Thursday 25 February 2021

Final Fantasy VII and the Carmina Burana

I’m having a slow start to 2021, so here’s a minor piece as a warm-up.

Latin has a bunch of uses in popular culture: it isn’t just for depicting ancient Romans. It regularly suggests the sacred, or alternatively the demonic; it’s the language of magic. That’s all cliché, with no basis in history, but still, looking at popular culture you might well imagine angels and demons had Latin as their native language, or that the Romans accidentally set off magical fireballs every time they had a conversation.

Estuans interius ira vehementi — Sephiroth!

Final Fantasy VII is a classic video game from 1997. At the end, the player and their allies confront the villain Sephiroth in the form of an angelic being with one wing. The soundtrack, ‘One-winged angel’ (a.k.a. ‘Katayoku no tenshi’) by Nobuo Uematsu, is a fan favourite that has been recycled many times in Sephiroth’s various reappearances.

The track has choral singing — something very unusual for games of that era — and it’s in Latin:

estuans interius
    ira vehementi.
Sephiroth! Sephiroth!
sors immanis
    et inanis.
veni, veni, venias,
    ne me mori facias.
gloriosa! generosa!
Boiling inwardly
    with violent rage.
Sephiroth! Sephiroth!
Fate, (you are) monstrous
    and vain.
Come, come, please come,
    don’t make me die!
Glorious maiden! Noble maiden!

The lyrics are taken from Carl Orff’s famous setting of the Carmina Burana for orchestra and choir (1935–1936). (Except for Sephiroth’s name, of course.) The original Carmina Burana is a collection of over 200 poems from 11th–13th century Germany; Orff selected two dozen poems for his setting, then Uematsu chose his lines from Orff’s selection.

Each line is taken from a different movement in Orff’s piece, but they more or less make sense: the lines work well enough for Sephiroth — except that ‘glorious’ and ‘noble’ are feminine. And the context is ... different. Orff’s version isn’t angelic or demonic in tone. It’s bawdy.

No, I mean it. We’re talking ‘there ought to be age restrictions’ bawdy. We’re talking ‘musical depictions of erections and orgasms’.

In the original, the line estuans interius / ira vehementi isn’t about divine rage. Orff’s title for the section is in taberna, ‘at the pub’. It’s a man describing his loss of control as he gets more and more drunk. Sors immanis is at least genuinely about fate: that’s taken from one of the non-bawdy poems.

The last two lines come from a string of poems which, in Orff’s selection, narrate a sexual encounter between a man and a woman. veni, veni, venias, / ne me mori facias (‘come, come, please come, / don’t make me die’), from movement 18, isn’t about literal death, it’s sexual: ‘Get a move on, don’t let me get blue balls.’ Movement 20, ‘Tempus est iocundum’ (which Uematsu doesn’t use, alas!), has a man describing his excitement and his erection (o o o, totus floreo ‘I am bursting out all over’). Then in number 21, ‘Dulcissime’, the soprano soloist has an orgasm and cries out to her lover. And after that we get the gloriosa, generosa! movement.

That is to say, these lines are a man first asking his lover to begin a sex act, then praising her afterwards.

Kind of casts a different light on Cloud’s relationship with Sephiroth.

Sephiroth, the ‘one-winged angel’, as depicted in Final fantasy VII: remake (2020)

Uematsu’s musical setting has its own appeal, but unfortunately it doesn’t match the natural stress patterns of the Latin and the mediaeval verse. Uematsu’s setting is martial, with an anapaestic rhythm — dit-dit-DAH, dit-dit-DAH (est-uans / in-te-rius / i-ra ve-/he-men-ti). The Latin poems are trochaic, a DUM-de DUM-de rhythm (es-tu-/ans in-/teri-/us, / i-ra / ve-he-/men-ti).

As a re-/sult almost / ev’ry syl-/lable has / the wrong stress.

Here’s the original context of the lines. Make sure to click on the links in the headings to check out how they sound in Orff’s setting (sung by the Shin Yu-Kai Choir).


estuans interius
ira vehementi
in amaritudine
loquor meae menti:
factus de materia,
cinis elementi
similis sum folio
de quo ludunt venti. ...
Boiling inwardly
with violent rage,
in bitterness
I talk to myself:
made of matter,
elemental ash,
I am like a leaf
on the wind. ...
1 and 25. O FORTUNA

... sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus,
semper dissolubilis ...
... O Fate, (you are) monstrous
and vain,
you whirling wheel,
made to be evil!
Health is useless
and always fading ...

veni, veni, venias,
veni, veni, venias,
ne me mori facias,
hyrca, hyrca, nazaza,

pulchra tibi facies,
oculorum acies,
capillorum series,
o quam clara species! ...
Come, come, please come,
Come, come, please come,
don’t make me die;
hyrca, hyrca, nazaza,

Beautiful is your face,
the gaze of your eyes,
the braids of your hair.
O how bright is your beauty! ...

ave formosissima,
gemma pretiosa,
ave decus virginum,
virgo gloriosa!
ave mundi luminar,
ave mundi rosa,
Blanziflor et Helena,
Venus generosa!
Hail beautiful woman,
my precious gem!
Hail pride of maidens,
glorious maiden!
Hail light of the world,
hail rose of the world:
Blanchefleur, Helen,
Venus! noble one!
Sephiroth’s ‘Super nova’ attack gets ready to summon a rogue planetoid from the Empyrean.

Incidentally, there’s a bit more Latin in the game. When Sephiroth uses his ‘Super nova’ attack, there’s an extraordinarily long animation (2 minutes) showing a rogue planetoid smashing through the solar system and causing the sun to expand. It opens with a diagram of ‘Aristotelian’ cosmology, with COELVM EMPIREVM HABITACVLVM DEI ET OMNIUM ELECTORVM around the outside.

The image comes from a 16th century book: Petrus Apianus (Peter Apian) and Gemma Phrysius (Gemma Frisius), Cosmographia, Antwerp: Arnoldo Berckmāno (1539), fol. 5. It isn’t really Aristotle: it’s influenced by Aristotle, but the text around the outside — ‘Fiery heaven, residence of God and all the elect (saints)’ — is a very Christian reinterpretation.