Da Vinci’s Demons: The Serpent

One of the great joys of scoring “Da Vinci’s Demons” is that it allows me to collaborate with some of my favorite musicians.  This week’s video blog introduces you to four who are essential to my score, The Calder Quartet:


SERPENTINE SPOILERS BEYOND: If you missed my blog entry for the first episode of this remarkable series, catch up on it here.  The second episode of “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “The Serpent,” begins with Da Vinci having a conversation with the Jew who was hanged in the first episode in what turns out to be a dream sequence.  The score begins with the same, dreamy ambient tones as began the first episode, with a subtle thematic reference to the Sons of Mithras Theme:


After he awakes, Leo performs an autopsy on the Jew’s body, following clues from the Turk to discover a key in the man’s stomach. As he picks up the key, Chris Bleth’s solo duduk offers an uplifting phrase from the Sons of Mithras Theme, above a mysterious backdrop of ethnic guitars and viola da gamba.  Leo has found the first clue in his quest for the Book of Leaves.


Later, Da Vinci has a run-in with his father who jabs him with painful, cold words about his bastard lineage.  Adding pathos to the scene, a viola da gamba plays the Backwards Da Vinci Theme:


The melody reminds us how vulnerable Leo is.  No matter how cocky he gets, his father is always able to bring him down.


The following day, Da Vinci sketches Lucrezia but grows increasingly frustrated and distracted.  Here, I started a solo harp ostinato and gentle strings that feel like they’re building towards a romantic statement of the Lucrezia Theme:


However, the score takes a different direction.  Ticking percussion sneaks in, adding tension.  The harmonies in the strings grow more dissonant, with jagged swells shooting up from the orchestration.  The music itself feels as if its growing exasperated.  At last the score tapers away as he throws his pencil down in frustration.

Da Vinci asks Lucrezia about the Jew’s offense, and learns that he was killed for breaking into a bookstore. Here the score is ambient, but gentle bells and bowls create an ethereal connection to the episode’s first scene, and his conversations with the Turk from the first episode.


Later in the scene, Da Vinci hides when Lorenzo enters the room.  Solo fragments of the Lucrezia Theme augment his inner conflict at having to share her with him.


The titular serpent of this episode is Count Girolamo Riario, who makes a grand entrance in a memorable scene torturing poor Nico for information about why they dug up the Jew’s body. Riario is one of my favorite characters in the entire series, and he will prove to be a formidable opponent for Da Vinci in every way.  He is an absolutely terrifying, horrible bastard.


The character is brilliantly portrayed by Blake Ritson.  When I met him in Italy a few weeks ago, I found he is an absolutely delightful and charming man.  Working on the series for months on end, I’d just cemented him in my mind as Riario and it definitely took me a little while to adjust to the real Blake.  Thankfully, he’s far more cordial than Riario, and I greatly enjoyed chatting with him.

Riario’s scene torturing Nico is underscored with the Rome Theme:


In the first episode, these notes really functioned as a melody.  They were sung by a deep male chorus and phrased like an evil, liturgical chant.  For Riario, I wanted to create more energy and tension.  He’s on the front lines, and is a much more proactive character than Sixtus (for the time being).  To reflect that, I turned the Rome Melody into the Rome Ostinato:


As ostinato is a repeating musical pattern.  Here, I took the first eight notes of the melody and had the Calder Quartet repeat them relentlessly.  In this setting, this variation almost sounds like a new theme.  Instead of a stately, ominous chant, we hear the musical equivalent of gears being tightened.


This represents not only the physical gears in the torture device, The Widow’s Tear, but also the idea that Riario is a physical threat, a trap that is winding up and could spring at any moment.

After Nico escapes his clutches, Riario shares a scene with Lucrezia.  This scene is incredibly important to both their characters, because their relationships are clearly established.  We see clearly that her cooperation with Rome is not willing, nor is she treated as an ally.  To Riario, she’s merely a tool to be used.


As they spar with words, the quartet and viola da gamba trade off dissonantly harmonized variations of the Rome Theme.  Because of the harmonically nebulous nature of the theme, the key seems to drift unpredictably, adding to the sense that Riario is slippery and without moral boundaries.

In the midst of his thematic variations, a solo English horn offers a diminished variation of the Lucrezia Theme, where the fifth in the scale has been lowered a half step, following a diminished scale instead of a minor scale.  Lucrezia’s melody is diminished in Riario’s presence because she is controlled by him, representing her submissive state.

This is the first time we’ve heard the Lucrezia Theme in such a tense variation, fitting for the first scene where we realize how precarious her situation must truly be. In the first episode, her theme felt like a typical “love theme,” there to represent the relationship between the male and female leads.  But starting here, it is simply the “Lucrezia Theme,” a melody that will follow all the twists and turns this poor, complex character will endure.


