Nightwish and the Advent of Symphonic Metal

Growing up as I did on a diet of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, I’ve always had a love for classical music, and the power of the orchestra. From the modest chamber orchestras of Vivaldi’s era to the sprawling orchestrations of Mahler’s monumental symphonies, for a very long time I believed the most powerful sound on earth was that of a hundred instruments blasting out at full volume, tuba players red in the cheeks and sweat dripping down the conductor’s brow.

Then I discovered heavy metal.

At first glance, the two genres couldn’t be further from each other. Classical music is dominated by large dynamic ranges, often slow passages, and is usually seen as the intellectual’s music. Heavy metal is fast, loud, and – particularly in the 70s and 80s – somewhat ‘low-brow’. (This isn’t true at all, but there’s no accounting for some people’s judgements.) Classical music is sophisticated and charming; metal is brutish and off-putting. One is sipping sherry by a fire on winter’s night; the other is a college frat-party chugathon.

In truth, heavy metal owes an enormous amount to the classical eras of music, and is one of the most diverse genres to grace the music world, with everything from Black Sabbath to Behemoth bringing elements of classical music into the fray. In Van Halen’s virtuosic track Eruption, parts of the song are lifted directly from a Paganini piece for solo violin. In the middle eight of Stratovarius’s Will the Sun Rise, we are treated to a double-time rendition of a Bach violin concerto. Orchestras were used even before heavy metal to enhance, back and fill out big bands and crooners, and it was only a matter of time before the lush instrumentations bled over into rock and metal.

Now of course, not all attempts to marry rock and classical music have worked to great success; Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for example, is just awful. But in the late 80s and early 90s, the arrival of synthesizers and sampled instruments allowed heavy metal bands to incorporate orchestral sounds without the need of an actual live, expensive orchestra. Many underground and some mainstream bands started using strings, bells, and even horn sounds in their music to emphasize certain passages, or compliment the rawness of the distorted guitars, leading to a new sub genre: symphonic metal.

And in the late 90s, one band arose above many others as the true champion of this style, and that was Finland’s Nightwish. Incorporating strings and flutes as early as their first album, and combined with their original vocalist’s operatic training, nothing said ‘symphonic’ like their blend of synthetic orchestras and power metal. In fact, unlike many other bands at the time, the orchestral elements (keyboards and synths to start with) would often take center stage, putting the guitars and even drums in the background.

Then, in 2002, Nightwish released their fourth album, Century Child, and this time, they replaced the synths and samples with a real live orchestra. From the massive string chords of the opening Bless the Child to the massive 10-minute closer, Beauty of the Beast, the orchestra is prominent throughout, and there’s something about the authenticity of the real instruments that stands head and shoulders above anything they’d done before.

Whilst it wasn’t clear at the time if this was a one-time thing for Nightwish or a new direction, it soon became evident that working with a live orchestra was a strong suit for the band with the release of 2004’s Once, and even when they changed vocalists for 2007’s Dark Passion Play, the massive orchestras were clearly here to stay. And their most recent release, Human :II: Nature, includes a second disc which is quite literally a 30-minute orchestral symphony, with no guitars or metal in it at all.

There are many other bands working in this area now, of course, from Dimmu Borgir to Cradle of Filth, but there is no band that does it better than Nightwish.

Long live symphonic metal!

Music I Love: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, by Brahms

Work: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8
Composer: Johannes Brahms
Year: 1854 (Original Version); 1889 (Final Version)


  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Allegro molto – Trio (Meno allegro)
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale (Allegro)

Brahms is a fascinating composer to me; aside from the beauty and passion of his music, he was a notorious perfectionist, burning old manuscripts if he felt they weren’t up to his standard – even years after he originally wrote them. His piano trio in B – listed as his first, and only his eighth composition ever – is dated 1889, only eight years before Brahms’ death in 1897. Brahms wasn’t a particularly prolific composer – following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, but he wrote more than eight works in his lifetime.

The reason his first piano trio has such a late composition date is because it was, in fact, originally written in 1854, when Brahms was only twenty-one. A sprawling opus, it’s one of the few surviving early manuscripts that Brahms left behind; so many others were lost to his passion for perfection. Brahms rewrote the piano trio in 1889, significantly shortening several movements and almost completely rewriting others.

It’s interesting, because to listen to the two versions side by side doesn’t immediately reveal one as better than the other; in many ways, they’re simply different. The opening melody of the first movement, introduced on piano for a few measures before the cello and violin enter, is heart-meltingly beautiful, and luckily one of the things Brahms didn’t change, but it isn’t long before the two pieces diverge, and don’t really come back again at all.

It brings up the complex relationship between the artist and the audience. If Brahms had had his way, no one would ever be aware of the 1854 version of the work; we’d all only know (and the version that is most often performed, is, of course) the 1889 version. But are they two distinct works? Or is one simply a revision of the other, to be known and played whilst the original settles to dust?

