June 5, 2023

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“Succession”: a soundtrack fit for the concert hall

There comes a moment near the beginning of most episodes of “Succession” when a faint cadence enters the scene, right before some punching or screw-twisting.

Then the theme music starts showing. Over excerpts from old family videos, grainy piano fantasies sound like snapshots like a sample of upbeat hip-hop juxtaposed with bossy chords.

Like any effective theme, it establishes itself in your head right away. But the composer of this music, Nicholas Britel, is not just a tune-maker, and he doesn’t stop there. Over the course of the four seasons of “Caliphate,” which ends Sunday, he has written something unusual in television: a sprawling yet conceptually focused score that has evolved, episode by episode, into a work of classic theme and variations that will be as fit for the ballroom and the small screen.

This is characteristic of Britel, who is not inclined to merely define the emotional content of a scene. A screen composer at the forefront of his generation–not a successor to John Williams and his symphonic greatness, but rather a fickle and sensitive innovator of distinctive sonic realms–Britel draws as freely from Beethoven as he does from DJ Bruhl, masked in styles of wrenching honesty and lofty irony alike.

And in “Succession,” he evokes a classical musical tradition in which a composer would doodle on the piano to improvise on a theme, laying it out through permutations based on mood and form. This can be a good salon entertainment, but also the basis for variable creative works; Britel’s soundtrack, in its pairing of piano and orchestra, has a predecessor in it “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” modeled on Rachmaninov’s Concerto. He had better adapt his score into a similar piece.

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Through its subject matter and variations, Britell presents a parallel to the show itself: a consistent motif established at the outset—the patriarch’s departure from the apex of his business empire is more than when from if — and a circular (some would say flat) plot about the ways he maneuvers three of his children into charge.

It’s a premise that continues even after the father’s death early in the season; The final episode, about his funeral, illustrates the psychological effect Logan Roy still has on his children and how they are united in grief, yet continue to plot.

The musical seed to all this couldn’t be simpler: not the main titles theme, but a lumbering eight-chord motif that emerges within, and at the beginning of the “Strings Con Fuoco” cue.

From there, variations emerge with nods to classical and baroque figures: a dancer minuet or Rondoa Concerto Grosso From the corner strings, wander ricercare.

Many of the cues have titles resembling those of symphonic movements, and cues for rhythm such as “Adagio” and “Andante Con Moto”. Others can integrate with chamber music software, eg Serenade in E flator No. 1 in C minorthat shares a name with nobody Schubert’s most famous piano solos.

It can’t be a coincidence. Listen to Mozart Fantasia in C minor (K. 475), “Caliphate” fans may feel transported to the show’s soundtrack.

For the first two seasons, Brittle followed a fairly restrictive playbook for eight-chord variations: Beating on the piano Similar to Mozart’s Fantasia, My Dark Regal strings And copper.

In general, each variation is recognizably developed from the same cell. The biggest departures occurred when the Roy family left New York. For an episode in Connor’s New Mexico home state, Austerlitz, Brittle stepped in a guitar variation not heard before or since.

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The scenes took place in England Luxurious fanfare. And in the family’s country house, meal preparations were accompanied by B Schubertian violin sextet.

Something changed by the third season. The music, like the story, becomes more overtly sentimental; For every crafty rondo, there was one Sad Largo. The unsteady floor on screen translated into surprises in the sound, like that of Brittle The first use of the chorus At the end of the final season. Once again, the score deviates, stylistically, when the characters are further away from Manhattan. During peak periods, in Tuscany, he put his theme through Italian publication For references like “Serenata – “Il Viaggio”.

In the latest season, Britel expanded his palette of variations even further. Logan Roy’s domineering monologue is delivered on the floor of his news channel, ATN coda A dreadful dissonance. Hanging Strings evokes the interstitial state of children after his death. The irrepressible sentiments of the last episode’s funeral may have a title like “Appassionata”.

The question is, how will the Britel theme and its variations end? Historically, composers have gone one of two ways: by revisiting the beginning, as in a song Variations of Bach “Goldberg”or with the possibility of further development, as in Variations of Beethoven’s “Diabelli”.

You could ask the same thing about Roy’s kids, who go into the series finale behaving like where they started but also, on a deeper level, they’re not. Will they find a solution? Or will their cycles of intrigue continue? Chances are, the answer will be in Britel’s music.

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