Meanwhile, Da Vinci is following the clues left behind by the Jew in a series of sequences that lead him from the tavern, to the streets and into the bookshop where the Jew was apprehended. He uses his imagination and vision to piece together the events of that evening.  Ultimately, he discovers that he only possesses one of two keys, and finds the book that the Jew had stashed before his capture.


The score for these scenes is built upon simple, ticking percussion played by percussionist MB Gordy on various instruments with over-sized blast sticks or large brushes.   The harmonies and melodies are all drawn from the Forwards Da Vinci Theme:


I worked carefully with MB to find the right combination of sounds for these “Da Vinci Vision” sequences.  The harmonic and melodic content of the Da Vinci theme provides the necessary inspiration, but the various wooden and brushed percussion instruments provide the energy.  For me, they are the musical representation of the gears turning in his mind.  A future video blog will show you the session where we discovered these various percussion combinations.


My percussion writing for this series expanded greatly in a scene after the bookshop when Da Vinci is chased through the streets of Florence by soldiers from Rome.  Driving synth basses add the foundation upon which I added dumbeks, dulcimers, wooden percussion and a wailing hurdy gurdy solo. This scene was the first genuine action scene of the series and I really enjoyed throwing in some ethnic, percussive flair.


Later in the episode, Riario has a seemingly cordial conversation with Lorenzo De Medici.  The scene is fun because they are acting cordially, but sparring intensely.  The music is tense and underscores the reveals and threats being made just beneath the surface of the dialog. Plucked Renaissance guitars jab with fragments of the Rome Theme, while the woodwinds counter with the Medici Theme:


Riario makes his exit with a chilling threat of war.  As we cut back to Lorenzo, struggling to maintain his air of authority, heavy drums pound in, adding gravitas to his expression.  An urgent quartet ostinato sneaks in above an undulating synth bass, while the viola da gamba plays the Medici Theme as the camera pans away from him.  He’s vulnerable and frightened, but those emotions give way to anger.


“How in Christ’s name did he know all that?” he asks Becchi.

The score answers his question for him, as a flute slithers in with a solitary statement of the Lucrezia Theme.

I have fond memories of spending time with actress Laura Haddock in Italy and discussing this scene with her.  She told me that the first time she ever watched this episode with the final mix that she immediately picked up on her character’s theme at this moment.  She paused her DVD and backed it up to watch the scene a second time, just to hear it again! It’s always wonderful to work with a cast who are so aware of the score and eager to listen for it.


In the following scene, Da Vinci discusses the Vault of Heaven with his mentor and father figure, Verrochio.  This was a tricky scene because it establishes two important ideas.  The first is the close relationship Da Vinci shares with Verrochio, as we finally see that he really looks out for Leo as a son.  It would have been an ideal place to develop a variation of the Da Vinci Theme specifically for them.

This scene also reinforces some important information about the Vault of Heaven and the Book of Leaves. As such, I felt it was more important, in the big picture, to score this scene with the Sons of Mithras Theme.  Finding the Book of Leaves is Leo’s quest, and yet, we’ve never even seen a picture of it.  Without that visual reference, these dialog scenes about it are vital to remind the audience what’s going on.  So, here, the music connects this scene with the Turk, the Jew and all the other scenes where someone has discussed the Book of Leaves.


Later in the dialog, however, Da Vinci brings up the mystery of his mother and the falcon.  Here, I could finally introduce some emotional music, and the quartet plays the backwards Da Vinci Theme.  As we flash back to his blurred memories of her face, the score takes us right back to the scene in the first episode when he described the same visions to Vanessa.  The melody even connects this scene to his painful encounter with his father earlier in this very episode.

The following night, the Medicis throw a party to ‘celebrate’ (and subtly humiliate) Riario.  Here, I was able to write my first pieces of source music for “Da Vinci’s Demons.”


The source music, however, is the music of the world he physically inhabits.  These people don’t share his imagination.  They are products of their time.  With this in mind, I felt that the source music should be as legitimately Renaissance as possible.  It would not be bold or exciting, and in fact, it should not be. If the source music were small and harmonically limited, as the music of the time period actually was, then it would only make the score that represents Da Vinci’s marvelous imagination all the more exotic in comparison.

I pretended that a small ensemble was in the room, just off camera, and arranged three different pieces for the same instrumentation of lutes, recorders, shawm, tambourine and hide drum.  All three source pieces are my own arrangements of Renaissance compositions.

The first piece, “Ben Venga Maggio,” underscores the various guests coming into the main hall.


Lorenzo steps on the stage and narrates a play depicting the Garden of Eden, in which he makes a very thinly veiled suggestion that Riario is the serpent of legend. For this piece, I scored the choreography of the dancers and Lorenzo’s narration to create the feeling that the music was a part of the production.  This music comes from an old song called “Vilana Che Sa Tu Far,” which is actually about a mercenary solider that tries to seduce a shepherd girl.  The music fit the scene and the original lyrics deal with the subject of temptation, so it seemed the perfect choice.


