Yoshi's Story is one of those games that I remember enjoying immensely, only to discover from reviews ten years later that some critics apparently thought it was a totally lackluster game. Yikes. I hate to admit it, but I always second-guess my own take on a game whenever I read a review by an official “game critic.” I mean, everyone's got their own taste and therefore different games will appeal to different people, but when I read criticism about game controls and the like, I start to think, “Gee, maybe I wasn't 'supposed' to enjoy that game, if there were so many people found it disappointing or badly constructed.”
Honestly, though, I think much of the criticism had to do with the extremely childlike atmosphere, and not really “fitting in” with the Mario franchise. I think this definitely comes down to simply a matter of taste. This is the first time we've ever seen Yoshi sans Mario, and I thought it was really cool that the creators made a whole new world with its own ridiculously happy personality. Other games have taken Mario-originated characters in new directions, i.e. the Warioware games. They are awesome in a ludicrous, extremely bizarre way that is entirely unlike your typical Mario game.
In the case of Yoshi's Story, I guess it was generally disliked because people assumed it was going to be like Yoshi's Island, which was definitely intended to be considered a major installment of the Mario franchise. But me, I just loved how different the game was! The storybook theme was positively enchanting, and added to the overall cuteness of the game. And I personally happen to love any and all things cute, and Yoshi just might be the Cutest Creation in the History of Cute Things. His voice makes me squeal. His hover-kick makes me giggle. His scream when he falls makes me bawl with laughter each and every time I hear it. And when composer Kazumi Totaka combines multiple Yoshis into a Yoshi choir, I melt at the gloriously endearing sound of slightly-out-of-tune love.
All of the music in this game is completely adorable, and that includes Baby Bowser's Lullaby. This theme plays during dungeon levels, and I am CONVINCED that it is a clever musical homage to a Late-Romantic piece of music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with where this piece comes from, it is a segment of the extremely famous ballet The Nutcracker. I'm sure almost everyone is familiar with at least the name of this ballet, but we are probably most familiar with the pieces that make up The Nutcracker Suite, a concert piece comprised of eight numbers extracted from the ballet. One of these pieces is Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; take a listen to it real quick. Now go listen to Baby Bowser's Lullaby. Pretty similar, right? Obviously the two pieces begin to deviate after the first few bars, but I'd wager just about ANYONE listening to them would notice the similarities right away.
First big question: was this intentional? I have absolutely no idea! But it does seem like an awfully big coincidence to me that the instrumentation, texture and melody line are SO similar between the two pieces. Now for the second big question: if it was intentional, should this be considered stealing? As in, stealing another person's ideas? And if so: is stealing actually bad?
Igory Stravinsky once said: "Good composers borrow (ideas from other composers), great composers steal." What does this mean? Basically, composers very often draw off one another for compositional ideas. It sounds a little sketchy at first; "stealing" ideas is something we commonly refer to as plagiarism, and you can get into HUGE trouble for that in the literary world. But just like in literature ,dance, theater or music, artists are free to borrow ideas and rework them in new ways to create new, unique pieces. We hear it all the time when musical artists talk about their influences. I was watching American Idol a few weeks ago and I remember a contestant saying "I'm a mixture of Shakira and early Madonna." Did that bother anyone? Did anyone accuse her of "stealing" those artists' voices? Of course not! Look at all of the songwriters who create songs about their own personal experiences. Their music is influenced by their own lives, so why shouldn't music be influenced by other composers' music? Obviously, you can't steal the entire first movement to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but if you liked his idea of the three-note rhythmic motive that is the core of the first movement, then why not take it and rework it in a brand new way?
Obviously, there is a point at which borrowing crosses the line into truly stealing. This happens more often in pop music than in classical music. For example, Huey Lewis felt his song "I Want a New Drug" was plagiarized in Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters." Even I noticed this one when I first heard the songs. There were a few instances where members of the Beatles were involved in various plagiarism lawsuits. So, you obviously can't take someone's entire song and just change the lyrics, or vice versa for that matter.
BUT, there are situations in which it is permitted to directly quote another composer's work in your own. This is aptly known as musical quotation, and it can be done for many reasons; for example, parody, or commenting on another composer's work. In the song “Beethoven Day” from the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, there are several quotes of famous Beethoven pieces that make us laugh in recognition when we hear them. Quoting in a programmatic work (a composition with an accompanying story, like an opera or a video game) is often done for characterization purposes. For example, according to Wikipedia, using the Star Spangled Banner to accompany an American soldier character, as Puccini did in Madama Butterfly.
So now that we all understand the difference between borrowing, stealing and quoting LOL let's get back to Baby Bowser's Lullaby (sheets). Let's look at what similarities the piece has to Sugar Plum Fairy. The instrumentation, for one; the combination of the contrabass pizzicato, celeste and bass clarinet is very distinctive. Next, we've got that pizzicato bass pattern; slightly different between the two pieces, but close enough that the connection can be made. The celeste melody and its supporting chords are also very similar to the original. And the descending clarinet run in m. 10 is a direct quote from Sugar Plum Fairy. The piece deviates quite a bit towards the end—the long, sustained melody is brand new, and there are definitely no castanets in The Nutcracker--but you get my point. This piece is too similar to Tchaikovsky's for me not to assume it was done on purpose.
So! Did Kazumi Totaka borrow, steal or quote? My personal vote is that Baby Bower's Lullaby is intended to be a parody of Sugar Plum Fairy by way of quoting. There is a certain dark innocence to Sugar Plum Fairy, which is dramatically exaggerated when paired with Baby Bower's dungeons instead of dancing fairies. I think it also alludes to the fact that dungeons are full of tricks and traps, and Yoshi has to step pretty lightly to survive—like a sugar plum fairy :-D Don't get me wrong—I certainly don't think Totaka researched Late-Romantic Russian ballets for inspiration when writing for Yoshi's Story, but who knows, maybe he was looking at the beta images for the first Bowser dungeon and thought “You know what would be cute and ironic? Sugar Plum Fairy.” It's really quite hilarious to quote such a famous piece in a game that could not be farther from the story of The Nutcracker. Especially when Baby Bowser is anything but innocent.
Again, we don't know that any of this was intentional--the only way to find out would be to ask Totaka himself LOL--but intentional or not, the song worked great, right? Because bottom line, this is Baby Bowser we're talking about here. King Bowser deserves epic, frightening music for his dungeons, but Baby Bowser is, in fact, a baby. It wouldn't make sense for him to have a choir, organ and drum corps accompanying his childlike dungeons. Thus, we have a little dose of celeste ;-) I think Baby Bowser's Lullaby was really a very clever way to convey that Baby Bowser is the bad guy, but reminding us that this game is about Yoshis and therefore will have cute music at all times--even if that cute music is occasionally slightly demented :-P
On a final note: Igor Stravinsky actually was not the first to say "good composers steal." That famous quote is actually from T.S. Elliot, speaking about poetry ("Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal"). Stravinsky actually stole his own quote about stealing. OH THE IRONY!!!
Enjoy this week's arrangements for Yoshi's Story's Baby Bowser's Lullaby, Love Is In the Air, Super Mario Kart's Star Power and Super Mario World 2's Flower Garden. More on the way!
Video game music was what got me composing as a kid, and I learned the basics of composition from transcribing my favorite VGM pieces. These are my thoughts and discoveries about various game compositions as I transcribe and study them. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts/ideas as well!