Settling The Score: Classical Music Insight into 5 Iconic Video Game Themes

A World of Warcraft fan (and Classical 96.3 listener) recently emailed CFMZ a musical request in honour of today’s World of Warcraft: Cataclysm online launch: Russell Brower‘s “Lament of the Highborne”.

“The music is modern classical performed for the masses,” our listener emailed. “The language in the song is Elvish, but it is still impressive for fans of Bach and Handel.”

As the digital video game industry becomes an increasingly mainstream cultural force, these 1980s 8/16 bit compositions have become a genre onto itself, introducing classical music to a new technology and even audience. Just consider the fact that there’s now a hugely popular touring video game symphony performing lush interpretations of “blockbuster video game titles” to the recent announcement of a Classical 96.3 FM favourite‘s participation in the Sony PlayStation’s Gran Turismo 5 (you can hear Lang Lang’s contribution to this driving simulator game here).

It made sense then for Classical 96.3 FM to bring the classical “console” insight with our resident “musical multilinguist” (& host of the weekend edition of In The Still of the Night!), Kathleen Kajioka. Hereby, five iconic video game themes (in no particular order), and if you’re interested in what they might reference, Kajioka’s own recommendations.

The Game: World of Warcraft

The Composition: Derek Duke & Russell Brower’s ‘Lament of the Highborne’

The Stirring Moment: According to WOWWiki, this Eversong Woods lament is “heard in-game by Lady Sylvanas Windrunner and her Highborne Lamenters (pleasant-voiced banshees) after finding her locket (The Lady’s Necklace, a gift from her sister Alleria) at Windrunner Spire in the Ghostlands and returning it to the Dark Lady”.

Euterpe’s Influence: In a recent CVG interview, Brower describes finding sturm und drang gameplay musical inspiration by “tak[ing] hundreds of screenshots of the most compelling, inspirational vistas” and sticking “those shots up all over [his] walls and on [his] computer desktop”.

The Musical Multilinguist Weighs In: “A lot of film music can border into depth and imagination, but often it’s there to serve a purpose. So that means the music tends to at least have a certain limited aesthetic,” says Kajioka of this Lord of the Rings-like composition. The “smooth washy string lines” reminds her, however, of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Adagietto from Symphony No. 5’. “It’s a beautiful example of something that has that kind of vastness to it, yet is so incredibly powerful.” (You may of recognized the fourth movement from the final scene of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice.)

The Game: Final Fantasy VII

The Composition: Nobuo Uematsu’s ‘One-Winged Angel’

The Stirring Moment: A climatic battle theme for the final confrontation with the sci-fi/fantasy role-playing game’s antagonist, Sephiroth.

Canon Credentials: Japanese video game composer Uematsu — famous for his Final Fantasy themes — has received much acclaim for his distinctive inidividual character-driven melodies, and this composition in particular was considered by IGN as the “best Final Fantasy theme”: “with dark sinister overtones, grandiloquent percussions, and a chorus singing in Latin, the theme for Sephiroth easily captures the pure evil that is his character and cements this soundtrack into game music history”.

The Musical Multilinguist Weighs In: Kajioka considers “One-Winged Angel” to be “the most truly classical-ish”, and considers it a cross between Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ & Igor Stravinsky’s score for the Russian-Punch-who-comes-to-life ballet Petruska.

The Game: The Legend of Zelda

The Composition: Koji Kondo’s Legend of Zelda Theme

The Stirring Moment: A proper musical accompaniment to the task that lies ahead for protagonist Link: ‘Recover the Shattered Pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and Rescue Princess Zelda.’

Euterpe’s Influence: In an interview with Electronic Gaming Monthly, Kondo — who is recognized as an influential 8 bit trailblazer for his work on Zelda and Super Mario Bros. — recalled originally using Ravel’s “Bolero” for the opening title screen “because that tempo was perfectly matched with the speed of the opening screen rolling”. But when Kondo was informed by Nintendo that the copyright hadn’t expired, he “had to compose a completely new piece of music that night.”

The Musical Multilinguist Weighs In: “Cinematic” and “vast” comes up in Kajioka’s assessment of Zelda’s “heroic” theme. So it seems fitting that the version included here done by The Boston Pops references John Williams’ stirring triad-based march for the 1978 blockbuster Superman.

The Game: Halo

The Composition: Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori’s Halo Theme

The Stirring Moment: The popular XBox first-person shooter involves a super-soldier saving humanity from the ‘Covenant’, alien species who have nurtured a parasitic super-weapon structure that could wipe out — anyways, you get the post-apocalyptic idea.

Canon Credentials: In a 2008 New York Times assessment of the on-going trend of classically-trained musicians venturing into composing for digital video games, writer Vivien Schweitzer described Halo‘s impact on the genre: ‘The use of Gregorian chant in Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s score for the popular Halo series has no doubt contributed to the popular interest in chant.’

The Musical Multilinguist Weighs In: Indeed, Kajioka — the baroque violinist who will be performing next week in the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir‘s performance of Handel’s Messiah as well as with the Toronto Consort — has witnessed this trend close-up: ” I have colleagues who have played concerts like this and it has been remarkable — the demographic is completely different.”

Indeed, Halo‘s resurgence of the Gregorian chant has made the seasonal liturgical hit a classical label priority. Consider this year’s offering: The Benedictine Sisters of Our Lady of the Anunciation’s “Tract Commovisti” (favorably reviewed on John Teraud’s SoundMind blog).

The Game: Medal of Honor: Allied Assault

The Composition: Michael Giacchino’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault Main Theme

The Stirring Moment: Probably the most cinematic offering — the Steven Spielberg-co-created first-person shooter series that takes gamers into the battles of WWII (although it recently had a reboot into the present Afghanistan conflict). In Allied Assault, the critically-acclaimed series takes you through the African and European missions (including D-Day’s Omaha Beach) of Army Ranger Lt. Mike Powell.

Canon Credentials: Giacchino — an Oscar winner for the film score he composed for the animated film Up who counts the Hanna-Barbera cartoons and “The A-Team” as formative influences — seems to embody the ‘future’ that Vivien Schweitzer’s hinted at back in 2008. Giacchino got his start composing the Medal of Honor video game series (Steven Spielberg personally gave him permission to use a full orchestra), only to shift towards television themes (like Lost) that inspired New Yorker musical critic Alex Ross to call him a composer responsible for “the most compelling film music”.

The Musical Multilinguist Weighs In: “That vast, military horn fan fare aesthetic is necessary,” explains Kajioka of the “noble, Glory-oriented battle music” that Giachinno echoes in his Medal of Honor theme. She suggests checking out American composers Alan Hovhaness (in particular, his 60th symphony ‘To the Appalachian Mountains’) and Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ for that “grand American feel”.

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