour. But as the playfulness builds, fragments of Kuja appear again, and before long Vivi’s theme simply spiral spirals out of control and morphs into a rapid repetition of Kuja’s motif before crashing down (9:11); Kuja has tricked and betrayed Vivi’s fellow black mages. The piano tries to pick itself up again, but when Vivi’s theme’s theme returns it is in a sadder key. This transitions to “Mourning the Sky” (9:58) where Vivi grapples with Kuja’s trickery, and the piano here drops out entirely for it. When the piano returns, it is to transition to the next movement.
For the third movement, Wanamo centres on Garnet as represented by “Melodies of Life” (11:27). The natural choice of style is a Chopin-esque Romantic-era slow movement, which brings out the beauty and passion of the song. The initial broken arpeggiations that dance around the melody suggest the tentativeness of the early stages of the relationship between Garnet and Zidane, but this later gives way to rhapsodic expressiveness. Wanamo seamlessly works in “Unrequited Love” (13:58) to call back explicitly to Zidane, and the two themes try to come together in a harmonic call-and-response. All throughout this movement “Melodies of Life” is trying to find the right key (which is Zidane’s D major), but is ultimately unable to. Before long Kuja again enters the scene (15:51) and the concerto moves to its final movement.
The conflict with Kuja begins first with “Silver Dragon” (16:10), and Wanamo inserts Kuja’s theme into various places to reinforce his presence. Vivi is the first to jump in and fight back (17:38), but he isn’t able to prevail. The fight escalates to “The Final Battle” as the dazzling Rachmaninoff-styled cadenza to the movement (18:30), with Wanamo taking the short motif of the theme and whipping it up into a frenzy. Garnet (19:01), Vivi (19:08) and Zidane (19:19) each get their turn in retaliation, but Kuja’s theme tries to get the last word in (19:52) before the rest of the orchestra returns to continue “The Final Battle”. When Kuja seems to have won, “Melodies of Life” makes a surprise and victorious return to the fore, finally having found its target key of D major (20:41), and thus brings an end to the threat to Gaia.
Final Fantasy VIII – Mono no Aware
Roger Wanamo also provides the arrangement for the suite based on Nobuo Uematsu’s score for Final Fantasy VIII. Rather than summarizing the game’s narrative, the suite opts for a more thematic approach, taking the title “Mono no Aware”. This is a Japanese concept referring to the impermanence of things, which finds expression in the way the different leitmotifs interact with each other and develop throughout the entire suite, reflecting the effect of the passage of time on all things. This theme is also seen in how the motifs get passed between the different instrument groups. The key motifs here come from: “Liberi Fatali” which is an oppressive theme that may be seen to represent fate and conflict; “The Oath” which roughly represents the protagonist Squall and his role as leader; “Ami” which represents friendship and harmony; “Eyes on Me” which represents love and Squall’s interest in Rinoa; and “Succession of Witches” which is the sorceress and antagonist theme. It is perhaps the most dense of the suites in terms of motivic usage.
The suite begins with a faithful rendition of “Liberi Fatali”, which is also the opening of the game. This fate motif provides the driving force of the suite. After the climax of the opening, a lone violin emerges and attempts to find its way. The solo violin will be a recurring character of sorts throughout the suite. A horn tries to guide the violin into “Eyes on Me” (3:08) and they briefly manage to line up in unison, but the violin quickly strays into a fragment of “Succession of Witches” (3:22). The rest of the orchestra brings in fragments of “The Oath” (3:38) and “Ami” (3:43), and then the strings give “The Oath” a proper exposition to introduce the protagonist Squall (3:55). But even here, “Eyes on Me” (4:04) and “Ami” (4:21) make appearances in between phrases; the demands of friendship and romance are ever-present. “The Oath” eventually gives way to “Ami” (5:34), which is now able to reveal itself in full. The solo violin returns with “Succession of Witches” but quickly hesitates, going back and forth with “The Oath” (6:05) before “Ami” asserts itself to the fore again in the orchestra. “The Oath” comes back in on the woodwinds and attempts to find harmony with “Ami”, but the scene changes before it can happen.
The exposition for “Eyes on Me” is then given in the form of the familiar “Waltz for the Moon” (7:00). The scene is allowed to play out largely uninterrupted, with a period given to a more tender interaction, but at the climax fate knocks again and “Liberi Fatali” bursts in to introduce “The Landing” (10:05). A glimpse of the “The Oath” attempts to galvanize combatants (11:04), but the “Liberi Fatali” elements of “The Landing” escalate and take over the segment. Suddenly a combination of “Eyes on Me”, “The Oath”, and “Ami” break out and appear triumphant (12:41), but as they try to settle down, an echo of “Succession of Witches” rings in the background, and soon the theme finally emerges in full (13:49).
The arrangement for “Succession of Witches” begins very quietly, like a spell. When the solo violin returns, it plays “Succession of Witches” very clearly, seemingly under the influence of the instruments hovering around it (14:54). The segment eventually builds into a repetition of the “Fithos Lusec Winosec” chorus, escalating into the battle version of “Succession of Witches” known as “Premonition” (15:47). The beginning of “Premonition” notably includes distorted fragments of “Eyes on Me”, signifying Rinoa’s transformation into a sorceress. The battle shifts gears into “Don’t Be Afraid” (17:33) and then “The Extreme” (18:09) before returning to “Premonition” (18:29). At the climax the “Liberi Fatali” motif (19:05) comes to a head with “The Oath” (19:09), but “The Oath” is not able to prevail on its own. “Liberi Fatali” asserts itself again (19:11), and this time it is a seamless fusion of the “Eyes on Me” and “The Oath” melodies that is able to gain the upper hand (19:16), with “Ami” emerging to join the celebration (19:47).
