In June 2017 in Paris and London, Eckehard Stier raised his baton to conduct one of the world’s best orchestras—the London Symphony Orchestra—alongside the London Symphony Chorus, in performances of classical arrangements of music drawn from composer Nobuo Uematsu’s immense body of video game music.
The concert programme, titled Symphonic Odysseys, celebrated the work of a living legend—someone who has affected the lives of millions through his art. There’s only so much mileage in referring to Uematsu as the ‘John Williams of video games’, but the melodies and leitmotifs that suffuse classic Final Fantasy titles, c. 1987 – 2001, are seared into our memories in the same way as those from the Star Wars series.
It provides the greatest comfort that Nobuo himself is around to attend almost every concert featuring his music, soak up the adoration and grapple with the idea that the melodies he created whilst sitting alone in some dark corner of the Squaresoft offices in the late 80’s (I imagine) have influenced so many people’s lives.
Here are some tributes to Uematsu’s work—more specifically, alternative musical arrangements picked out by prominent superfans from around the world of video games and game music.
At the pre-concert talk before the 2017 performance of Symphonic Odysseys in London, the humble and jovial Uematsu joked about the irony of being completely untrained in music, yet there are people around the world writing their university theses about his music.
Proudly omnivorous in his musical tastes, the composer wished that he had had more opportunities to be experimental in his composition process (he admits that this was only really the case with perhaps his most popular piece, One-Winged Angel), but that video games beget often stifling deadlines.
Uematsu recalls Final Fantasy VI as being his favourite title to work on because of the cohesiveness, passion and dedication of a development team that was on the cusp of global domination (with Final Fantasy VII), but not quite there yet.
That said, his favourite piece from among all “his children” is To Zanarkand, the main theme of Final Fantasy X. When pressed, he shrugs: “I just like it”.
“It’s so exciting to be a part of the new video game music phenomenon in the recording studio and the concert hall. I’ve performed on many video game soundtracks, but it doesn’t get much more iconic than Nobuo Uematsu. The programmes of Final Fantasy music that have been adapted by Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo and Masashi Hamauzu, including Symphonic Odysseys, Final Symphony and Final Symphony II, are epic works.
“My favourite is Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem: Born With The Gift Of Magic [Spotify; Apple Music] arranged by Roger Wanamo, as it begins and ends with a very simple melody—Terra’s Theme. I have seen audience members shed a tear when they hear this beautiful tune; it obviously invokes memories of the game, as well as being a stand-alone tune of beauty and innocence. The piece takes us through so many emotions and styles from the fanfare opening, comedy moments, a demented waltz, a sinister sound world, fight scenes and the heroic ending, blending into the final occurrence of Terra’s Theme.”
Check out Laced With Wax’s breakdown of all the tracks woven into the Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem from Final Symphony.
“I’m pleased that the London Symphony Orchestra has had so many opportunities to work with Uematsu both at Abbey Road Studios and on concert platforms all around the world. Audiences justifiably go wild hearing his music—and not just because of the obvious relationship to the games or Nobuo’s own, genuine modesty. I truly believe this music can hold its own on a concert platform, as it never fails to take you on an incredibly imaginative journey.”
“I once interviewed Nobuo Uematsu and mentioned that this was my favourite song so many times that he likely never wants to hear the track title said again!
“It’s such a simple and beautiful piece of music, and one that doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans. Although I really love the Celtic Moon version, this particular arrangement is special because unlike most arrangements that accentuate the sweetness of the original, this is straight jazz. Now, I love jazz, and think there needs to be more in game music in general, so being able to combine my favorite Uematsu track with this genre is just perfect. I mean, c’mon, there’s even a drum solo in this! It’s so good. It’s on all of my event/party playlists, so go and find the CD and put it on yours as well!
“Whilst the Cafe SQ brand is relatively new, and I can’t say that I have special memories attached to it specifically, I most certainly have special memories of the original track, Troian Beauty. I used to turn on Final Fantasy IV on my SNES and walk to certain in-game locations to listen to the music while playing with my Lego.
“This was one of those songs. It always brings to mind that first scene from Troia… A castle with beautiful blue water around it, and the green frogs swimming within. There’s a way to get down into the moat and talk to the frogs, and one of them has something more than ‘ribbit’ to say to you! I guess you might associate the song with the character Edward, given that this is where you find him recovering, but that’s almost an afterthought given all these other things.”
“This movement contains everything that makes Final Symphony and Uematsu: it’s a gripping and dramatic story. Great music with incredible emotions. The melodies are magical and the colors in orchestration are great art!”
