steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Mahou Shoujo Must Go On 1 (Music)

I said I would do some posts on “Why Madoka is awesome”, in part as a kind of penance (if something so self-indulgent can be called penitential) for failing to do it justice when I first watched it. That’s not actually unusual for me – I tend to grind things exceeding small but even exceedinger slow, just one reason why I would not make a good professional reviewer. Mostly though I’m writing this because I like to talk about the series, and I appear to have accumulated a store of things I want to say about it. They won’t be in any particular order. Since they will be full of spoilers throughout I don’t recommend reading them unless you’re already familiar with the series. Also, I won’t be stopping to explain plot points – unless of course the plot is what I’m talking about. Subject to those caveats, read on.

I’ll start with the music, because I mentioned it to consonantia recently. Almost all the music for PMMM is by Yuki Kajiura – all, that is, other than the deceptive J-pop opening, the equally deceptive closing theme used in episodes 1 and 2, the Kyoko-Sayaka duet at the end of episode 7, and some use of Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Gounod/Bach within the story itself. I’ll concentrate on Kajiura here, anyway. While I have my favourite tracks, let’s pay tribute to the range on display – which in turn reflects the range of the show itself, and includes:

  • Guitar driven rock, in “Magia

  • Deceptively idyllyic acoustic pieces such as “Postmeridie

  • Large-scale apocalyptic oratorio: "Nux Walpurgis"

  • Meditative, serene duets: “Clementia

  • Mami Tomoe’s battle music, “Credens justitiam” – a tribute to the traditional magical girl henshin that encapsulates Mami’s upbeat coolness, with lyrics in Kajiura’s own constructed mixture of Latin, Italian, Japanese and what-not. This one – as I can confirm from experience – makes a great alarm tone, even for those early calls.

  • General action tracks such as "Pugna cum Maga"

  • And more – some of which I’ll discuss in a bit more detail below.

There’s a mediaeval influence on some of the tunes: most obviously “Salve, Terrae Magicae”, which is I think a take on an estampie for recorder and drone: for a mediaeval example try this. Then there’s “Sis Puella Magica!” A haunting, suitably magical sounding song with its enticing sleigh bells: this is Kyubey’s theme, and is an alluring bait for that metaphysical angler fish, although in retrospect it acquires an undertow of sadness. When I first heard it it reminded me of The Mediaeval Baebes’ “Star of the Sea”: I’m not sure how close they really are musically, but they still sit together in my mind.

I’m not enough of a music buff to talk about Kajiura’s strengths sensibly in technical terms. Clearly she has a wide generic range and a real flair for orchestration, and especially for melodies and (often quite simple) harmonies that catch deep. But it would miss the point to talk about these pieces in isolation. For example, “Decretum” is a lovely folk-ish tune, with (it seems to me) something of “Scarborough Fair” in the melody; but to hear it as Sayaka’s theme, especially in conjunction with either of the two scenes at the end of episodes 7 and 8 depicting the downfall and destruction of her strong, vulnerable, idealistic self, is to increase its impact many times over. Tears aplenty have been shed to “Decretum” in this house, and the same can be said of “Sagitta Luminis”, which accompanies Madoka’s ministry in the final episode. Whether they’d have the same effect stripped of their context is a pointless question, because they were written for those scenes – and, as with opera, the entirety (music, acting, animation, design, story) is that by which each part deserves to be judged.

To expand on this theme a bit I’d like to look at some of the placings of the pieces and the relationships between them. I’ll do it through the three solo piano pieces, “Taenie Memoriae”, “Desiderium” and “Inevitabilis”. I choose these because I’ve learned to play them myself (it’s quite easy to download the sheet music). I’m not a skilled pianist – probably about Grade 3, if I were taking grades – but all these pieces are quite playable for me (though not easy to play well). They all have a simple, well-defined, even gem-like quality, always with the proviso that these are gems with souls.

Taenia Memoriae” appears only in episode 12, when Homura remember’s Madoka through her hair ribbons (as the title hints). Like some of the other pieces (e.g. “Sagitta Luminis”) it consists of four variations (in melody and arrangement) on a single, simple theme. First a rather melancholy tune is picked out in the right hand, with the left providing a fairly minimal accompaniment, then we have a more cheerful version with arpeggios, then we go deeper, with bass chords taking over, and finally the original tune repeated in a higher key. But the tune has a four-part structure of its own: the opening phrase asks a question that the second phrase answers in kind, before the third complicates matters with an unexpected chord, and the fourth reiterates the answer (with varying degrees of finality). It’s very simply but beautifully constructed, I think, and its melancholy sorts well with the bittersweet nature of the scene, in which Homura talks to Madoka’s mother, and Madoka’s mother speaks wistfully of the daughter she never had.

But like many of the pieces in this show this one reaches beyond itself. The central phrase of “Taenia Memoriae” is picked up at the end of the episode by “Pergo Pugnare”, to the sound of which Homura vows to keep fighting. In “Pergo Pugnare” the sadness of “Taenia Memoriae”, now set for lush strings, is not rejected but incorporated into Homura’s final resolution, which accepts suffering and still has the courage to act. The power of “Pergo Pugnare” is greater because we have heard “Taenia Memoriae” minutes before: the musical logic and the dramatic logic work in concert.

Then there’s “Desiderium”, which was the first piece I learned. It took me some time to notice (but when I did it was obvious) that it’s a variation on “Sis Puella Magica!”. But I can forgive myself, for where “Sis Puella Magica!” is haunting, ethereal and seductive, “Desiderium”, with its odd staccatos and bird-like hops across the keyboard is tentative, even ungainly. And this again is very fitting, for it plays (mostly) in the part of the series when Madoka and Sayaka are considering Kyubey’s offer of becoming magical girls. It’s as if they are taking the tune he has played them and trying it out in imagination: hesitant, nervous, but intrigued.

Then there’s my final pairing, “Puella in Somnio” and “Inevitabilis”. These are much more obviously versions of the same tune. Throughout the first nine episodes of the series, “Puella in Somnio” acts as Homura’s theme (she is “The Girl in the Dream”), and it reflects her presentation: mysterious, sinister, a bit scary. Apart from one snatch in episode 2 we don’t hear “Inevitabilis” until episode 11, that is, after we learn the truth about Homura. And “Inevitabilis” is beautiful. As its title indicates, it deals with inevitability, or perhaps inexorability (the title may allude to "O Mors Inevitabilis", written as a lament for a dead friend, which fits Homura's situation frighteningly well). The repeated answering phrases at the start and end are like the ticking of a clock, or the swinging of the axe-like pendulum in Homura’s room: here is someone who is bound to time, and it’s clearly a grim business. But in the middle section we witness the flowering of a colourful and delicate tune. (Kajiura uses her notes very sparingly here, avoiding many “juicy” possibilities for interesting chords, and the result is airy – a work of flying buttresses rather than Romanesque arches.) This tune blooms for a while, then it subsides, back into the tick-tocking of the inevitable.

And you realise that in fact this is Homura’s theme, and that “Puella in Somnio” is derived from it, not vice versa. “Puella in Somnio” is the version of Homura that has been worn down by interminable iterations of tragedy, who has been emotionally stunted, who has been edged inch by inch toward despair.

And there I’ve said more than enough for now, but I hope I've indicated something of the way the music impresses me not just as a collection of pieces but as part of the series' dramatic structure. This tightness and complexity of construction in all the show's aspects is one of the things that most impresses me about it, and something to which I'm sure I'll be returning.
Tags: madoka, nippon notes
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