Fire Emblem Theme! ...and its variations.
(with Latios212! ^^)
The "Fire Emblem Theme" (from Brawl).
Here's what the original sounds like:
It's a brilliant, instantly memorable track. The theme is all-out in-your-face in a live choir, with full orchestral accompaniment supporting it. The verses are sung with solo vocal parts. But the melodies repeat almost exactly every time they come back - perfect for background music, not so friendly for the arranger.
With all the repetition and heavy orchestral layering, I didn't expect a decent, performable arrangement from this track.
But Latios212 (Lat) did a brilliant job with it. He showed me the score halfway through to completion, and from that I already knew that I wanted to record it. Here's his arrangement of it, with the audio from my recording:
The arrangement keeps the repetitive structure of the original while presenting fresh renditions of the themes in each of their recurrences. What I find amazing is that Lat's "variations" generally stay within the same mood, to each other and to the original, yet the story is told and the music always moves. It was his attention to details and understanding of the musical progression of the track that led to this brilliant effect - all while keeping the arrangement generally easy to learn.
If you'd like a manageable, fun arrangement to give a shot at, do consider picking this one up! ^^ You get to slam a piano really hard, yeah.
Alright, analysis time.
"I made every section different~!"
Everything in italics was ripped off my Skype chats with the arranger himself! ^^
The arrangement opens with a four-bar introduction that transitions over with the heroic fanfare of the trumpet. Then, the full choir enters with the theme - Lat writes with clean four-part harmony, mimicking the four choir parts.
Lat's arranging method puts a focus on accuracy, so he tends to work with transcriptions a lot - it's a fine method, and expanding on that core idea definitely worked well for this arrangement. He talks about it as a primer to the analysis of the sheet:"I normally try and transcribe as much as I can until it fails to work - either too much to play all at once, or too little usable material to sound full enough on the piano. Bars 5-12 have the bass notes as whole notes as they are in the original, without using the drum rhythm.
This is fine for the first iteration of the theme we hear, but I knew, given that this is a heavily orchestrated theme and has multiple recurring phrases I'd need to change things up later on and make it more bombastic since the song is so full of energy!"
Tenor solo! Lat writes the melody as it was sung, in the octave below middle C. The left-hand part is a direct transcription of the lower strings' pizzicato part.
In my recording I recognised the pizzicato effect, which Lat marked out using portatos (a dot and a line). So I played the notes around 3/4 of their value and added some half-pedal, changing every crotchet beat.
Now the B Theme comes back in the soprano, repeated exactly (until the last note, where it rises instead of falls). Once again, for the left-hand part, Lat transcribes the pizzicato part exactly.
I noticed that Lat didn't keep the portatos in the left hand for this section, instead rotating between legato and staccato. So this was an opportunity to add subtle contrast - I pedaled a little more liberally to help shape the melody, and added more pedal as I did a gradual, small crescendo towards the next section.
This section is the first one that doesn't use transcriptions for the left-hand part. It sounds percussive and military, but the original wasn't this rhythmic.
Here, Lat puts the focus on the snare drum rhythm, allowing the left-hand to slam it in low octaves - a clean, crisp sound. In contrast, the original used mostly sustained string chords in the middle register to fill the texture. Lat's version came across as a little bass-heavy at first, then I figured this was supposed to be a percussive effect, rather than a textural one."The drums are the main thing missing at this point, and I figured it would be important to try and capture that rhythm with the left hand part without doing anything crazy, so as to still keep the focus on the melody. Rhythmic repetition of notes, octaves or chords is something I often see around NSM (in good arrangements and bad... like the sheet I replaced with mine) and I think it generally gets the point across well. It seemed to work for my arrangement of the title theme from Fire Emblem Awakening and I did something similar here."
On the performance side, I realised that I could offset that heaviness by getting the semiquaver staccatos as crunchy as possible. Therefore, as Lat did, I focused more on the bass rhythm rather than the melodic shape. This was easily the most fun part of the piece to learn, haha :p
This 7/4 bridge comes out of nowhere - in the original, the snare drum assists in the transition and there's a sudden increase in tempo over the bar. In Lat's arrangement, he forgets about the snare rhythm entirely on the perfect cadence of the A1 section, ending on a long chord instead. Then the new rhythm emerges, in a much more natural way.
No major performance decisions were made here, other than to follow the score and get that one single-note flourish right.
It would have been a repeat of the B section, but Lat decided to innovate. Instead of keeping the bouncy rhythm of the original, he wrote block chords in minims as accompaniment, giving the section a grandiose, ceremonial feel.
