Variations on a Theme: The Music of Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy as a series has many songs that are brilliant in their own right, each game has at least one track that sticks out in ones mind as a masterpiece. Final Fantasy VIII had ‘Liberi Fatali’, an operatic theme which evoked a sense of urgency. Final Fantasy VII’s ‘Aerith’s Theme’ and Final Fantasy X’s ‘To Zanarkand’ were both reminiscent of hope and loss. Nobuo Oematsu is a master of bringing emotion to the worlds presented to him, but his work on Final Fantasy IX arguably outshines the rest.
Final Fantasy IX’s soundtrack is different than most other soundtracks Nobuo Oematsu has written. While other works he has written have outstanding cornerstone pieces interspersed between disconnected filler, Final Fantasy IX’s soundtrack tells a story within itself.
The title track ‘A Place to Call Home’ sets the tone for the entire medieval world of Gaia in which Final Fantasy IX is set. Taking cues from the Tudor period compositions of King Henry VIII such as ‘Consort Music’ and ‘Pastyme With Good Companye’, Uematsu visually shapes the world before the player even leaves the title screen, the player knows what to expect thematically before setting foot in the game.
The theme of ‘A Place to Call Home’ is repeated later in the story with the track ‘Terra’. This variation has a ghostly and more cinematic tone which changes the setting for the player once again to reflect a new environment for the player, no longer is the world purely medieval but sinister and almost dream-like as well.
There are many examples of Nobuo Oematsu using variations on the themes he creates within the soundtrack to reflect the story and characters in Final Fantasy IX. ‘Freya’s Theme’ for instance is a perfect example of this. Freya is a character that is from civilization recently destroyed from the circumstances of the world around her. ‘Freya’s Theme’ musically is almost a fugue, repeating patterns of notes on a harpsichord creating a sense of urgency and desperation. This style of composition is very Bach-like, a renaissance composer, whose style also lends to the setting of the world around the player.
The variation on ‘Freya’s Theme’ named ‘Unforgettable Silhouette” comes shortly after help her on her personal quest. This time, the fugue-like composition is slower. Using a piano instead of a harpsichord, the same theme evokes a sense of both sadness and hope for the future.
Uematsu uses this technique to tell the story musically for all the characters and settings in Final Fantasy IX, creating a cohesive soundtrack for a cohesive world. The instruments utilized for most of the game are in-line with what would actually be used in medieval/renaissance composition lending to the feeling of immersion in a gaming era that wasn’t quite as lifelike as it is now. This isn’t to say that there are not stand-out tracks that defy the conventions of the over-all work, Oematsu keeps the soundtrack fresh in areas where the gameplay changes. ‘You’re Not Alone’ for example brings a new theme to the table and introduces a combination of woodwind, synth, and electric guitar to convey a sense of personal power to the main character in a time of need.
The Final Fantasy IX soundtrack is one of the best compositions Nobuo Oematsu has ever done. As a whole it is thematically and instrumentally cohesive and has many memorable tracks to take you back to the world of Gaia just by listening to them. In every sense of the word, Nobuo Oematsu has created a masterpiece.