As the piece closes out (20:02) all three protagonist themes weave in and out, now in harmony with each other and not competing: “Ami” is on the horn, “The Oath” is given a cathartic major-key reharmonization on the oboe, and “Eyes on Me” is on the flute. The oboe and flute each echo the last notes of “Ami”, and the solo violin re-enters with a fragment of “The Oath” but does not finish the melody; the suite ends unresolved and open to the future, in line with the “Mono no Aware” theme.
Final Fantasy V – Library of the Ancients
The final suite is Jonne Valtonen’s arrangement for Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy V soundtrack, titled “Library of the Ancients”. This suite takes a more narrative approach, but also simplifies the characters represented musically so that the protagonists are represented by the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V”, while the antagonist X-Death is mainly represented by “The Evil Lord X-Death”. Only the protagonist Reina is given a separate spotlight. The suite begins with “Musica Machina”, the theme for Ancient Base utilized by the protagonists. Although it could easily sound like a villain theme due to how heavy and dark it is, the atmosphere is mainly conveying the desolation of a world that has lost its wind. The various rhythms of “Musica Machina” will pop-up in the background throughout the piece, often well-hidden. Very early on, fragments of both the antagonist and protagonist themes are introduced (0:45 and 0:55), and it is X-Death’s theme that is most prominent as this first section closes out.
The suite then moves on to “Reina’s Theme” (2:08) to give us a window into this world. We start with a glimpse of her kind personality, though even here Valtonen adds subtle tension in the harmonies to express her sadness and frustration at the state of the world. The theme is anchored into the suite by fragments of the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V” that almost sound like the other party members trying to comfort and encourage her throughout. The strings in the back quietly echo “Musica Machina” (5:30) to signal the return to the Ancient Base, and the revelations of a “Sealed Book” (5:55) hover in the air just before the threat of X-Death returns to the stage (6:13).
The party then sets off to visit a variety of shrines and temples in “Sealed Away” (6:21), which here goes through a number of textures to reflect the different locations, with notable background references to “Sealed Book” and “Close Call” in the strings (6:21) and “X-Death’s Castle” in the brass (7:08). Pieces of “Musica Machina” and “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V” also make several background appearances as the party shuttles from place to place. The suite then brings “Close Call” to the fore (7:46) as X-Death appears and brings the battle to “X-Death’s Castle” (8:24). Flashes of “Close Call” and “The Evil Lord X-Death” continue to appear throughout this segment, and the suite returns to “Musica Machina” briefly (9:14) when the threat of X-Death seems to cut off and fade out. The world returns to its original merged state as a result of the tentative victory in “Slumber of Ancient Earth” (9:45).
A stripped back rendition of “Spreading Grand Wings” (10:33) perhaps signifies the sacrifice of the wind drake Hiryu, but quick fragments of “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V” (11:23) help rebuild the “Spreading Grand Wings” theme to a more confident state as the party reforms for the final battle. With this, “The Evil Lord X-Death” finally makes a proper appearance with his melody and accompaniment (12:16), and the fight commences with “Battle 1” (12:30). Things look initially good as the arrangement is actually kept quite light, but a modulation of the battle theme (13:43) pivots the suite to a darker mood as the party enters the Interdimensional Rift in “Prelude to the Void” (13:59). There they find X-Death who sends the party into the Void, a desolate place where X-Death strings follow the “Musica Machina” rhythm (14:50). A glimmer of hope appears in the faint “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V” (14:56) as the souls of fallen allies return to encourage the heroes to resume the final battle. The various X-Death themes from before return and build on top of each other while clashing with “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V”, and the climax is reached in “Decisive Battle” (15:52).
X-Death is defeated, but at first there is only the silence of the Void. As the heroes regain consciousness, a low and somber “Sorrows of Parting” accompanies the goodbyes that the heroes exchange with their fallen friends and family (16:30). There are attempts at comfort from the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V” (18:36 and 19:04), but rather than simply being overtaken, “Sorrows of Parting” continues until it itself comes to terms with what has happened, transforming harmonically into a major key (19:33). Only then is “Main Theme of Final Fantasy V” allowed to burst forth to celebrate the victory (19:46). The whole world seems to join in the celebration, as all sorts of independent musical lines flutter about. Among these is a quick victorious reharmonization of “Reina’s Theme” (20:26), the series’ iconic “Victory Fanfare” (21:09), and major key reharmonizations of both “Musica Machina” (21:13) and the X-Death chords (21:25). Victory at last.
Final Symphony II – music from Final Fantasy V, VIII, IX, and XIII expands on the musical storytelling techniques that Merregnon Studios began with the first Final Symphony, and wonderfully caps off the twenty years that the team has spent striving to transform the orchestral video game music landscape. Those wanting more should check out our Listener’s Guides for the symphonic poem for Final Fantasy VI, the piano concerto for Final Fantasy X, and the symphony for Final Fantasy VII from the first album. Although Böcker has said that the team is moving on to other ventures that are not focused on video games, the richness of what the team has already given us in these concerts and recordings will no doubt continue to entertain and inspire fans for years to come, just as good classical music does.
Posted on August 24, 2023 by Tien Hoang. Last modified on August 24, 2023.