The Abbey Soundtrack, Emilio de Paz, 2008
A murder in a Medieval monastery? A wise monk, accompanied by a young, inexperienced companion, investigating the crime? It’s hard not to assume that The Abbey’s plot was more than a bit influenced by Name of the Rose. Then again, it’s an intriguing, still original enough set up for an adventure game. The Abbey wasn’t as well received as Name of the Rose though, with reviewers handing out mostly middling reviews.
Where The Abbey differed most clearly from its obvious inspiration was in its surprisingly sumptuous soundtrack. James Horner had scored Name of the Rose with a low-key, largely synthetic soundtrack that divided film score fans. The The Abbey soundtrack takes an almost diametrically opposed approach. The score utilises a full live orchestra, organ and two choirs (male and boys) to create the sort of gloriously melodic bombast one would expect from a historic movie epic, rather than from a relatively obscure adventure game. The surprise is even greater when one considers that composer Emilio de Paz wrote this outstanding score while also working on The Abbey as project leader and lead designer.
From the start, de Paz leaves little doubt as to where he is planning to the The Abbey soundtrack. Once opening track “In Memoriam” begins with sweeping string and choral statements, it’s obvious that de Paz is going to milk the game’s religious themes for all the melodrama that they’re worth. “In Memoriam” also establishes the The Abbey soundtrack’s main thematic idea. In a clever take on musical tradition, de Paz appropriates the centuries-old Dies Irae motif – most befitting the game’s setting. After quoting its opening notes, de Paz deviates from the traditional melody and guides his theme into an upward motion. Harnessing its obvious ecclesiastical connotations, de Paz’ theme is a memorable idea that will return on several tracks. These include “God’s Domicil”, “Embracement of the Night” and “Kingdom of Dead”.
What’s crucial for the success of the The Abbey soundtrack is it’s endless stream of lushly glowing melodies. In fact, it’s no hyperbole to say that this one of the most melodically beautiful orchestral Western game scores ever written, with a warmth radiating from its melodic statements that you don’t find often. Just head to “God’s Domicil” and relish in its gorgeous melodies that work wonders during calmer and more extrovert episodes. “God’s Domicil”’s weighty yet graceful nobility manages to paint a most intriguing picture of the location it underscores. Founded on ages of accumulated wisdom, there is grandeur here as much as the reassurance of safety found in knowledge. Equally subtle and multifaceted is “Abbot’s Theme”. Both the lead character’s gravitas and his more light-hearted side register, courtesy of a mix of quiet church organ leads, charming woodwind melodies and an impassioned violin-backed climax.
Such focus on instrumental detail and attention to narrative subtleties seem to trump concerns about historic authenticity. True, on the The Abbey soundtrack de Paz makes some concessions to the game’s time period and its music. As he explains in the album’s liner notes, female voices and lighter brass instruments were consciously excised from the score. And of course, elements like Gregorian chants and the frequent use of the Lydian mode provide some expected period colouring.
But ultimately, The Abbey’s overall sound – mostly indebted to romantic-era orchestral music – is much closer related to Hollywood scoring tradition than to authentic 14th century music. And after all, why shouldn’t there be a harpsichord on “Abbot’s Theme”? After all, it helps to accurately describe him as a man of refinement and discernment. Ultimately, what de Paz seems to be most concerned with is using the game’s historic and spiritual themes to underpin his immense, enveloping orchestral sound.
However, de Paz is also aware that a successful epic needs to draw upon more registers than just grandiosity. True, there’s no shortage of heavenly choirs and big orchestral gestures on the The Abbey soundtrack. But de Paz covers other emotional territory with just as much aplomb. For example, “Fire and Iron” carries the score’s melodic preoccupations into more period-specific terrain. A lightly scored medieval folk dance, “Fire and Iron” recalls the gentle busyness of the Anno game scores. One of the album’s prettiest pieces, “Benedicte Dominus” marries pastoral woodwinds with soothing choir, the idyllic with the monumental. Even more moving is “Healing Hands”, despite its brevity.
The Abbey faced criticism that its cartoon-like visual style wasn’t always a great match for its dark murder mystery. However, this is not an issue for the The Abbey soundtrack. Even more blithe, comedic moments like “Umberto’s Theme” and “Aegidius’ Theme” always maintain their dignity, receiving as much melodic care from de Paz as any other track. Even Bruno, Abbot’s insufferable (according to reviews) young acolyte, receives a mellifluous theme, ending in another calm church organ solo.
The Abbey being a medieval murder mystery, things inevitably turn dire at some stage. A chromatic cello line on “Embracement of the Night” introduces unease, which turns into outright horror on “Cadaver”’s sombre choirs. With the murder investigation and painstaking detective work under way, the The Abbey soundtrack expectedly moves into more subdued waters. However, de Paz manages this switch to more adventure game-typical music with ease.
While his ravishing melodies turn sparser, they are as effective as ever, now turning into shining beacons in the darkness. Just sample the touching, intertwining woodwind lines on the trembling “The Passage”, surrounded by double bass drones and whining violins. On less melody-driven pieces like “Monastery” and “Sneaking Suspicion”, de Paz maintains tension and interest through his clever use of tone colours and chromatic harmonies. “Hand of Dead” lets the pervading sense of foreboding briefly burst out into the sort of threatening march that characterised the earlier “Segundo’s Theme”.
Quivering agitation is thus ready to erupt and the scene is appropriately set for the score’s finale. “Nazario of Milan” returns the melodrama so prominent earlier on the The Abbey soundtrack, now much more crepuscular than before. “Blaze in the Heart” harkens back to “In Memoriam”’s biblical bombast and at times fury. And with emotions all heightened now, “Requiem” takes the album’s arc to its peak. A gloriously impassioned string adagio, “Requiem” opens with a reprise of the Dies Irae motif on solo violin. It then dives headfirst into a near-operatic outpouring of emotions, with string melodies that mourn, suffer and proudly rise in a way that epitomises the album’s best melodic qualities. A violin outcry that thematically recalls a similarly emotional outburst on “Abbot’s Theme” is the composition’s most memorable moment.
If there is any downside to the The Abbey soundtrack, it’s that it concludes its impeccably constructed album arc a bit too early. The compositions following “Requiem” aren’t lacking in quality, but can’t really hope to match its splendour and intensity. That being said, closing track “The Abbey Suite” compensates by successfully recapitulating the soundtrack’s thematic and emotional threads in one seamless composition that plays like a concert overture. It’s a perfect close to Western game music’s most obvious love letter to the heart-on-your-sleeve melodicism of classic Golden Age movie soundtracks.