A Rant on Symposium Magarum Piano Arrangements

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (2011) is the story of school-aged magical girls’ battles against witches, and quickly turns into a dark Faustian tragedy that explores the consequences of choices, the struggle against fate, and the ensuing hope and despair. The soundtrack was composed by Yuki Kajiura, who also wrote scores for works such as Garden of Sinners and  Fate/Zero, among others. Kajiura’s command of the orchestra is simply masterful. One orchestral piece that stood out to me, however, was “Symposium Magarum”. It is played during a witch confrontation, and captures the scene’s hope, anguish, and ominous mood so perfectly that I wanted immediately to play it on the piano. After some googling, I found two piano arrangements and a harp arrangement. Naturally, in transcribing orchestral pieces for piano, you want to retain the original emotional feel as much as possible. After tweaking these superb arrangements a bit, I was able to arrive at a version that worked for me.

* WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS from this point to the end *

Setting the scene

Madoka’s best friend, Sayaka, sold her normal life to become a magical girl in exchange for her secret crush’s happiness. And yet, her crush never returns her feelings, leaving Sayaka disappointed to find that his happiness is no reward for her selfless act. Increasing disillusionment drives her past the event horizon of despair, transforming her into a witch—the very creatures hunted by magical girls. Hearing of this, her friends Kyouko and Madoka venture into her witch’s labyrinth in a doomed attempt to call her back. Abruptly, the labyrinth’s entrance seals off, an ominous orchestra appears, and against this backdrop of despair and futility, this sweeping symphony—Symposium Magarum—unfolds.

The sheet music

Below are the three scores, as well as the original orchestral version, that I will be constantly referring to.

Disclaimer: use of these materials for review and criticism is in accordance with Canadian fair use policies. All copyrights belong to their respective owners.

Exhibit A (Beginning of the piece)
Harp Arrangement
harp-a
Maou Arrangement
maou-a

The piece begins with a dissonant, chromatic, weaving theme, evoking the macabre feel of witches. Cymbals play repeatedly on downbeats to emphasize the witch’s aggression, while the smooth melody and accompaniment in the strings give the piece an almost waltzing quality. Clearly, this is the witch’s home territory. She is in control.

To capture the cymbals’ effect, the downbeats in the left hand should be played aggressively. To convey the waltzing feel, try playing a waltz-like accompaniment rhythm in the left hand, as in the harp arrangement. However, if you want to convey a more ominous atmosphere, the constant bass notes in the Maou arrangement are a good choice. Don’t worry about hitting all the notes—as long as you stay in A minor, you’re good.

Exhibit B (0:34-0:39, 1:20-1:25)
Maou arrangement (no polyphony)
maou-b
3-themes arrangement (polyphony)
3theme-b

The beauty of this passage lies in its polyphony. Polyphony, when used properly, creates layers within the music and invites the listener to focus on the complexity of the music. When Yuki Kajiura writes polyphony, you’d better be playing polyphony. Compare the above—the 3-themes version preserves it, while the Maou version doesn’t. And polyphony in this passage is truly glorious.

Now, if you were like me and couldn’t play Bach for your life, you can always drop a few notes, like the lower notes of the parallel 6ths, or some of the long held notes of the right hand. However, be sure to set up a contrast between the two voices—alternate between loud and soft for the groups of running eighth notes. This creates the polyphonic effect.

Finally, if you think holding a note for an entire bar is too boring for your left hand, you can continue on with the waltzing accompaniment of the harp version, or with the ominous bass notes of the Maou arrangement.

Exhibit C (0:42-0:53)
3-themes score
3theme-c
3theme-c-2
Here is the pinnacle—possibly the most beautifully heart-rending moment of the entire piece. In the orchestral version, the piercing notes of the lone violin contrast the previous deluge of notes from full string orchestra, and parallel Madoka’s desparate plea for Sayaka to return to her original form.

You need to capture this change in tone. While the previous section should be played with busy quarter and eighth note accompaniment, this section will be enough with only a simple chord on every downbeat. The 3-themes arrangement, in both hands, captures the simplicity very well. If you don’t want to play the lower voices in the right hand (stems pointing down), don’t bother.

We viewers wish ardently in this scene for Madoka’s pleas to work, but alas, it is not to be. Gradually, the orchestra rejoins, eventually recapitualing the witch’s theme and ending in an punctuated three notes. The rest of the scene plays out in sombre silence, as Kyouko sacrifices herself to bring an end to her friend’s rampage.

Conclusion
Transcription from one instrument to another will always require some give-and-take. The best balance for this will always vary from person to person. In this rant, I have described what I think are the most important parts of “Symposium Magarum” to preserve in any arrangement. But what do you think? Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments below.

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