To celebrate the final first-season episode of “Da Vinci’s Demons,” I sat down with the visionary series creator / director / writer / executive producer David S. Goyer to discuss my music for the show:
Scoring a series as thematically layered as “Da Vinci’s Demons” is a daunting task. I have to write dozens of themes. Each must serve the creative needs of the scene at hand, but also be malleable enough that it can support the drama in future twists and turns, multiple episodes or even seasons down the line. This process allows me to build up a tremendous toybox of musical material. Big finale episodes are where I get to bust out all my toys and really play. All my work setting up character themes finally pays off, and the process of writing is truly exhilarating.
I think the best analogy for a season finale comes from my youth. Scoring a television series is a bit like pulling a sled up a really high hill. Your boots are sloshing in the snow, your legs start to ache, and the cold burns your lungs. And it can take you a long time to get to the top of the hill. But you know its worth it for the quick rush when all that work pays off, and you slide back down.
“The Lovers,” the final first season episode of “Da Vinci’s Demons,” is one of my ‘sled episodes.’ (To read about a few similar experiences I’ve had, check out “Daybreak” from “Battlestar Galactica,” and “Christopher Chance” from “Human Target.”)
Technically, “The Lovers” is the most ambitious score I’ve done for this series. It was a full forty-eight minutes of score, and required a variation of every single character theme I’ve written for the show (with the exception of the Vlad Theme from Episode 6). Each scene is a twisty alphabet-soup of musical themes, with quotations and variations layered on top one another.
BBC and STARZ were supportive enough to bring in the largest orchestra we’ve used yet for the series, and a full SATB choir (that means ‘Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass,’ a choir that uses all voice types) in addition to all the usual small ensembles, Renaissance instruments and ethnic soloists that make the score unique.
In this blog entry, I’ll walk through the major scenes and retrace my thematic steps. And I’m also thrilled to say that the full soundtrack album to “Da Vinci’s Demons” is available now on iTunes, Amazon and other digital retailers. Where appropriate, I will reference particular tracks on the album so you can listen in detail. A significant percentage of this episode’s score made the cut. So, without further delay, let’s discuss “The Lovers.”
MEGA-SPOILERS AHEAD: The episode opens in Constantinople, thirteen years in the past. Here, the Sons of Mithras are assembled for the first time on screen. They discuss a young boy from Vinci, and a forboding omen about the future from an unidentified figure in a robe. (Any guesses on who this is? I know!)
I wrote a Sons of Mithras Theme for the first episode, so it was obviously going to play a role here. But, I’d also developed themes specific to The Turk and The Magician, Cosimo de Medici, as well harmonies specific to The Abyssinian. While the scene is ostensibly a simple dialog scene between these characters, the score is actually a constant juggling act between all these carious elements. (This cue is featured on the album: Track 21 – ”The Future of the Sons of Mithras.”)
As we open on Constantinople, we hear a lonely Turkish instrument called a yialli tanbur, performed by Martin St. Pierre, state the Turk Theme:
Months earlier, when I first began work on the show, Goyer told me about this scene. Even when I scored the first scene in this series, I was careful to feature the Turk Theme on an instrument appropriate to this region of the world. Now, at the end of the season, that seed finally pays off.
The camera pans beautifully to the men standing on a cliff. Here, the duduk and orchestral strings surge with a soaring, cinematic statement of the Sons of Mithras Theme:
We focus to Cosimo de Medici, marking the first time we’ve seen this character in the flesh.
Here, the score shifts to a familiar gamelan backdrop while a solo hurdy gurdy offers the Cosimo Theme:
I first introduced this theme in Episode 04, when Leonardo is looking at this man’s portrait. Even if audiences don’t remember this music specifically, there’s a subconscious connection formed by this signature hurdy gurdy line.
As the Turk mentions the young boy from Vinci, Malachai Bandy plays an evocative solo statement of the Forwards Da Vinci Theme:
The sound is restrained and evenly a little melancholy. This is not the soaring version of the theme we’re accustomed to from the main title. Beneath it, I still kept Cosimo’s signature gamelan ostinato going, implying a connection between these two men who actually never the share the screen at the same time in the entire series.
