By Thomas Quillfeldt
First performed in Germany in 2013, the Final Symphony concert suite draws on the music that video game composer Nobuo Uematsu created for three of the most popular JRPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X.
The concert was produced by Merregnon Studios’ founder, Thomas Böcker, who also saw to it that the body of work was recorded in the best possible way: at the legendary Abbey Road Studios (where it was also mixed and mastered) and performed by the world-famous London Symphony Orchestra. As well as on all major digital platforms, the album is available on CD and 3xLP vinyl via LacedRecords.com.
Creating Final Symphony was no easy feat; arrangers Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo and Masashi Hamauzu were tasked with weaving together melodies, rhythms and textures from among hundreds of in-game tracks into new orchestral works arranged in a classical style. Those original Uematsu tracks (up until Final Fantasy X) were composed to be voiced by the sound chips of 1980’s and 90’s game consoles — thus they never really came close to sounding like real-world ensembles. The challenge was multifaceted, involving careful musical selection, arrangement, instrumentation and orchestration choices.
Below we take a forensic look at the three movements of the Final Fantasy VII Symphony, arranged by Finland’s Jonne Valtonen. As of September 2017, we’ve covered only the first movement, but the second and third movements will follow in due course.
Eckehard Stier conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, recording Final Symphony at Abbey Road Studios:
Although Jonne Valtonen started his music education on the piano, his first original pieces were composed using notation software on a Commodore 64. This lead him to become part of the computer subculture known as the demo scene; in particular being part of a group of composers using the first ‘tracker’ on PC (music software similar to the Amiga module system which spawned the MOD scene). In the early 90’s, Valtonen, under the alias Purple Motion (🤘😈🤘), became the lead composer of the Future Crew (imagine a loose hip-hop crew, but with all the street cred of a floppy disk). You can check out some of his inventive compositions via the Modarchive.org; here’s one of his early tracks:
Later, Valtonen trained in classical composition at Finland’s Tampere Music Academy and took up with the Germany-based Merregnon Studios / Spielekonzerte / Game Concerts team, founded and helmed by producer Thomas Böcker, in 2005; this was after he had worked on several video games and films, as well as contributing to the Merregnon trilogy soundtrack project alongside the likes of Christopher Hülsbeck and Yuzo Koshiro.
In 2008, he became music lead for live orchestral projects at Merregnon Studios, including for Symphonic Fantasies, Final Symphony and Final Symphony II.
Jonne Valtonen (far left in group shot and right-hand image) with Nobuo Uematsu and the Merregnon Studios team at Abbey Road:
The first movement is all about Ol’ Green Eyes himself, Sephiroth; or rather, the spectral, Jenova-controlled vision of Sephiroth.
Explains Valtonen: “The first movement is about Sephiroth and how he found his purpose in life (to bring about all of life’s destruction). In the game, this story is principally told through Cloud’s flashbacks while he is remembering what happened in Nibelheim.” Hence the name of this movement: Nibelheim Incident.
“Sephiroth, the antagonist, is present for the whole movement and you can also hear protagonist Cloud at times; it’s as if Cloud is there witnessing Sephiroth going mad.”
Tetsuya Nomura’s original Final Fantasy VII character design artwork for Sephiroth, Cloud and their astonishing haircuts:
“I thought that these pieces, including from the opening of the game [Opening Theme – Bombing Mission], as well as those relating to Sephiroth [Those Chosen by the Planet, One-Winged Angel] and his mother Jenova [J-E-N-O-V-A, Trail of Blood], best reflected the transformation that Sephiroth goes through; why he became what he became.
“The world of Final Fantasy VII is dirty and depressed; it’s also very mature. The people in power — and their evil corporation, Shinra — is mining human souls (AKA the ‘lifestream’) for energy and profit while a lot of people are living in poverty. I wanted to reflect this in the orchestration, which is why it is constantly ‘dirty’. This means that there is almost always an element that gives the music a certain ‘sting’, or obscures the main musical focus of a section with orchestral textures; usually darker textures, at that.”
Nobuo Uematsu tracks referenced in the first movement:
To listen along, I recommend opening the track on YouTube or Spotify in a different window (both are also embedded below) so you can stop and start as you follow along. Headphones are advised — the music was composed to be heard in a concert hall where you can hear a pin drop…
The symphony opens with a chime — reminiscent of that famous Final Fantasy VI opening — and a low note held by the double basses. Taken from the soundtrack cue Those Chosen by the Planet, this can only refer to the silver-haired one; Sephiroth’s corporeal form and its later evolution, the ghostly presence of him projected by his powerfully evil alien mummy.
Valtonen comments: “The opening of the symphony is minor because things don’t start out that well; I wanted to set a dark tone for the whole piece.”
Those Chosen by the Planet:
At 0:23 of the first movement, we hear a piano play discordant, bastardised versions of the very first chords one hears after clicking “NEW GAME” when booting up Final Fantasy VII: the opening chords of Opening Theme – Bombing Mission.
Opening Theme – Bombing Mission:
These chords are followed by the orchestra quietly playing woozy versions (0:35) of the ‘sung’ chords from Those Chosen by the Planet, which, in the game, also appear in the fan-favourite final boss track, One-Winged Angel.
Broodily, at 1:11, we hear a snippet of the usually hopeful melody from Opening Theme – Bombing Mission, which plays as the camera pulls back to show the awesome sight of the megalopolis, Midgar:
The brass explodes at 1:20, repeating the same Opening Theme – Bombing Mission melody more powerfully in a minor key, as wave after wave builds to a triumphant Wagnerian peak at 1:47. Things simmer down but remain overwhelmingly gloomy. Sephiroth and Jenova are here, they’re dangerous, they’re feeling malevolently violent.
