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Dragon Quest 4 – “Menuet” and “In a Town” (Koichi Sugiyama)

November 12, 2010

Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior) is known for its classical references. This makes perfect sense as the series’ composer, Koichi Sugiyama (also a composer of television) was classically trained. The soundtrack certainly has its classical roots – take the song “Menuet”, which borrows heavily Hayden and especially Mozart. Full of beautiful, uplifting notes in the major scale, Sugiyama aims to create a joyful melody illustrating the legends and themes of the game (only a short reference to minor scale is used in the middle, around 1:40). The juxtaposition of bold, sweeping notes in the first segment of the song with the short, punctuated bursts of energy in the second portion aid in making the song memorable by providing a strong, recognizable melody.

Dragon Quest IV – “Menuet” (Koichi Sugiyama)

The minuet was originally a French social dance characterized by lots of short steps, but became integrated into the suite (a series of compositions) during the Baroque era. The minuet was sometimes used at the end of an overture (which is fitting, considering this song plays at the end of the “Overture”).

The tracks in the Dragon Quest 4 Symphonic Suite are fully realized in their orchestral form – how they were viewed in Sugiyama’s head prior to their transferrence to the 2A03 Famicom sound chip. The music is, in fact, too ambitious for the system to hold and desires an orchestral arrangement. This version was played by the NHK Symphonic Orchestra and seems to have been conducted by Sugiyama himself.

However, a second version was recorded by the London Philharmonic and was combined with video footage of folks bedecked in medieval costume and images of the countryside. Though cheesy (due in part to the VHS-quality video), the orchestration is superb.

Sugiyama’s work, while borrowing from the classical masters, retains a strong element of modern composition, best illustrated in “In a Town“, a medley of all the town themes. The town themes range from the pastoral hamlet at the beginning to a larger, more lively city, and finally the grand kingdom before returning again to the hamlet where we started, with confidence. The joyful feel of the hamlet, the first theme, begins carefree like Mozart, but ends with a flourish (1:00) much uncharacteristic of the classical style – something found in modern music. The same goes for the jazzy trumpet of the second town theme with its confident stride through a city. The return to the first town theme with variation is more reminiscent of a film score, but there are plenty of inspirations here from Aaron Copland as well, particularly through the use of woodblock percussion in the third town theme at 4:00.

Modern music is able to utilize a wide range of instruments and musical forms that were undreamable even in the early 19th Century. It was only through gradual changes in instrumentation and experimentation with sound that uses of common instruments such as the tambourine became acceptable in orchestral compositions – they would have been considered too vulgar in the courts of Europe.

This is not to place a value judgment on one form or the other – as with all music, there are different styles, each with its own advantages. A full palette of music will include all of them, as well as an awareness of what the composer is trying to accomplish in each and how the performance and execution affects the work.

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