The mysterious hooded figure offers a prophecy and the men discuss their bleak future. Here, the Sons of Mithras theme returns, in the yialli tanbur and low strings. The arrangement is evocative of the final cue from “The Devil,” the scene in which Leonardo realizes he failed to save the Abyssinian. By ending the scene with this reference, “The Future of the Sons of Mithras” ties together all the musical threads associated with this mysterious order.
In the present day, Da Vinci follows his destiny, literally and figuratively, following a falcon back to the Roman ruins where he first met the Turk. This cue (Track 22 on the album, “Visions and Demons”) is our most rousing full statement of the complete Da Vinci Theme since the first episode’s “The Glider.”
The rhythmic motor is built out of a triplet figure placed most often in the violas and second violins:
After the strings initially rev up the motor, heavy bass synths and pounding percussion energize the track. I timed the scene so we got our first statement of the main theme on a glorious wide shot of the countryside.
I put the melody in the choir and strings, above the ever-driving lower strings and percussion. Harp glisses rip up to the heavens as Leonardo looks up at the falcon. The entire sequence is shamelessly epic, and leaves out dialog and unnecessary sound effects. It’s all about the emotion and the mystery. Scenes like this live or die on the success of the music put over them. I’m always grateful to work with showrunners like David S. Goyer, who trusted me enough to leave this sonic real estate empty for me.
As Leonardo approaches the Roman ruins, the score simmers down, although the string ostinato is still ever-present. Plucking lutes and subtle, snarling synths evoke the same texture we heard from Episode 1, the last time he entered this sacred place. As he descends the stairs and sees The Turk, the signature yialli tanbur returns once more, quoting the Turk Theme. As Leonardo speaks with the Turk for his next few scenes, the tanbur and duduk continue to weave variations of the Sons of Mithras theme throughout the score.
The next scene features the episode’s two primary antagonists: Francesco Pazzi and Count Riario. As they roil in conflict, the music seethes with variations of their respective themes.
I first introduced the Pazzi Theme in “The Tower,” most often played on jangly lutes. Here, the theme returns in the same instrumentation:
In the lower frequencies, a solo viola da gamba offers the competing version of the Rome Theme, that represents Riario:
I used the instrumentation here to underline their relationship. Though ostensibly on the same side, they clearly see their roles differently. Pazzi’s agitation is highlighted by the plucky guitar tones, and ticking percussion as he prowls around the room. Riario, on the other hand, is lucid, calm and firm. The slippery, almost vocal quality of the Renaissance strings adds subdued menace, ultimately overpowering the bristling upper frequency Pazzi instruments.
Meanwhile, Officers of the Night bring a body to Lorenzo de Medici. As he hurries down the stairs, fearing that the body belongs to his brother Giuliano, lutes state a familiar ostinato variation of the Medici Theme.
This particular variation of the Medici Theme was first introduced in Episode 04, “The Magician.” At the time, I used it to highlight Lorenzo’s descent into tyranny. In that scene, the rift between the brothers first became apparent, as Lorenzo insulted Giuliano, lording his position over him. Here, the use of this variation becomes ironic. Lorenzo is now at his most vulnerable, afraid that he is about to see his brother’s body.
In the next scene, Leonardo and Verrochio meet in Cosimo’s tomb and find the hidden astrolabe that will guide him on his journey. This cue (Track 23, “The Astrolabe”) is the culmination of the Cosimo Theme.
As they begin following the hidden clues in the tomb, percussionist M.B. Gordy introduces a simple ostinato played on large blaststicks. This simple ticking sound is a thematic element I use in all the ‘Da Vinci Vision’ sequences, where Da Vinci sees clues in the world around him. However, the percussion is combined with Cosimo’s signature gamelan pattern and wailing hurdy gurdy theme.
That texture would already be full and exciting, but I amped it up more with the large string orchestra and full choir, quoting another Latin passage from Hermes Trismegistus’ Emerald Tablet, from which I drew texts for last week’s Episode 07, “The Heirophant.” I loved the line about how Cosimo always looked to the universe above, and found a line of text from the Emerald Tablet that would be perfect for the choir to state:
“That which is below is as that which is above,
and that which is above is as that which is below,
to perform the miracles of the one thing.”