As a performer, I took his cue and gave an extra push on each chord. I also had to take care with the transition to the next section - while it was easy to play a whole section majestically, transitioning from that to a quieter part took some conscious thought.
In the original track, this soft section, with a solo soprano set against light string accompaniment, was the most poetic part of the piece. Lat's arrangement stays quite faithful to that.
We disagreed a little on the organisation of the accompaniment: I wanted to skip the first middle-voice chord each time there was a bass note, while Lat wanted the organic Mozartian accompaniment throughout, which involved lots of hand-crossing."It was there in the original, present on every eighth note throughout the section. Most likely I wanted to keep it there because I was used to hearing it that way in the original, but I can think of other reasons I'd like it that way - for consistency, so that the voice drones throughout the whole section, and to contrast with the other sections through de-emphasis of the bass. The middle voice is what makes this section stand out from the others so much."
Laziness prevailed here for me, but anyone who is willing to practice this to perfection should try the sheet as it was written. And um, tell me how it sounds. :p
There's an impressive modulation to a grand and bold A-flat major statement of the theme. But in the original, this section is almost an exact transposition of A1. Lat maintains the snare rhythm of A1 here, but writes the rhythmic part in fourths instead of octaves. This gives it the slightly muffled quality of a timpani, rather than the crisp clarity of a snare drum in Lat's A1."I think I was going for the power chords here. I figured since I had two more iterations of the main section to go I'd need to one-up the section at 29. So adding the fifth of the root note makes things bigger and louder without creating any muddiness down that low on the piano. I think the reason that I didn't use power chords all the way through (repeating the notes currently as whole notes) is that it might become a little too overpowering and drown out the right hand."
While it was important to differentiate the dynamic level (loudness) of this section to that of A1, I didn't put too much attention to that, as the dynamic contrast with A2 was more immediate.
To mark out the rhythm, I tried giving the fourths as much clarity as the octaves, but it wasn't possible - either due to my own technical limitations or the smudging of harmonics from the held bass notes. If you intend to pick up this sheet though, you should approach this part with the mindset of the A1 section: maximum clarity, tightly-locked rhythms. The effect is not as prominent, but anything less than maximum clarity makes this part sound muddy.
Similar to A3, B3 is almost an exact transcription of B1. Lat's final version recognises that similarity, and uses portato crotchets in the bass line (also an exact transposition from B1) with a single melodic line. The only addition is a middle voice in the lower register - this gives it a more regal feel. If B1 is the image of a prince walking in the palace courtyard, then B3 is that of him walking formally in the throne room.
In the version of the arrangement that I used, the portatos in the bassline were not marked - thus I read the section all legato, and used pedal quite generously to enhance the effect. Even if I did the portatos, however, I would still use pedal to sustain the bass notes as much as possible. I believe that the contrast with B1 has to be set, and that added middle voice part determines exactly how that contrast should be executed.
I believe this section is the real, definitive climax of the piece - the original didn't do a fantastic job in communicating that, but Lat's arrangement rubs it in your face. Tastefully. Four-/five-note chords in the right hand, a blatantly marked fortissimo, and a triple-forte about two lines down as proof. In the left hand, however, is the exact same accompaniment pattern as A3."For the last climax at m. 77, I hoped the extra RH harmonies would suffice as a final addition to the theme that I'd been building on since the beginning."
While some changes in the left-hand part would have added to the contrast with A3, I believe it would be mostly unnecessary, and it would definitely add extra difficulty (once again, unnecessarily) to the section.
Therefore it is the performer's job to bring out that contrast somehow.Here, I chose to do the pressure/accent contrast between A3 and A4 respectively. The chords of A3 are played slightly more firmly, while the chords of A4 are slammed with deliberate force. Finally, just for the theatric effect, I decide to use body weight for the final chord, and that involves standing up and dropping my weight on my hands. Yep, pretty much. :p
There isn't much to analyse in the coda - I just played as it was written. And made some mistakes. :p
(there's three mistakes in the coda alone. try to spot them if you'd like, hehe.)
In closing, I'd just like to say that this was a really fun project to work on - talking about the sheet even before it was complete, working on it as Lat built it up from the arranger's side, and then re-visiting it with more critical, theory-focused eyes.
I'd once again like to recommend this arrangement for anyone who was captivated by the original, or anyone who's in the mood for piano slamming. It's, above all, an arrangement that demands passion. Growing to love this work as a part of the learning process was really meaningful for me, and I hope it will be so for you too