My recent video blogs have detailed how I dove headfirst into the sounds of Renaissance and used period-appropriate instruments and performance practices to evoke the era. Going one step further, I actually used compositions from the time period in my score. (If Lorenzo de Medici were to travel through time and watch this series, he would recognize his own theme as the one composed by his court composer!) In tonight’s video blog, I sit down with series music historian Adam Knight Gilbert and discuss two themes in particular that were drawn straight from the pages of music history:
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: “The Devil” introduces a new character to the series: Vlad III, a.k.a. Dracula, the true historical inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Dracula is one of cinema’s most iconic characters, who has been translated to visual media at least a hundred times. Nearly every one of those characterizations had a musical theme written for the character, so I felt I was being given a chance to add my own take to a rich pantheon of musical Dracula themes. This moment in my career suddenly took on new meaning, as if I were being presented with a rite of passage: a test that I must pass in order to prove myself worthy of continuing to compose. I felt tremendous pressure as I set out scoring “The Devil,” because I knew this will likely be my sole chance to write a theme for this iconic character.
Our series’ take on Dracula is wholly unique. The fangs, slicked black hair and red cape are gone. Instead, David S. Goyer and the producers envisioned a broken, wiry man whose haunted eyes gaze at you from a pale, veined complexion. Actor Paul Rhys is a revelation in this role. His screen presence is chilling, and he relishes in the part with delightful abandon.
Rhys’ mannerisms, combined with the opulent production and costume design, had a tremendous impact on how I chose to compose my Dracula Theme. Most of my themes in “Da Vinci’s Demons” are instantly memorable, because I invested tremendous time and energy crafting them into contagious ear worms. However, ‘catchiness’ is not necessarily a quality that benefits music in the horror and suspense genres. (Of all the music I’ve composed, I think my only scary piece of music that breaks this rule is the Main Title to “The Walking Dead,” which benefits from a constantly repeating string ostinato.)
Nevertheless, I knew I had to write a theme for Vlad, because “Da Vinci’s Demons” is a thematic series. And besides, I wanted to take a stab at writing my own entry for lengthy canon of Dracula Themes. My solution was to make the Vlad Theme more about texture and less about melody.
For Vlad, I introduced a new family of instruments to the score: low concert woodwinds. I wrote for contrabassoon, bassoon and bass clarinet, often orchestrated in low clusters of tritones and minor thirds. A teacher of Orchestration 101 would give me an “F-“ for this, because the combination produces a murky tone, filled with conflicting beat patterns as the low frequencies clash with one another. However, for Vlad, this dark texture was perfect for creating subtle moods of dread.
The low woodwinds have a history in classic cinema, having been brought to the forefront of film scoring by composers such as Bernard Herrmann, who used them to chilling effect in scores like “Citizen Kane.” As such, my Vlad Theme cues have a sound that intentionally references classic monster films of the 40s and 50s, dancing perilously along the line between clever homage and genre exploitation. But, Rhys’ visionary performance grounded the scenes, giving me freedom to be a bit playful with the score without sacrificing tension.
In addition to the dissonant clusters, the low woodwinds frequently combine to perform a single melodic line, the Vlad Theme:
The Vlad Theme, like many of my antagonist themes, is built from intervals that make it hard to nail down an exact key. My Rome Theme is constructed in the same manner, but the Vlad Theme takes this to an extreme.
The melody is built from a serious of tritones, each ascending by minor thirds. In fact, the interval of a tritone is an essential building block of the entire score, very appropriate for an episode named “The Devil.” In Vlad’s second scene, he proposes a toast to Lucifer and clearly establishes his fondness for the Devil. The tritone interval has been historically associated with the Devil, often referred to as the “devil in music,” and was traditionally avoided in Western music for many centuries.
As Vlad raises his glass, the Calder Quartet introduces a see-sawing tritone ostinato, built from multiple stacks of tritones:
This is, literally, the ‘devil in music’ as he toasts Lucifer. If Vlad had a string quartet in his dining room, this is probably what they would have been playing.
The tritone is the basis for all the cues in Vlad’s castle. Frequently, the Calder Quartet provides the tritone motor underneath which the low winds growl with the subterranean tones of the Vlad Theme. This arrangement reaches its climax during the sequence when Da Vinci first releases The Abyssinian from the strange metallic device.
