Tune by tune, we break down the structure of Roger Wanamo's Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem—an epic struggle between our heroine, Terra, and the villainous Kefka.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Conceived as a set of orchestral concert suites, first performed in 2013, Final Symphony is based on the music of video game composer Nobuo Uematsu. The pieces, including a symphonic poem, a piano concerto and a symphony, feature music drawn from several of the most popular Final Fantasy games (VI, VII and X).
Whilst the overall concert tour and resulting album was produced by Thomas Böcker and Merregnon Studios, arrangers Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo and Masashi Hamauzu were tasked with weaving together melodies, rhythms and textures from in-game tracks—of which there are hundreds—into wonderful new orchestral works. Many of the original tracks were composed by Uematsu with the expectation that they would only ever be rendered by the now primitive sound chips of 1990’s game consoles.
As Laced Records released CD and vinyl versions of Final Symphony (currently sold out), recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, we thought it would be fun to breakdown one of the suites—Final Fantasy VI – Symphonic Poem: Born with the Gift of Magic arranged by Finland’s Roger Wanamo—to find out which game tracks made it in and how they fit together musically.
The London Symphony Orchestra recording Final Symphony at Abbey Road Studios with conductor Eckehard Stier:
Born with the gift of musicBorn with the Gift of Magic is Wanamo’s second time working with the music of Final Fantasy VI, with themes also appearing in the Symphonic Odysseys piano concerto. In terms of which themes to include in Final Symphony, Wanamo previously explained:
“There is so much that I wanted to include, but not room for nearly everything. Originally my plan was to focus on the numerous character themes. Then the plan changed to focus on Terra and her story. One part of this story would focus on her friends, the other character themes. Then I had to drop that as well, as the piece would have become way too long.”
Instead, we get a musical face off between heroine and distressed demigod, Terra, and the genocidal clown, Kefka.
You can listen along to the 18 minute suite...
...via YouTube or Spotify (also embedded below) or Apple Music; buy the track/album on iTunes, Amazon and other digital stores; or go the whole hog with the deluxe CD or vinyl available at Lacedrecords.com.
0:00 – “Overture”
Notes about track time refer to the Symphonic Poem as heard on the Final Symphony studio album.
The suite opens with the opening bars of the Overture to Final Fantasy VI’s in-game opera about a war-torn romance—known as either Maria and Draco or The Dream Oath. We hear subtle variations of Terra’s Theme (0:21)—which will emerge triumphant over the course of the piece—murmured by the lower strings and played more prominently by the French horns. A bassoon whispers a few notes of the dastardly Kefka’s Theme (0:28).
The original track by Nobuo Uematsu:
0:46 – “Opening Theme” (AKA "Omen")
Within less than a minute, we hear the infamous chimes (“Long ago, the War of the Magi reduced the world to a scorched wasteland…”) and are enveloped by the anxious chords of the game's opening scenes. Wanamo adds two notes (0:49) after the three famous chords to maintain the presence of Terra’s Theme.
1:07 – “Troops March On” & “Terra’s Theme” (AKA “Tina”)
Almost immediately, we hear Terra’s Theme trapped within Troops March On—a direct reference to the way the game’s story begins with our magically powerful heroine being controlled and marched around by the evil empire.
After a minute, Terra starts to struggle against against her oppressors as a wrenching, melodic strings swell rises up (2:28), giving off strong hints of John Williams’ Jedi theme from 1977’s Star Wars. She is soon subdued, as the orchestra brings us right down to almost-silence (3:15).
3:18 – “Kefka’s Theme” (AKA “Cefca”)
To break the tension, Wanamo builds to a not-quite-climax, only to use the violins to laugh at the audience (3:29). By way of a cheeky bassoon solo (3:39), we witness the supposedly funny side of the game’s ultimate villain, the mass-murdering, world-destroying Kefka.
Wanamo comments: “This is the only part of the Symphonic Poem that doesn't feature Terra's Theme in any way—because Kefka is not the kind of guy who would let anyone interrupt his story with random comments about some puny half-human, half-esper freak!”