Once published, who does art belong to? Does the artist have the right to retract a piece of music that, for thirty-five years, stood untouched and was beloved the world over? What happens to the original, when the new one is so significantly changed?

I don’t think there are any simple answers to this, but it is a curiosity that, in this instance, we have the ability to hear what Brahms thought was good music at twenty-one, and to hear his opinion of that same music at fifty-six (clearly he didn’t care for most of it).

As for me, I’ll gladly listen to either version – from the gloriously melodic opening of the first movement (one of Brahms’ best melodies by far) to the jittery unease of the Scherzo and the passion of the Finale, this is easily one of my favorite pieces of music in the world.

Thought of the Week: The Right and Wrong of Revising Your Writing

First of all, I had considered titling this The Wright and Wrong of Wrevising Your Writing, but it seemed a little too kitsch. What do you think?

Secondly, I have no intention of defining right and wrong. I’m not that daft.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is one of my favorite composers. His four symphonies are of course the best known of his works, the first in particular, opening with its dramatic C minor chords and booming timpani, inspiring pathos and doom in all their forms. However, far more than these massive works I prefer his chamber music, and in particular his works for piano and strings. In his life, Brahms wrote three piano trios, three piano quartets, and one piano quintet. That we know of.

His first piano trio, in B, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and is a constant player for me. The opening theme is serene and grand, and simply leads onward from there. The scherzo is tense and jittery, with the third movement being the sound of utter beauty. The finale, with its ambiguous tonality, draws on the agitation of the scherzo but adds in a extra melodic element to it.

Here’s the thing: it isn’t what he originally wrote. The piano trio was written and published in 1954, when Brahms was twenty-one. The piano trio we hear and listen to today was written and published in 1891, when he was fifty-eight, and it is almost completely different. In fact, it’s unique that we even know of the two versions, because Brahms spent his entire life revising and rewriting his works, never satisfied with the results. The tragedy of this was that, upon completion of his revision, Brahms would burn the original manuscript, leaving us with no trace of the process of his genius.

This is a shame, for having heard both versions, I actually find myself preferring the simpler innocence of twenty-one-year-old Brahms to his more mature and darker fifty-eight-year old self. I am given to wonder what the first editions of his other works might have been like. Sometimes there is a charm and quality in the passion of the first draft – Black Sabbath’s debut album, recorded on an eight track for £500, is a masterpiece.

My son makes up stories. Mostly in his head at the moment, but he enjoys it. Recently he started inventing back stories for the bounty hunters in Star Wars, which I thought was pretty cool, and not something I had given much thought to. When we discussed it, we realized that a particular detail of his invention couldn’t possibly have happened, because Boba Fett ended up alone on Jabba’s skiff over the Pit of Sarlaac, and so couldn’t have been involved in a smuggler’s ring previously. At first he disagreed with me, and I let him have his way. But a few hours later, he came to me and asked, “Dad…is it okay if I change the history I made up about the Star Wars bounty hunters?”

I thought this was incredibly insightful; having only just invented this history hours before, there was already a danger to him of changing that history – as though it would be telling a lie. If we decided to change our minds and say that it was actually Buzz Aldrin that first walked on the moon, there would be an outcry. “Lynch them!” people would cry. And they would be right.

But then what of fictional history? The natural answer would be, of course you can change it – it was made up in the first place! But look at what happened when George Lucas changed the history of Star Wars, with his revisions of Episodes IV, V and VI, and the release of Episodes I, II and III. Some of the scenery in the original movies was entirely changed. Whole scenes were added, which again changed the meaning of some of the story. Han Solo fired first! In the later films, we learn details that very nearly contradict the original movies entirely, and people have had to greatly stretch the meaning of some of the character’s dialogue in order for it to all fit. And look at what poor George got for his efforts.

So where does that leave us? As a fiction writer, you’ll often find yourself modifying some of your back story so that it makes more sense in the context of the main plot. Heaven knows, half of what I created in the Appendices of The Redemption of Erâth has already been flatly contradicted by the story I’m now writing. And I can’t imagine anyone would question me for that.

So when does it stop being okay to change your story’s history, or even the story itself? I’m sure J.K. Rowling wasn’t 100% happy with every word she wrote; even I can see some passages that leave something to be desired. But would we let her rewrite the book? Is it merely when the book becomes published that we lose the right to change it? Isn’t still in its essential nature our work? Why shouldn’t we be able to change it as we see fit?

I don’t have an answer to this; Brahms got away with it, and George Lucas didn’t. Peter Jackson felt the need to turn the ten hours running time of The Lord of the Rings trilogy into fifteen hours, and most people are okay with that (though not, perhaps, with watching it all). It seems funny how the public become so possessive of another person’s work – as though we owe it to them to stand by the work we created. Is this fair?

Let me know what you think in the comments!