“The Devil” allowed me to bring in many of the terrifying string textures I’ve experimented with on “The Walking Dead.” I pushed my writing for the Calder Quartet into more contemporary sonorities. Slightly detuned string harmonics sustain as Vlad speaks with Da Vinci in the courtyard, tracing along the melody of the Vlad Theme in their upper registers (the polar opposite orchestration of the low woodwinds where the theme usually resides). The quartet screams with dissonant clusters, swelling with extra vibrato, as Vlad’s dogs kill a Turk before their eyes. (The Calder Quartet specialize in performing contemporary music, so these experimental textures came quite naturally to them!)
While the main story line of “The Devil” focuses on Da Vinci’s confrontation with Vlad, the episode is rich in other themes, as I continued to develop them across our season long arc.
The episode picks up right where “The Tower” left off, with Da Vinci speaking with the Turk. These scenes prominently feature his signatory temple bells, prayer bowls and, of course, the Turk Theme:
As The Turk tells Leonardo that he must rescue The Abyssinian, the score quotes a new harmonization of the Sons of Mithras Theme:
These themes are both recapped at the episode’s conclusion, when Da Vinci realizes that his attempt to rescue The Abyssinian failed, and that the man would die. The scene is a dark moment for our dashing hero, one where he tastes failure for the first time. During this conversation, The Abyssinian tells Leonardo that his mother is alive. Here, the high woodwinds offer an angelic arrangement of the Sons of Mithras Theme, thus connecting her mystery to the Mithras arc. I intentionally avoided using the Backwards Da Vinci Theme here, even though its been traditionally associated with Leonardo’s mother, because I wanted this moment to feel hopeful.
That hope is fleeting. The scores ends with ominous chords, ebbing and flowing like a dark tide as Da Vinci realizes that he failed in his quest.
“The Devil” contains other noteworthy musical moments. Giuliano and Vanessa share a flirting moment in the bar that becomes romantic. They’ve had moments of chemistry together throughout the season, however this is the first that truly necessitated a new musical theme. As they lean in to kiss, the string quartet plays the Giuliano / Vanessa Love Theme:
Unbeknownst to him, Giuliano’s love life becomes more perilous later in the episode when Lorenzo arranges him to marry into the Camilla Pazzi.
As Francesco Pazzi bristles at the idea, lutes offer a plucky version of the Pazzi Theme that underscores his surprise at the notion:
The following scenes allowed me to utilize the Medici Theme in new ways:
As Pierro confronts Clarice about the shocking idea of marrying Giuliano into the Pazzi family, she surprisingly admits it was her idea, revealing that she has a far more cunning political mind than Pierro suspected. Here, the English Horn variation of the Medici Theme that has always been associated with her returns, set against a slightly more dissonant string backdrop, underscoring Pierro’s surprise.
Over the past six episodes, my Medici Theme has becoming increasingly dissonant and sinister. So, it was a relief that in the following scene, I could use it to underscore an intimate sex scene between Lorenzo and Clarice that shows the heart of their relationship. In this cue, the concert harp and string quartet create a warm bed of gentle chords, and Clarice’s solo English horn returns once more to state her variation of the Medici Theme at the scene’s end.
Perhaps the most memorable scene in “The Devil” is the one involving Pope Sixtus. Upset that the Duke of Urbino has made an alliance with his rival, Lorenzo, the Pope rises from his bath and beats the shit out of Mercuri and Riario while completely butt naked. The entire scene is scored with deep, ominous variations of the Rome Theme, played on the solo violone:
The violone is a Renaissance variation of the concert bass that has a deep, scratchy timbre. I usually tuck the instrument into the orchestral texture to give it a Renaissance flavor. Here, I featured it front and center, and it perfectly encapsulated the Pope’s rage without overplaying a scene that flirts with excess.
(This scene is definitely one of ‘those scenes’ that I never thought I’d get to write music for: one in which a naked pope beats the shit out of a bunch of guys. In fact, I’m not sure that any composer has ever had to score a scene like this before in cinematic history! I’m a pioneer in the art of scoring naked pope beatdowns.)
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With only two episodes remaining, we’re sadly nearing the end of the first season of “Da Vinci’s Demons.” You have yet to hear many of what I consider my best cues for this series. Stay tuned for more blogs. See you next week!
PS: An ingenious fan posted this on YouTube and its worth checking out:
In this video, the entire Main Title sequence has been reversed, demonstrating that the main theme is a palindrome. In the original version, the structure is A-B-A and in the reverse video, you can clearly hear that the structure is now B-A-B. (The structure reverses in this manner because the unit of A-B is, itself, the palindrome. The B Theme is the A Theme in reverse. It sounds more complex than it really is. Just check out the video, it’s a wonderful demonstration!)