At 4:36, we hear shades of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (AKA the theme to Jonathan Creek) before the madness really kicks off, along with the tempo. Adding to the bonkers, castanets make an appearance (4:56) ahead of a full orchestral stomp (5:25), replete with crash cymbals (found in the Uematsu’s original track) and plodding tubas.
Everything descends into a woozy, broken waltz (6:03) which emulates the feeling of drinking a quadruple shot of absinth, jumping on a spinning playground roundabout and holding up a separate kaleidoscope to each eye.
7:20 – “Another World of Beasts” (AKA “Esper World”)
Using some Disney-esque, eerily dissonant tuned percussion—a combination of celesta, harp and vibraphone—Wanamo establishes the ambiance of the worlds of the espers. Again reminiscent of Williams’ original Star Wars score, the Finnish arranger inserts Terra’s Theme played by a lone trombone (7:40). A solo flute picks up Uematsu’s mysterious melody from Another World of Beasts (7:53) and leads us into a thicket of woodwind and strings (8:10) that would be at home in Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.
By way of an oboe solo, Wanamo smuggles in Uematsu’s own brief quotation of The Phantom Forest (8:28), present in the original Another World of Beasts track. Like a disquieting lullaby, Terra’s Theme returns on celesta (9:13). Wanamo explains: “This is where she comes to terms with who and what she is. It is the first time during the whole piece that we hear her theme in it's original form, clearly and uninterrupted.”
Wanamo plies the audience with repeated instances of the melody from Another World of Beasts, tumbling over one another (10:19), speeding up and getting louder, with Kefka’s Theme sneaking around in the background.
10:58 – “Metamorphosis”
As Terra and the party reach the sealed gate the the world of the espers in the game, all kinds of prog rock madness erupt—Uematsu being famous for his love of bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and also progging-out his own instrumental rock group, The Black Mages.
Wanamo launches the orchestra into Metamorphosis, substituting the bass guitar and drums of the original track with pounding timpani drums. Terra’s Theme appears again, like a small ship in a violent storm (11:10)—as do the iconic chords from the Opening Theme (11:22).
11:33 – “The Unforgiven”
The strings keep the pace up with some furious flurries as, in the game, Cyan tries desperately to rescue the situation in Doma, helpless in the face of Kefka’s atrocious acts.
11:55 – “Battle Theme”
We hear what sounds suspiciously like it could be from the Final Fantasy VII and VIII battle themes (11:51) as the piece builds to the introduction of Final Fantasy VI's Battle Theme. A solo trumpet plays the familiar jaunty tune (12:03) that is burned into the memory of every dedicated Final Fantasy fan whilst a cheeky xylophone joins in for some fast runs and trills (12:28).
12:53 – “Save Them” (AKA “Protect the Espers”)
Terra and Kefka’s themes battle it out as we break into the snare-propelled excitement of Save Them. This segues straight into the track's uplifting French horn melody (13:03) which is repeatedly overcome by the crashing waves of Kefka’s powerful, malevolent main melody (13:13).
At 13:50, everything comes to a stop—the battle is over.
13:56 – “Dancing Mad”
The lower strings quietly, sonorously pull our senses together by way of a slowed-down version of the organ theme from the last part of Dancing Mad.
Before long, we’re raised to our feet, first by the higher strings (15:03) and then rest of the orchestra (15:12). And if you don’t get goosebumps when Terra’s Theme triumphantly returns in its full glory (15:33), complete with epic brass countermelody (16:01), you likely don’t have a pulse.
Composer/arranger Roger Wanamo has been arranging for Merregnon Studios’ Game Concerts and other projects since 2007 – www.gameconcerts.com/en/hintergrund/team/roger-wanamo
Check out our interview with Final Symphony producer Thomas Böcker and for all the info on the deluxe CD and vinyl releases, here’s a product information round-up.
We also break down the Final Fantasy VII Symphony from Final Symphony in another post.