Home > Reviews > BLIZZARD OF SOULS [DVĒSEĻU PUTENIS] – Lolita Ritmanis


February 16, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

They don’t make many movies in Latvia but, when they do, they tend to be epic. Dvēseļu Putenis – known in English as Blizzard of Souls – is one of those. It is based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Aleksandrs Grīns, one of the most acclaimed writers in contemporary Latvian culture, who was also a war hero, journalist, and staunch opponent of the Soviet occupation of Latvia, before he was executed by Soviet forces in 1941. Blizzard of Souls is his most famous work, and tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young Latvian schoolboy named Artūrs who enlists in the national battalions of the Imperial Russian army in hopes of finding glory. Artūrs participates in many battles in World War I, and eventually returns home to Latvia – only to find the homeland he loves coming under threat from the very forces he fought for. The film was directed by Dzintars Dreibergs, and upon its release quickly became the most successful domestic film since Latvian independence in 1991.

The score for Blizzard of Souls is by the Latvian-American composer Lolita Ritmanis. Ritmanis has been working solidly in the Hollywood film music scene for decades, initially as a protégé and assistant to Shirley Walker, and then as an orchestrator for everyone from Michael Kamen to Basil Poledouris and Elliot Goldenthal. Today she is probably best known for writing the music for literally dozens of Batman and Superman animated films and TV shows for Warner Brothers with her writing partners Michael McCuistion and Kristopher Carter, but from this point on Blizzard of Souls is likely to be considered her magnum opus: it is, in a word, stunning. Since its North American release in the latter months of 2020 the score has grown in stature and acclaim, culminating in it being nominated for an SCL Award for Outstanding Original Score for an Independent Film, and it being included in the shortlist of 15 scores in contention for an Academy Award nomination.

It’s not hard to see why the score has been so well-received. Ritmanis recorded the score in Riga, Latvia – the birthplace of her parents – with a 60-piece orchestra and 50 voice choir drawn from the State Choir of Latvija conducted by Māris Sirmais. It’s a multi-thematic epic which runs the gamut of emotions, ranging from rich evocations of the Latvian homeland, to thrilling battle music, devastating reflections of the horrors of war, lyrical romance, and everything in between. This is all achieved through warmly inviting orchestrations, appealing melodic content, outstanding outbursts of choral majesty, and clever and intricate compositional techniques that underline the fact of what a superb composer Ritmanis is.

The opening “Prelude” is a perfect example of the dramatic harmonies that are prevalent throughout the score, offering a sense of loss and longing that reminds me very much of James Horner’s writing for war movies. The first ideas that Ritmanis explores are various different musical evocations of Latvia – it’s beautiful countryside, its people, and its struggle for self-determination and cultural independence. Both parts of the “Blizzard of Souls Main Title” offer beautiful, evocative writing for woodwinds, piano, and soft choir that are peaceful and meditative. The subsequent “Bicycle” is warm and summery, featuring effortlessly charming strummed guitars over the orchestra and a light, open sounding choir; this idea is further explored later in the lovely “Sunbeams,” and especially “Memories,” which accompanies Artūrs as he remembers his childhood and his home. This album highlight is appealingly thematic, and features a lilting melody for especially beautiful strings.

“Leaving Home” underscores the first real turning point in the score; it begins gently, subtly, wistfully, but slowly emerges into an emotional new theme for strings, piano, and choir which then follows Artūrs after he makes the determined decision to fight for his country. The subsequent evocations of war and action offer a different style of music, one that is often more dissonant and fractured, and is underpinned with anguish and fraught with danger, but which also frequently drops statements of or variations on Artūrs’s theme to place him at the center of the story. Pieces like “In the Fog,” “Through the Tall Grass,” “Did Not Return,” and others, are often quite unsettling, using low-end orchestral rumbles enhanced by electronics as sinister implications of the confusion and danger of war.

Elsewhere, pieces like “Where Is Father,” “My Brother Has Fallen,” and “Miķelsons, Konrāds” are more traditionally action-oriented, and see Ritmanis relying on agitated strings, heavy brass, terrific rhythmic content, and moments of dissonance to underscore the film’s various battle and fight sequences. The main standout action moment for me is probably “Christmas Battle,” which features orchestral dissonance offset with an angelic choir, creating a disorientating tonal disconnect that is super effective. One especially fascinating sequence within this cue showcases a chanting choir over war-like drums, martial brass, thrilling string figures, and echoes of the main theme for Artūrs, in a way that reminds me of Howard Shore and The Lord of the Rings.

Scattered within these war-like cues are moments of more profound relief, occasional pride and honor, and somber reflection. “Fallen at Sloka” is emotionally powerful, “Photo” features an especially searing cello performance, “My Son” has a cathartic outburst of orchestral and choral consonance, and both “With Honor” and “Everyone on Your Feet!” are uplifting and stirring. Another interesting idea that Ritmanis occasionally plays with is one that appears to deal with Artūrs’s dreams, which reflect his mental state, and his hopes and fears, at various points in the story. “In a Dream” uses whispered voices like the echoes of the dead, over a cooing choir, slow strings and piano, while “In a Deeper Dream” uses the choir in a more conventional way, moving between high angelic women’s voices and lower, more sonorous men’s voices that are sorrowful and emotionally resonant.