Here is an excerpt of the movement, filmed live at Abbey Road Studios:
“The time we all spent together in Abbey Road was something special. The work on the recording, the humorous—and at all times constructive!—cooperation with Uematsu was very remarkable.”
Also: Classical Music director and on-air announcer at WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, CT
“What I admire most about Nobuo Uematsu’s music is that it amplifies all of the emotions in the Final Fantasy games: from providing an injection of much needed heroism in the battles; to supporting those quiet moments when the characters are able to catch their breath. It’s hard to choose a favourite, but Fragments of Memories from Final Fantasy VIII is my pick. The simplicity of the waltz melody makes the wrenching emotions even more poignant.”
Here it is in game:
“It’s beautiful just as it is in the game, but the arrangement that Arnie Roth [of Distant Worlds fame] and his son Eric made for chamber ensemble for their intimate Final Fantasy: A New World concerts is so stunning!”
“Being in the audience for this concert was a remarkable experience. The chamber ensemble arrangements that Arnie and Eric wrote gave us a chance to hear this familiar music in a new way.”
Hear Kate catch up with Arnie and Eric Roth on her podcast, Music Respawn, chatting about what it’s like working with Nobuo Uematsu.
“Testament to the richness of his catalogue, I found it difficult to narrow down a favourite of Uematsu’s, let alone one particular arrangement. That said, one that stands out to me as a high point in my exposure to his music is Silent Light from Chrono Trigger.
“This choral arrangement—by expert musician/arranger Jonne Valtonen of Merregnon Studios—has several carefully executed extended techniques that help to create a vivid atmosphere. Each aspect of the original composition gets some form of careful consideration here. Rather than just having the choir sing the melody and harmonies, there are soft wind sounds, whistles, and quietly sung vowels held over long phrases that add an otherworldly sound to the entire piece, and enhance the impact when the choir does sing together in unison.”
Here’s the original piece, in context:
“Playing during the first dungeon in Chrono Trigger, this piece evokes a strong nostalgic feeling, and Mr Valtonen’s beautiful choral arrangement captures this whilst adding new layers of emotional complexity to the original material. Silent Light is just one example that showcases Uematsu’s ability to write compelling dungeon music over and over, whether it be the numerous compositions in the Final Fantasy series, or SaGa, or Chrono Trigger.”
“Final Fantasy VII has been my favourite game of all time ever since I first played it on Christmas morning, way back in 1997. It changed my life, and Uematsu’s score played an important part in that. The game is a rare, generation-defining title with a soundtrack that features so many memorable melodies—some may say it features the best soundtrack in the franchise…”
Laced With Wax recently compared the music of VII against VIII, to see which came out on top.
“I love the entire Final Fantasy VII soundtrack but there’s one piece that easily stands out above the rest to me—Tifa’s Theme. It lies at the heart of the entire game, much like the character herself. Cloud may be the protagonist and Sephiroth the franchise’s most iconic antagonist but to me, Tifa is the character that brings the game together and gives it real soul. She’s effectively the mother of the group and her theme perfectly captures this with its warm, comforting melody. Without Tifa and her theme, Final Fantasy VII would be missing its heart.
“The love triangle between Cloud, Tifa and Aerith is one of the game’s biggest narrative drivers in terms of characters, and this is why my track pick would have been the second movement of the Final Fantasy VII Symphony, Words Drowned by Fireworks, from Final Symphony (Spotify). Arranger Jonne Valtonen weaves Tifa’s, Aerith’s and the Final Fantasy VII Main Theme in and out of one another as Cloud tries to choose between the two women, before [**IRONIC SPOILER ALERT**] Sephiroth comes along and removes one from the equation. It’s a powerful arrangement that shows the tender side of each character.” [Ed: But we’ve already included it elsewhere, so…]
“There’s also another side to Tifa, evidenced by the Tetrimino track, Tifa Funk,” released by the Materia Collective as part of its 5-disc collaborative album, MATERIA:
“Tifa is a strong woman who has a bit of flair to her. She always tries to wear a smile, even when she knows that her best friend and love interest Cloud’s memories conflict with reality, and this version of her theme shows that positive attitude whilst keeping that warm, motherly essence. It’s like she simultaneously wants to hug you and dance with you just to cheer you up… Or dress up provocatively and deliberately get captured in order to infiltrate an establishment of questionable virtue, just to protect you.
“These two versions of Tifa’s Theme not only show the different sides to her character, but also demonstrate how multifaceted Uematsu’s original theme really is. One theme can fit any mood and bring out treasured memories while still staying true to the character.