With the astrolabe in hand, Da Vinci decides to leave Florence and book passage on the ship that will take him to the Book of Leaves. But, first he must wrap up business with Lorenzo. The scene starts off without music, but when Da Vinci gives the devastating news that the Duke of Urbino has betrayed him, the Calder Quartet sneaks in with luscious, clustered harmonies.
This scene (Track 24, “The Lovers”), showcases two alpha-male personalities in direct conflict, but I chose to play the scene emotionally, from Lorenzo’s perspective. When he slumps on the desk, his body language tells us he’s given up trying to threaten or impose. The strings offer sympathetic emotion as he realizes that he is lost without Da Vinci and can do nothing to contain the man.
The scene is woven with quotations of the Medici Theme and the Da Vinci Theme. The themes are not at odds, like the Riario / Pazzi Themes were earlier. Instead, they support one another. I left the conflict and tension to the actors’ brilliant performances, and instead created an environment where we’re free to take whichever side we want (though I’m definitely leaning towards Lorenzo’s perspective most of the time).
A third theme enters the mix. As Da Vinci asks about taking Lucrezia as a prize, a mysterious string ostinato picks up speed and a solo English horn offers a enigmatic variation of the Lucrezia Theme. Typically, Lucrezia’s Theme is performed on Celtic harp or flute, however I chose the English horn here for a specific reason. Beginning in Episode 03, “The Prisoner,” I use the English horn thematically for a Medici Theme variation tied to Clarice, Lorenzo’s wife. By stating his mistress’ theme in his wife’s thematic instrument, the score muddies the waters, underscoring Lorenzo’s internal conflict.
Da Vinci’s last order of business before leaving town is confronting Lucrezia, having learned of her treachery in the last episode. This scene is a powerhouse performance for both actors Tom Riley and Laura Haddock, and seethes with conflicting emotions of desire and repulsion.
This cue (on the album as the second half of Track 24) is this season’s final word on the Lucrezia Theme. This melody has been featured in every episode, in increasingly dissonant variations, as we’ve learned more about her twisted motivations. Despite it all, we still root for this character and want her to redeem herself. Redemption was the key word on my mind as I set out to score this scene, because it’s the goal she will tragically fall short of by the scene’s end.
The Calder Quartet provides the harmonic backdrop with the beautiful, clustered harmonies I like to use in scenes like this. In these cases, I try to avoid chords with thirds in them, because they denote a definitive major or minor tonality. For example, voicing the strings in a simple major or minor chord like this would give a strong, yet simplistic, sense of emotion:
This makes it too easy on us. Major chord makes us feel good. Minor chord makes us feel like something ominous is coming. Boring. Instead, I think of that G as a harmonic anchor and then create chords voiced in clustered variations, for example…
One can tell even by simply looking these chords that they are more intersting. There’s no major or minor anymore, just a sensation of sonic tension built from the stacks of clashing major and minor seconds. This allows the emotion to come directly from the story and the actors’ performances. Listen to “The Lovers” on the soundtrack album once more and pay attention to how often harmonies are clustered like this. You’ll notice that I reserve pure major and minor chords for only the precise moments where they’re necessary, making them much more effective when they appear.
Floating above the clstered chords, I used statements of the Lucrezia Theme to tell her tragic story:
My favorite moment in this scene comes as Da Vinci decides to embrace her. Here, I wrote a lyrical solo for Calder cellist Eric Byers (this clip is featured in the Video Blog interview with David S. Goyer).
I must say, this theme has never been so beautiful. Byers’ tone is rich and round, and he’s backed gently by the full choir. I think this might be the most beautiful passage I’ve written for “Da Vinci’s Demons.” My only disappointment is that it was mixed surprisingly soft behind the dialog and night-time ambient sound effects for this scene. So, I highly recommend checking it out on the album to get the full impact (Track 24, starting at 5:17).
In the next scene, Pope Sixtus sits down with the mysterious Prisoner character who we learn is actually his twin brother. The scene is underscored primarily with The Prisoner Theme, first introduced in Episode 03 “The Prisoner:”
I can finally confess that this theme is laced with clues about The Prisoner’s identity. I built this melody by distorting Lucrezia’s Theme, foreshadowing the fact that he is her father. The theme is almost always stated by a solo viola da gamba doubled quietly by a breathy Japanese flute called a bansuri. Typically, low gamba tones represent Rome and the Pope. By adding the bansuri to the gamba, the score subtly implies that the Prisoner is a disguised, airier version of the Pope.