The final recurring idea is a love theme for Artūrs and his romantic interest Marta, who faithfully waits for him while he is off at war, and whose love provides the impetus for him to return home. The theme first appears in “Marta” as a pretty, but subtly bittersweet, theme for piano and woodwinds backed by soft strings, and then appears later in the wistful “Marta & Artūrs” and the romantic and innocent “Love in the Field”.

The finale of the score begins with four more intensely dramatic and suspense filled cues, as the Red Army arrives in Artūrs’s home village intending to quash any glimmers of Latvian nationalism before they take root – despite all the things Artūrs did for his country. “Hide” is a cacophony of unusual metallic clanging, throbbing strings, and electronic dissonance. “On the Side of the Road” features some chord progressions that remind me of Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception, and has a tremendous sense of threatening menace, before becoming calmer and more lyrical towards its conclusion. “Attack” is another of the score’s action highlights – heavy brass, heavy strings, choral outbursts, rhythmic and powerful percussion. “Artūrs Has Grown Up” has a sense of resolute determination fueled by simmering anger and bitterness; the subsequent “Artūrs in the Snow” is kept by a militaristic snare tattoo under which Ritmanis layer squirming strings, with hints of Artūrs’s theme in the woodwinds. The action music in the second half of the cue has a contemporary edge, and a sense of powerful resolution.

The final three cues on the album are all emotional climaxes intended to be a strong and lasting reflection of the sacrifices Artūrs and his fellow Latvian countrymen gave for their freedom. “For My Fatherland” is a final evocation of the Latvian homeland idea, stirring and patriotic, with special emphasis on strings and piano backed by choir. “Prayer: Grant Peace to Our Fallen Brothers” is a piece performed solely by the State Choir of Latvija, and is powerfully spiritual in nature, like a religioso lament for the dead. The conclusive “Blizzard of Souls End Credits” returns to the thematic ideas heard in the opening cues, and performs them on a bigger scale, but retains the score’s overall sense of remembrance and respect.

Scores like Blizzard of Souls offer a perfect reminder that there is a whole world of outstanding film music that exists outside the boundaries of ‘traditional Hollywood’ if only people are willing to look beyond them. Yes, Lolita Ritmanis is American, and is a respected member of the Los Angeles film music community, both through her work as a composer, and as a leader with organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers. But think about what sort of film Blizzard of Souls is, how traditionally obscure its origins are, and how astonishing it is this music came to be acknowledged and championed by the Oscars. Enormous kudos should go to La-La Land Records for helping release it, and enormous kudos should go to the members of the Music Branch of the Academy for pre-nominating a score purely on the quality of the music rather than the profile of the film it accompanies. They need to do that more often. As for Lolita Ritmanis; she has been rightly lauded in her ancestral home for this score, and the response she has been getting in the United States is a long overdue acknowledgement of her talent.

Buy the Blizzard of Souls soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (1:26)
  • Blizzard of Souls Main Title, Part.1 (1:24)
  • Bicycle/Blizzard of Souls Main Title, Part. 2 (3:16)
  • Leaving Home (3:45)
  • Soon We Will Return (1:21)
  • Sunbeams (1:06)
  • In the Fog (5:03)
  • Fallen at Sloka (1:40)
  • In a Dream (1:02)
  • Photo (0:45)
  • Memories (3:18)
  • Through the Tall Grass (2:20)
  • My Son (0:53)
  • Artūrs Spots His Father (2:01)
  • Where Is Father? (0:49)
  • Did Not Return (2:02)
  • With Honor (0:47)
  • Christmas Battle (1:38)
  • Everyone On Your Feet! (1:08)
  • My Brother Has Fallen (3:47)
  • Marta (1:11)
  • Miķelsons, Konrāds (2:38)
  • Marta & Artūrs (2:29)
  • Love in the Field (1:08)
  • Planting Potatoes (1:32)
  • Hide (3:21)
  • On the Side of the Road (3:32)
  • Attack (2:15)
  • In a Deeper Dream (2:25)
  • Artūrs Has Grown Up (2:38)
  • Artūrs in the Snow (3:09)
  • For My Fatherland (2:27)
  • Prayer: Grant Peace To Our Fallen Brothers (3:25)
  • Blizzard of Souls End Credits (3:20)

Running Time: 75 minutes 07 seconds

La-La Land/Marlo Records MARLO-5608 (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Lolita Ritmanis. Orchestrations by Lolita Ritmanis, Larry Rench and Steven Rader. Recorded and mixed by Mark Mattson. Edited by Mark Mattson. Album produced by Mark Mattson and Lolita Ritmanis.

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