Heroes of Might and Magic Soundtrack, Paul Romero, 1995
Few game scores start with a gesture as confident as the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack. Opening “Barbarian (Theme for Louis XIV)”, a harpsichord presents an almost rushing motif that already creates a dense soundscape. But clearly, the composer wants to take things further. Soon, a growing number of instruments join the harpsichord figure, playing the motif or variations of it as a fugue. This continues until a whopping five different voices simultaneously perform in counterpoint. The resulting passage is of a structural complexity previously unencountered in Western game music.
On a purely musical level, it makes for a striking start to the album. But this display of compositional bravado is even more important from another point of view. This is a composition that wears its ambitions proudly on its sleeve. The piece doesn’t waste a minute to proclaim that this is music of substance, demanding to be taken seriously. In other words, this is a game soundtrack that self-consciously styles itself as “Art” – one of the very first to do so.
Looking at the history of orchestral Western game music, this ambition distinguishes the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack further than one might think. Certainly, there were already many ambitious orchestral Western game scores out there. However, their role models usually came from within film music. This goes back all the way to 1990’s Wing Commander, whose soundtrack emulated the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises’ music. Heroes of Might and Magic looks elsewhere for inspiration, and arguably sets its sights even higher – classical music and its time-honoured, hallowed aura of gravitas and import.
To be more precise, composer Paul Romero draws upon Baroque music to convey the game’s heroic fantasy universe. Mind you, it’s not a strictly authentic affair. The soundtrack includes a fair number of charming medievalisms. Romero also liberally deploys harmonies and orchestrations derived from romantic-style classical music. Still, as the opening of “Barbarian (Theme for Louis XIV)” shows, this score’s incorporation of Baroque characteristics isn’t superficial pastiche. Instead, Heroes of Might and Magic also shares Baroque music’s structural inclinations, particularly its reliance on counterpointal constructs. What’s more, the music’s Baroque inspirations give Heroes of Might and Magic‘s fantasy world a greater degree of individuality. Compare this to the vast majority of game fantasy scores, which usually dabble in late-romantic, film score-style orchestral sounds.
Where did this outburst of ambition come from? As it turned out, from a both expected and surprising place: Paul Romero. Before he was introduced to Heroes of Might and Magic‘s Sound Director and future serial collaborator Rob King, Romero had never played a video game. A former child prodigy, Romero had already performed around the world as a classical pianist before the age of 15. Graduating from the world-famous Conservatoire de Paris, Romero had however dropped out of music performance after finishing his musical training. It was Heroes of Might and Magic that brought him back to music after working in various random jobs.
Romero’s background easily explains the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack’s character. Few artists had previously thought of applying classical music’s conventions to the realm of video game music (although one shouldn’t forget The Dig‘s Wagnerian inspirations, also released in 1995). But Romero – deeply knowledgeable about classical music composition, and refreshingly unaware of game music conventions – was clearly happy to merge games and classical music. The result set a new benchmark for sophistication, density and maturity of orchestral writing in Western game scores. It also helped immensely that Rob King provided Romero with amazingly life-like sounding samples. Romero certainly relishes using the entire orchestral palette, with prominent solo parts for oboe, clarinet, flute, bassoon, harp and acoustic guitar that all add splashes of warm, rich musical colour.
But that wasn’t the only reason that the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack kicked off one of game music’s most revered franchises. There are two other elements that are crucial to the immense appeal of Romero’s score. Firstly, drop-dead gorgeous melodies that would become the calling card of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise. The score’s melody lines are a constant pleasure, as elegant, refined and graceful as one would hope for, considering Romero’s classical inspirations.
His melodies are also catchy. That’s not a characteristic one would usually associate with classical music, where melodies don’t often present themselves as hummable tunes. But it’s again Romero’s Baroque inspirations which make themselves felt, if maybe this time in a slightly unexpected way. Heroes of Might and Magic‘s melodic material usually consists of relatively short figures, as is common in Baroque music, helping the melodies to instantly hook themselves into listeners’ memory banks.
And thankfully, Romero makes the most of his beguiling melodic creations. He structures his longer tracks around variations of a melody particular to each cue. Romero treats these variations with as much meticulousness as all other aspects of the music. They are not just repetitions of a once established motif, but instead rework and elaborate upon the original material. Once more, it’s a procedure derived from classical music and when implemented as well as on the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtrack, it imbues the music with a sense of continuous development previously not found on Western game music compositions.
The focus on melodic variations also allows Romero to develop his compositions’ textures and moods in masterful fashion, while maintaining their structural coherence. For example, “Knight”’s opening maintains “Barbarian (Theme for Louis XIV)”’s light-hearted Baroque attitude and adds a more regal, stiff attitude. A beautifully long-spun oboe solo develops the track’s melodic material. After that, the melody passes to the uillean pipes, calling from a far-distant hill top above the moors. “Sorceress” almost plays like a miniature harpsichord concerto, mixing the playfulness of earlier pieces with a dash of mystery. “Warlock” is just as elaborately constructed, but its woodwind soli and string harmonies are sharper and harmonically more ambivalent.
Things cheer up just in time for the final track “Campaign”. Within just a minute, it convincingly works its way from a droll bassoon solo to a stirring orchestral flourish, replete with triumphant fanfares and bell strikes. No wonder that this piece would return on following franchise scores as the victory theme. It’s a wonderfully fitting close for a work that doesn’t outright revolutionise the Western fantasy game score genre, but certainly takes it to the next level. That is, before Heroes of Might and Magic II would magnify almost everything that is great about this soundtrack, and land in unprecedented territory.
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