Back in Episode 07’s blog, I discussed how I did a recording session with the actor who plays The Prisoner. A few readers have already pointed out that I didn’t name this person last week, and now you all know why. The actor is James Faulkner, the same man who plays the Pope. I had a delightful afternoon with James, once I got over my initial intimidation of being in the same room with the imposing figure who portrays the most evil Pope I’ve seen on screen.
“EASTER MASS:” THE FINALE
The remaining fifteen minutes of the episode are all scored as one giant cue. It’s represented on the album as the mammoth 13-minute “Easter Mass” (Track 25). Though it ranks among the longest cues I’ve ever released on an album, its actually 3 minutes shorter than its on-air counterpart, because I trimmed a few spots for artistic flow.
The track is appropriately named, because a period-appropriate Easter Mass is woven throughout the entire piece. The choral melodies and text are all historically accurate. In fact, the choir in “Easter Mass” is singing a real mass from the Renaissance! I worked closely with music historian Adam Knight Gilbert to ensure specific moments are accurate to the events on screen. For example, the choir is singing the correct passage for the moment just before Lorenzo is about to eat the poisoned wafer at communion.
I was very excited about incorporating a real mass into the score, but I also kept my focus on the narrative needs of the series. Here, the eerie, soothing tones of the choir are always augmented by contemporary orchestration and percussion that add increasing urgency. As with all aspects of this score, I had to find the perfect balance between historical accuracy and aesthetic purpose.
Thematically, “Easter Mass” is a cable knit sweater of musical threads. As the Pazzis conspire out front, their signature lutes offer the Pazzi Theme (Track 25, starting at 1:29). Moments later, when Vanessa appears, looking for Giuliano, the Calder Quartet enters playing the Giuliano / Vanessa Theme (Track 25, starting at 1:45):
It should be clear now why I wrote these two lovers such a romantic theme in the first place. In Episode 07, their sweaty sex scene featured this particular, emotional chord progression. I was planting the seed (pardon the pun) to pay off in this moment, as she searches for him to tell him that she’s pregnant.
The Giuliano character arc comes to an end in “The Lovers,” when he is stabbed to death by wicked priests. The choir reprises the heartbreaking chords from the end of that episode as he lays dying in Vanessa’s arms, the Giuliano Death Theme (Track 25, starting at 8:07):
By writing this beautiful dramatic piece at the end of last week’s episode, when Giuliano was supposedly killed by the river, I was able to take part in a devious bit of misdirection. Giuliano was famously assassinated during the actual Easter massacre of the Pazzi uprising. David Goyer and the other writers wanted to trick history buffs into thinking they’d taken a major liberty with the character’s demise, when in fact, they would ultimately have him die where he did in real life. By writing that beautiful choral piece there, I was helping to cement the idea that Giuliano truly died in the last episode. Now, however, this choral theme functions thematically and connects his true death with the river stabbing from last week.
Prominent character themes are woven throughout the quotations of Easter choral texts for this entire sequence. As Leonardo decides to run to the rescue, the strings enter with an energetic variation of his theme. As Lucrezia slithers through the shadows, her signature solo flute whispers her theme. When Riario makes his entrance, high clustered strings underscore his borderline madness and low strings offer an ominous variation of his Rome Theme.
The tempo remains steady and ominous, even when the fighting breaks out. I carefully paced myself, because this is a long scene. It is not until Da Vinci finally shows up, saving Lorenzo’s life at the last moment, that I kick the tempo into a blistering 6/8 high gear (Track 25, starting at 9:40).
This leads to my favorite moment in the sequence, when Leonardo throws a vial of oil into the air and lights it, creating a huge fireball. As the vial spins through the air, I stripped all the motion out of the arrangement and held a suspenseful note. Against this, the choir sings a triumphant phrase, singing the lyric “Fortis Daemon,” which translates to “Mighty Demon.” I borrowed the phrase from the ‘Hymn to Mars,’ one of the Latin translations of Orphic Hymns that were popular in Da Vinci’s time (Track 25, at 10:10). The blaze stalls the Pazzis long enough for Da Vinci to pull Lorenzo into the chapel and lock the door.