“It’s a rare talent that Uematsu-san has and you only have to witness the number of fans that turn up to any one of the Final Fantasy concerts around the world to see how his music has touched so many people. There are so many Final Fantasy themes that I could discuss in terms of how impactful and important they are to me, but Tifa’s theme stands at the top of them all.
“Also, Tifa is best girl!!”
“This was one of my favourite pieces in the game. There are so many beautiful ‘small town’ themes in Final Fantasy VIII, but this is the pick of the bunch for me. It has such a peaceful, tranquil essence that you instantly felt at ease here after escaping the prior chaos.
“Hearing it fully realised by the wonderful Stockholm Philharmonic and the orchestration of Arnie Roth, among others, takes it to a different plane though. Unshackled from the restraints of the original PlayStation sound chip, it truly soars and the tutti crescendo with full choir at 2:48 is simply stunning.
“I love the voicings and the way the harmony spreads through the different sections, as the piece develops. It really embellishes on the original so much, whilst still retaining the identity and essence of the track. Something which is absolutely key to a successful and faithful arrangement, and they achieved it with aplomb here. It never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
“I remember very clearly being 14 or 15 years old when experiencing it for the first time and being incredibly moved by it. For me, it really highlights Uematsu’s versatility as a composer. Hours of music went into that game, and understandably some pieces are stronger than others. During the third disk [which starts with a meeting with Headmaster Cid and Edea at her house and ends at Lunatic Pandora], themes become notably less memorable and then, out of nowhere, he treats us to one of the highlights of the entire game. The mark of a true great.”
“Jonne Valtonen arranged Waterside as a piece for string orchestra. The melody moves through the different sections like being carried by waves of the sea. The arrangement is so beautiful, so intense—heartbreaking, really—that it is easily one of my favorite Uematsu pieces. The co-operation between melody-maker Uematsu and orchestra mastermind Valtonen is at its best here.
“Blue Dragon was the first soundtrack Uematsu composed for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s post-Final Fantasy studio, Mistwalker. This was after Uematsu went freelance back in 2004, so it certainly meant a huge step for him and his career.
“Funny story: I know that this music plays when you are entering the bathroom in Mr Uematsu’s house! You could view this as his special sense of humour, but I can’t help but think that he would only do this if the piece meant a lot to him.”
Merregnon Studios produces video game classical concerts and albums including Final Symphony, Symphonic Fantasies and Symphonic Odysseys.
Gameconcerts.com | Twitter: @vgmconcerts; @merregnon | Instagram: @gameconcerts
“We have several amazing OC ReMixes of Nobuo Uematsu’s music, so it was difficult to pick just one when there are great arrangements like Jake Kaufman’s & Tommy Pedrini’s version of The Impresario (Final Fantasy VI), The Orichalcon’s & bustatunez’s Rare Square (Final Fantasy VII) and Theory of N’s Al Bhed Ec Faent (Final Fantasy X).
“However, the Uematsu-based OC ReMix that’s endured for me the most is Bryan ‘Sefiros’ Henderson’s take on Compression of Time from Final Fantasy VIII, entitled Everything = Nothing. The original theme is catchy at its core, but has some pretty quirky instrumentation on the original PlayStation. Sefiros was able to dramatically transform it into a cinematic orchestral piece infused with tons of tension and emotion. The subtle changes and instrumentation additions over the course of the near-seven minute track are things that a first-time listener might miss, but shouldn’t overlook—the evolving textures are why this ReMix sticks with me so strongly, more than a decade later.
“Back in 2011, I had the good fortune to interview Uematsu-san face-to-face in Baltimore before a Distant Worlds performance, but I wish I had the forethought to play this ReMix to him and [producer/conductor/arranger] Arnie Roth. While Bryan did also release an updated version in 2012, I’d love to one day hear an actual live orchestra bring the brass, drums, and particularly the strings of Sefiros’s epic rendition of this classic theme to life. If there’s ever a concert tour based on OC ReMixes, I’ve got my bucket list item-within-a-bucket list item!”
“Choosing one track by Uematsu-san to declare as my favourite is as hard as trying to identify what my favourite game is. I am a big fan of the Final Fantasy series, but there are other series I definitely prefer overall as games to play. But one thing is for certain: my favourite music in all of video games comes from the Final Fantasy series, over classics such as Zelda or even Mario. There have been so many incredible tracks over the years, such as Liberi Fatali, Prelude, To Zanarkand—the list is seemingly endless.
“The easiest way to narrow it down is to pick one from my favourite game in the series: Final Fantasy VI.
“Dancing Mad plays during your final battle against Kefka, one of the greatest villains in all of gaming (let alone just in the Final Fantasy series). This track is epic and haunting; those deafening organ pipes that sound off as you fight make it feel like it really is the end of days. To this day, I have no idea how Uematsu-san and his team managed to get those incredible orchestral sounds out of the S-SNP sound unit in the SNES.
“The song itself is very similar to One-Winged Angel in terms of composition and tone: both are epic and stand out because they’re inextricably tied to such great ‘bad guy’ characters. Uematsu-san has made so many incredible tracks and songs over the years, but Dancing Mad will be the one I always return to, to remind me of just how incredible Final Fantasy is as a series, and the incredible memories I’ve had playing the games.”
“Uematsu’s Balamb Garden strikes an evocative balance between sanctuary and agitation, holding conflicting feelings in tension, not unlike the disposition of protagonist Squall Leonhart. The smooth winds early in the piece, and the melodic eddies later on, are underscored by the persistent tick-tock of strings. One could parallel this with Squall’s cool disdain for the rigidity of the student timetable at the ‘Garden’ [i.e. fantasy high school]. The piece is pleasant and hopeful, and provides a nice, listenable interlude between exciting missions for SeeD [a private militia made up of teenage students, for some daft reason].
“This arrangement for guitar by Daisuke Minamizawa makes the theme seem like such a natural fit for solo classical guitar—Balamb Garden could well have been written for the instrument. The fingering for the which is reminiscent of certain compositions by 18th-19th Century Spanish classical composer, Fernando Sor. I may be biased towards the instrument, but after a few listens of this rendition of Balamb Garden, I’d be tempted to suggest that any remake of Final Fantasy VIII should swap out the synthesised orchestra for solo guitar! That may sound like heresy, but Uematsu compositions are so wonderfully versatile, it just might work.”
The Black Mages, including Nobuo Uematsu on keyboards, perform Clash On The Big Bridge live:
“I’m not sure this is my single favourite Uematsu arrangement, but rather a track from my favourite Final Fantasy arrangement album (where I have a hard time choosing the best of an awesome bunch). Maybe best to stick to an absolute Final Fantasy classic: Clash On The Big Bridge (more commonly known as Battle At The Big Bridge) originally appears in Final Fantasy V where the party is set to battle Exdeath’s right hand, Gilgamesh. Multiple versions of the piece have appeared across several Final Fantasy titles.
“What’s special about The Black Mages version is that instead of being the typical orchestra or piano arrangement, this is full-on prog rock! And an ‘official’ rendition, given that it was performed and arranged by Square Enix employees Tsuyoshi Sekito and Kenichiro Fukui (and produced by Uematsu himself).
“Whilst it’s an epic tune in and of itself, here Clash On The Big Bridge gets an injection of tension and atmosphere thanks to a some extensive guitar and keyboard solos—something I imagine wouldn’t have been out of place in the game itself. I’ve often had this album on in the background when playing Final Fantasy and other JRPGs, as these heavy rock versions of Final Fantasy battle music make everything feel much more grand and bombastic—this track is no exception.
“The album is so special to me because of the way I learned about it. I was in my mid-to-late teens at the time and I was listening to a lot of metal—progressive metal in particular—and had been a sucker for everything Final Fantasy prior to that. I was randomly searching the internet for new musical things related to Final Fantasy when I read about this album being just hard rock/metal versions of battle themes from different Final Fantasy games and I had to have it. I didn’t go looking for track snippets or anything like that—I immediately ordered it online and waited patiently… and it was everything I had hoped it would be!
“Sadly, The Black Mages disbanded in 2010 due busy schedules and copyright issues between the members of the band and Square Enix. For those who can’t get enough of this type of thing, Uematsu formed another band called Earthbound Papas which also performs Final Fantasy music (as well as Uematsu tracks from other games and original tracks).”
“Although pretty much ALL of Uematsu’s music is wonderful, I think my favourite is One-Winged Angel.
“The main reason for that is my personal connection to this particular arrangement of ours. We play a lot of different arrangements, from a lot of different games. If we don’t announce the piece, you can always tell EXACTLY the moment when the audience figures out what we are playing (it’s usually a few measures in).
“Not so with One-Winged Angel. People recognise that piece by the second chord! I’m not actually sure if any of our audiences have even heard the third or fourth chord because there is always such excitable cheering. It’s clear that this piece is important to a lot of people.
“For many, this was the first exposure to the immense power of dense orchestration in a video game. In interviews, Nobuo had attributed musical quotes and inspirations to Stravinsky and Orff, and we, as an ensemble, love any fusion between classical music and video games.