Later that night, after what we presume was a fantastic meal, Da Vinci stands at the top of the grand staircase, lost in thought.  We hear the soft refrains of a lute trio playing coming from the main hall (the guitars are performed by one of my orchestrators who is also a skilled guitarist, Ed Trybek).  The tune I selected, “Fortuna Desperata,” is an in-joke that only a handful of people in the world would ever get. Composed by French composer Antoine Busnois, it contains the six notes that court composer Heinrich Isaac would later adopt to become his “Medici Theme,” which I would adopt to become my own Medici Theme five-hundred years later.


Riario approaches Da Vinci and tries to coax him to join Rome.  He threatens his life and Da Vinci glances up at him.  This would have been the obvious place to enter with tense score, but I waited.  Da Vinci just disregards the threat.  So, Riario’s next step is to threaten Lucrezia’s life, knowing that Da Vinci has feelings for her. This was my cue.


A solo Celtic harp enters with the diminished version of her theme (referencing Riario’s scene with Lucrezia and reminding us of the power he wields over her).  Now Da Vinci is listening.

Da Vinci agrees to join Riario and arranges a meeting, as low woodwinds and plucked guitars play the Rome Theme.


The following day, Da Vinci waits for Riario in a quarry, while the Medici brothers watch from the opposite Cliffside unbeknownst to him (or so we think). As Riario and the soldiers of Rome approach, the Rome Theme is offered up in the viola da gamba and string quartet, above an ominous synth pulse and bass drum. The background pads are breathy and murky, creating thick tension.

Facing down the Roman soldiers, Da Vinci stands before a covered item he claims is the Vault of Heaven.  As Riario asks about the Jew, the vault and the book, the score offers a rich arrangement of the Book of Leaves Theme, suggesting for a moment that perhaps Riario really does have the answers.

As Riario and Da Vinci verbally spar, the score reflects their conversation with conflicting themes.  The low strings lay a foundation of the Rome Theme for Riario while a solo viola da gamba counters with snippets from the Forwards Da Vinci Theme for Leonardo.  All the while, the tension is slowing ratcheting up.


Finally, Leo declines the offer and suddenly the score shifts into high gear.  The string quartet gallops into an energetic ostinato, supported by light percussion:


The heavy percussion enters as Riario starts piecing together Da Vinci’s plan.  As we reveal a wick being lit on the ground, the celeste and high woodwinds offer a playful statement of the Forwards Da Vinci Theme.  At this moment, we realize Da Vinci’s game.

He fires his pipe organ musket straight into the Romans and unleashes hell.  Here, I wrote the biggest action cue I possibly could.  Pounding percussion and driving strings support wailing hurdy gurdys and smashing crash cymbals.  The harmonic progression of Da Vinci’s Theme enters, creating a moment of triumph from the devastation.


Still, when you’re scoring a scene where the camera is placed close on thirty cannons firing, you know you’re never going to compete with the sound design.  As I predicted, the bombastic sound effects eat up a lot of the heavy percussion.  But, to my surprise, a great amount of the melody and upper percussion actually cuts through the chaos in the final mix.

As Leonardo surveys the destruction he wrought, a solo violone (the lowest instrument in the gamba family) plays a lone statement of the Forwards Da Vinci Theme in a minor key.  He apologizes to the soldier dying before him.  The scores suggests that this image will haunt him.


The episode ends with a big orchestral cue that begins as Riario and his surviving soldiers retreat from Florence.  Riario reveals to Mercuri that he possesses the second key to the vault of heaven, while tremolo strings offer a final statement of the Rome Theme for this episode.

In the final scene, Leonardo pieces together the pages from the Jew’s book. This cue is the grandest statement of the Book of Leaves Theme yet.  For once, there is forward momentum in the arrangement.  It’s not representing some far-distant object to be recovered, but an answer that Leonardo may figure out right now.

As he begins, the low strings introduce a rolling 6/8 ostinato:


The violins enter with the Book of Leaves Theme, followed by response phrases from the violas. As the phrase repeats a second time, a deep synthesizer begins to add urgency.

Da Vinci lays the pages out across the floor and begins to elevate himself using a pully.  Here, the strings kick into double time, playing the osinato in 16ths instead of 8ths.  The Book of Leaves Theme is then picked up the ethnic instruments, the duduk and yialli tanbur, bringing the cue full circle back to the scenes with the Turk.


The camera reveals Da Vinci’s vision to us.  The pages have formed a map of South America.  Here, driving percussion enters, and the strings chug away aggressively at the 16ths.  The ethnic instruments offer one final statement of the Sons of Mithras Theme as we smash cut to black off Da Vinci’s vision of a spherical world: a globe, with a vast ocean separating him from the Book of Leaves.  (Watch today’s video blog about the Calder Quartet and listen for this cue at the end.)

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In the score to next week’s episode, I bring a new musician to the score, one whose distinct sound you will likely recognize.  Thanks for reading and listening!