The final ninety-seconds of the season are intercut between Lorenzo and Da Vinci’s revelatory conversation inside the chapel, and the Pazzis and Riario outside. The Da Vinci Theme intertwines with variations of the Medici Theme inside the chapel, while ominous choir and strings state the Rome Theme as Riario enters the scene.
At last, as Lorenzo offers Da Vinci his love and loyalty, the Calder Quartet and choir briskly play the inspiring and uplifting Da Vinci Ostinato:
The music tells us that the relationship between these two is finally mended, and even suggests Da Vinci will patch him up and get them out of there successfully. Everything is, somehow, going to be ok. The orchestral violins soar above the ostinato with an emotionally charged , lyrical statement of the Forwards Da Vinci Theme.
Just before reaching their highest note in the melody, however, the violins pause and sustain. The ostinato from the choir and quartet dissipates quickly and we’re suddenly left with a solitary, unresolved high note in the strings (Track 25, at 11:40). At this precise moment, Lorenzo catches a glimpse of the ring around Da Vinci’s neck.
Lorenzo puts the pieces together in his mind and looks up to meet Leonardo’s eyes. Here, the upper sustaining strings resolve (Track 25, 11:47). But, instead of landing on a beautiful final chord, they begin a half-step tremolo laced with tension. A merciliess and dissonant crescendo from the lower strings enters, emulating the sinking feeling in Da Vinci’s stomach.
Rhythm kicks back in. The Calder Quartet returns with a new variation of the Da Vinci ostinato, this time not hopeful and uplifting. Their former elegant, shifting harmonies have been replaced by a steady pulse in D minor.
The large blaststicks that represent the gears in Leonardo’s mind sneak in as the camera pushes in on his eyes. He’s thinking furiously, but struggles to voice a response. He’s caught.
The full brunt of the orchestra blasts back into the arrangement as Riario steps forward with a hand cannon. The “Easter Mass” ends as it should, with the choir singing powerful block chords over the text “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.” (Track 25, at 12:00). Beneath the choir, the orchestra hits a dissonant chord that spreads to a full twelve-tone cluster as Riario pulls the trigger and the door to the chapel explodes.
As with last week, I felt it would be inappropriate to cut right from this moment to Da Vinci’s bouncy End Credits Theme. So, I composed a final piece to conclude my “Easter Mass,” using the traditional text one would expect.
The piece begins with the sopranos and altos singing a unison line together (Track 25, starting at 12:22). The altos break off into a second line as a trio of bodhráns adds rhythmic energy to the track. For the last two lines, the tenors and basses pick up the lower lines, while a gently oscillating viola da gamba supports them.
Emotionally, I wanted to wrap the season up with energy and mystery. We obviously concluded on a huge cliffhanger, so music that was too resolved would feel inappropriate. But, I also wanted to gently ease us back down after the episode’s exhilarating final seconds.
This texture, I think, accomplishes that. The chorale on its own would sound perfectly at home in a liturgical setting, and functions appropriately as the closing stanza of a mass. However, the percussion lends the piece an exotic flavor, as if a band of gypsies snuck into the back of the cathedral. Listening back to it now, I think I can hear the undeniable influence of my favorite Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, whose score for The Mission forged a similar mashup. That score wasn’t on my mind directly when I wrote this, but its probably always on my mind subconsciously so I’m not surprised by the similarity now.
Thus concludes my run through the first season of “Da Vinci’s Demons.” I’d like to take this moment to express my gratitude to David S. Goyer, for inviting me to join this dream-team of creative artists, writers and actors. He gave me the opportunity to step out of my contemporary science fiction / horror comfort zone and try something truly different. The result has been one of the most rewarding undertakings of my career.
I’d also like to thank all you guys for watching, listening and reading along. If you haven’t grabbed it yet, check out the complete score, available now on iTunes and Amazon, from my new label, Sparks & Shadows. Film Music Media just posted their review of the record today and it would seem they totally understood where I was coming from, which is always exciting.
That’s it for a while on this project, but there’s more “Da Vinci” music on the horizon as I begin to write for Season 2. On the nearer horizon, I’ve got some exciting “Defiance” news coming up. And a few other announcements that you guys will find… interesting.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more.