“Also, as gamers, it’s a relief to hear a piece that is through-composed [the music theory term for a piece with no repeating sections]. I’ve grinded Aeris to level 99 in the Temple of the Ancients and can happily go the rest of my life without hearing those tubular chimes again. One-Winged Angel differs from Uematsu’s other works, in that he composed 20 to 30 musical phrases and deliberately arranged them in sequence, similar to a jigsaw puzzle. As a result, new ideas are constantly being introduced, always keeping the listener (and performer) on their toes.
“Arranging this piece for string quartet definitely had its challenges. Obviously, a quartet only has four players compared to a full orchestra which often has 90+ players. Our arranger, Dashiel Reed, utilised the quartet’s full potential by using double and triple stops [playing two or three notes at the same time] and techniques such as tremolo and ponticello [playing right next to the bridge, resulting in a spooky, scratchy sound].
“This arrangement is one we have always had fun playing, and the audience’s reaction enhances that feeling. I’m pretty sure all those positive memories associated with playing it have had a direct influence on why it’s my favourite Uematsu track.”
“Final Fantasy VIII is my favourite Final Fantasy game, and has been ever since I first played it, later on spending many, many hours either playing or watching my roommate play during our graduate school years (when we probably should have been studying). I didn’t discover The Black Mages until years later but by then, the music was so ingrained in my memory that the concept of rock arrangements of those familiar tunes was basically the best thing I could imagine.
“Uematsu’s soundtracks range from sweeping, epic overworld themes to pounding battle music and this track definitely falls into the latter category. It gives me the feeling that my characters are definitely on a mission, and that they aren’t going to be stopped by anything. This particular arrangement is perfect in that regard, enhancing the driving intensity of the battles you’re fighting. It always reminds me of fighting NORG in the basement of Balamb Garden, and then I just start itching to play Final Fantasy VIII again. More so than on a normal day, that is.”
“Terra’s Theme will always be my ultimate Uematsu piece—it’s my favourite track from my favourite Final Fantasy game. Such a simple, repeating melody, yet at the same time it feels like a relentless march from oppression to redemption. Nothing can stop Terra as she goes from hopelessness to hope (a good rule of thumb for life that—never give up no matter how hopeless things seem). The first time I heard it on the SNES back in 1995, as the opening credits scrolled up the screen, I was blown away by how grand it sounded. I guess that was the moment I fell in love with JRPGs.
“There are so many great arrangements of it (even Jeremy Soule [of Elder Scrolls fame] had a pretty decent crack at it), but this is one of my favourite versions of the theme as a standalone piece. It manages to pack in the widest range of emotions possible from that simple melody—from bombastic, to reserved, to triumphant—and it just goes to show how clever Uematsu is as a composer; how he can create one melody that has many meanings. I think that’s his real talent.”
“I’ve always suspected that the first Final Fantasy game you play is likely to remain your favourite (a bit like Souls games, Zelda etc.) Final Fantasy VII was that gateway RPG for me—as for so many others—and it has provided the most inspiration for me out of all the creative works I’ve consumed, be they films, books, artworks, games and so on. It’s also the soundtrack that sparked my passion for game music. Similarly, I feel that your first album of alternative arrangements of Uematsu compositions is likely to remain a firm favourite.
“Discovering that there was a world of recordings and live performances beyond the original soundtrack led me down a decade-long rabbit hole, hunting down as many game-related albums as possible. I fell into curious habit of sorting tracks I liked (in their thousands) by mood, for instance labelling tracks ‘summery’ or ‘heroic’.
“The most relaxing of these moods is one that I nicknamed ‘sunset journey’—music that evokes that keen sense of yearning as your team of characters plods onwards towards their goal across a glorious fantastical landscape (usually at sunset). The Final Fantasy series has always traded on that feeling of being on a journey, which is why it was no surprise to me that Final Fantasy XV’s design centred around a literal road trip.”
“In Final Fantasy VII, Ahead On Our Way plays when you’re in the first post-Midgar town, Kalm. Even if the original track officially falls into the ‘peaceful town’ category, this exquisite arrangement and performance typifies this ‘sunset journey’ mood—highly melodic, full of longing and somewhat bittersweet. Again, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Square-Enix throwback JRPG, I Am Setsuna, featured a solo piano score. I wonder if that would have been as appropriate without the many high quality ‘piano collections’ albums that have been created around JRPG soundtrack compositions.
“This version of Ahead On Our Way is arrestingly beautiful and brings a deft, emotive and very human touch to the piece.”
If you liked this piece, check out “We ❤️ JRPGs: Favourite games and tracks of the game music community”
Read more about Laced Records’ and Merregnon Studios’ JRPG vinyl and CD releases—Final Symphony: Music from Final Fantasy VI, VII & X; and Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo (music from Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross).
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