At 2:09, we hear tuned percussion play the distressing, confused-sounding arpeggios from Who Am I? — the soundtrack cue which plays as Cloud, floating in the lifestream with Tifa after Mideel is destroyed, tries to piece his memories together of really happened in Nibelheim five years ago.
Who Am I?:
At 2:27, shortly after hearing more of the Opening Theme, we also hear a minor version of the Main Theme – Final Fantasy VII (essentially Cloud’s theme) which is interwoven into Who Am I?.
Main Theme – Final Fantasy VII AKA Cloud’s Theme:
Things come to a deeply unsettling head at 2:58 — fans of Danny Elfman’s Batman scores might enjoy this bit — as a chime signals that everything is sincerely messed up down Nibelheim way. A concert bass drum subtly plays a heartbeat rhythm as the strings, brass and woodwind work themselves into a frenzy. Instrumentation and musical material from Who Am I? and Those Chosen by the Planet are fused to summon the ultimate horror of Jenova-Sephiroth’s genocidal tendencies — and Cloud is here somewhere, lost.
Valtonen: “Who Am I? gets dirty and distorted as the piece progresses, and after that, sections of One-Winged Angel get thrown around. I tried to reflect the moment when Sephiroth totally loses it.”
Here is Valtonen’s personal sketch of the piece to this point, showing how he conceived its progression:
We arrive at One-Winged Angel proper at 3:59, with the famous “SEPHIROTH!” melody heard at 4:10. Valtonen punctuates everything with cracking, clacking percussion.
Valtonen: “Even though this track doesn’t play until the end of the game, I thought it was OK to use it in here near the beginning of the symphony as the evil version of Sephiroth that we pursue throughout Final Fantasy VII came into being during the Nibelheim incident.”
4:42 brings us the brass and strings teaming up on a melody from the thrilling boss theme J-E-N-O-V-A. Various heroic tunes from that soundtrack cue find full voice, before a call and response between Jenova and Sephiroth at 5:32. By 5:46, we’re treated to huge, dramatic brass chords that echo Don Davis’s original score for The Matrix (or various of John Williams’ many Star Wars soundtrack cues). The xylophonist has plenty of work to do, darting here and there among the thunderous orchestra.
Hidden among the hyperactive brass at 6:38 is a discreet horn line quoting the Main/Cloud’s Theme amidst all the Jenova action.
We battle on through to 7:20, where the Opening Theme shines through like sun rays through the clouds, only to be subsumed at 7:32 by the chilling choral chords from Those Chosen by the Planet and One-Winged Angel that denote Sephiroth. If you couldn’t hear The Matrix influence before, the trumpet work at 7:50 will surely bring Neo, Trinity and the gang front of mind.
At 8:02, everything breaks down… A solo harp gently plays descending arpeggios from J-E-N-O-V-A whilst the strings creepily slide around. Violent orchestral stabs (the GG-F#-Ab from One-Winged Angel) punctuate the uneasy peace unpredictably.
We feel an evil chill at 8:54, as the meandering, atonal melody from Trail of Blood sidles up to us (think of a mysteriously open door and bloody smear across the floor after the party wakes up in the Shinra Building Floor 67 cells). Jenova-Sephiroth has been murdering people (and not cleaned after itself). At 9:06, you can just about here the creepy piano play the ‘Se-phi-roth’ motif.
Trail of Blood:
The iconic timpani hits from Trail of Blood come thumping in at 9:17, before everything drops to near-silence.
SURPRISE! Out of nothing at 9:25, we’re treated to the introductory bars of One-Winged Angel, complete with banging timpani, chugging string chords and mischievous high trumpet lines. Jenova-Sephiroth is on the warpath. We may be without choir, but at 10:35, the London Symphony Orchestra belts out everyone’s favourite gaming bad-guy tune.
At 10:51, we get some delightfully nasty, brutish and short flute using extra-breathy technique.
From 11:31, everything starts to get a bit John Williams’ Jaws/Bernard Hermann’s Psycho, settling into a steady, dread pulse. The strings and woodwind weave in and out of one another, exploring some of the many melodies packed into One-Winged Angel, and at 12:20, the layer intensify and start to sonically clash. Bits of Those Chosen by the Planet are jumbled up with motifs from One-Winged Angel and the Opening Theme.
Valtonen explains the final build-up: “One-Winged Angel is so long a piece that I had to think for a long time about how to incorporate it, as it simply had to be there. I started stacking different parts of One-Winged Angel on top of one other, like Sephiroth holding all of these ideas and doubts in his head at the same time.
“Also the other themes used in the movement get stacked on top of one another so at that at several moments, you literally have all the music playing at the same time. I wanted truly to bring out the madness in Sephiroth.
“Then, at the end, there’s a moment of clarity where he truly discovers his purpose. In contrast to the cacophony from earlier on, everything is clear, which is when we hear the ‘SEPHIROTH! motif [at 12:50] at its most forceful and pronounced.”
At 13:03, we’re treated to a suspenseful final passage that signals Jenova-Sephiroth’s sheer dominance over proceedings.
We’ll be updating the blog with the second and third movements soon — keep up to date with Laced With Wax and Laced Records:
In the meantime, you can check out our breakdown of Roger Wanamo’s Final Fantasy VI – Symphonic Poem: Born with the Gift of Magic from Final Symphony.
Final Symphony is available on deluxe CD and 3xLP vinyl at LacedRecords.com: