Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending. Check. Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Check. Allegri’s Miserere. Check. Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy series. Eh?
If 20 years of Classic FM’s Hall of Fame poll have taught us one thing, it’s that lists of the “great works” of classical music don’t change much. This year, however, it’s different. Well, a bit different, in that there’s a name in the top 10 that few concertgoers will know: Nobuo Uematsu, the Japanese composer who wrote most of the soundtracks to the Final Fantasy video game series.
Classic FM opened up its hallowed list of symphonies and sonatas a couple of years ago to include video game soundtracks, and blotting this year’s copybook of 300 hardy perennials are 12 game soundtracks, with three in the top 20. Uematsu has made the top 10 three years running, with his Final Fantasy music slipping from seven to nine in this year’s chart, now nestling between Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – appropriately enough as, according to Classic FM, Uematsu is the “Beethoven of video game music”. That’s hard talk where I come from, so I decided it was time I gave Mr Uematsu’s music a listen.
One of the more than 100 tracks in the Classic FM citation was Aerith’s Theme. Aerith, AKA Aerith Gainsborough, features in Final Fantasy VII, and her music, scored for solo piano, has a tenderness and flowing grace that befits, I guess, a character who is “the last of the ancient race of the Cetra”. Her restless wandering is conveyed by the music’s undulating harmony, while her magical powers are hinted at by the mysterious major/minor modulations. Beethoven it is not, and pianistically it’s closer to Elton John than to any of the classical “greats”, although there are Grieg-like moments in the melody and something of Satie in the harmonisations.
Other tracks show more conspicuous classical influences, such as the Carmina Burana-like Liberi Fatali (FF VIII), which uses fast, repeated chords and a text mixing Latin and a made-up language to create a breathless atmosphere of elemental power and ancient mystery. Elsewhere, Endless Sorrow (FF IX) draws on the sound world of John Dowland and the Elizabethan cult of melancholy, while Ronfaure (FF XI), with its synthesiser recorders and funereal drum beat, sounds more Purcellian.
Video games take hours, often days, to play, so the soundtracks need to bear repetition. At the same time, they’re not written to be the central focus of the player’s attention so much as to create a certain atmosphere, alter the pacing and reinforce the emotional depth of the characters. Within a gaming environment, Uematsu is clearly effective at using music to enlarge the world of the game. But the world of the concert hall makes different, more exacting demands, and I can’t see Beethoven rolling over any time soon.