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MEDIEVAL – Philip Klein

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Medieval is, by far, the most lavish and expensive Czech film ever made. It charts a significant period in the life of Jan Žižka, a military hero from the late 1300s, when King Wenceslas IV, Wenceslas’s half-brother King Sigismund of Hungary, and a rival nobleman named Henry III of Rosenberg, were all fighting for the throne of Bohemia. At this point in his life Žižka was a young knight, loyal to the crown, but who also has a personal vendetta against Rosenberg, whose brutal regime resulted in almost all his family being killed. When Žižka learns of a plot by Rosenberg and his League of Lords to overthrow King Wenceslas, he is called to action to defend his country – an issue complicated by the fact that Žižka is directed to kidnap Rosenberg’s fiancée Katherine, with whom he has secretly fallen in love. The film is directed by Petr Jákl and is a classic historical epic, full of rich regal pageantry, brutal medieval battles, and sweeping romance. It stars Ben Foster as Žižka, and features Til Schweiger, William Moseley, Matthew Goode, Sophie Lowe, and Michael Caine in supporting roles.

The score is by the outstanding young composer Philip Klein, who has been orchestrating and writing additional music for several of Hollywood’s top composers for many years, especially James Newton Howard and Carter Burwell, but is now beginning to make a name for himself in his own right. Medieval is his third major solo score, after the powerful and emotional war drama The Last Full Measure in 2020, and the Chinese animated film Wish Dragon in 2021, and it allows Klein to explore yet another side of his musical personality. Whereas The Last Full Measure was solemn and noble in a way that reminded me of James Horner, and whereas Wish Dragon was fun and playful and emotionally varied, Medieval sees Klein blending elements of the renaissance and 15th century church music with some quite powerful, albeit somewhat anachronistic, contemporary action music.

In talking about the score, Klein relays that the first sentence director Petr Jákl said to him when discussing ideas for the score was “we need a powerful love theme”. He goes on to say that “Despite being a film overflowing with brutality and death, our guiding light was always finding the heart of each character’s journey in the story, especially Žižka’s evolving relationship with Katherine. As such, the score is heavily thematic, twisting themes inside out of each other as the storylines mature. Given the sprawling nature and time period of the film, I relied heavily on solo voice and strings, multiple choirs, and the orchestra, all recorded in the Czech Republic. I wanted the brutal elements of the score to convey a sense of discord as if the audience were thrust into the center of battle, so most of the percussion was recorded via an underwater contact microphone, and the brass was arranged in a circular formation in the studio to surround the listener. This opened up the more tender and tragic moments to fully capitalize on the beautiful performances of our soloists, choirs, and orchestra, allowing them to truly soar.”

As such, the score is indeed built around three recurring themes; a main theme for Jan Žižka himself, a character specific-theme for Katherine, and then the love theme for Jan and Katherine. The Main Theme is heard throughout the opening cue, “Warrior of God,” and quickly establishes itself as a powerful representation of Žižka: noble, spiritual, honorable. Klein varies the orchestration of the theme to speak to these different elements of his personality, initially using soft religioso vocals before bringing in a bank of strings. The use of some renaissance-era instruments such as the nyckelharpa give it a flavor of the period, while the use of some more urgent chugging underlying ostinatos and subtle electronic sound design give it a contemporary feel.

This latter element is likely to be the score’s most divisive issue; there’s clearly been an effort to superficially emulate Hans Zimmer here, with Zimmer having taken a similar approach on his own medieval action scores dating all the way back to King Arthur. Musically, there’s nothing wrong with it at all, but it is perhaps a touch disappointing that the director wanted Klein to mimic this sound rather than giving him the freedom to make some more interesting choices. But, that’s the nature of film music, and Klein at least has the skill and sophistication to make it as compelling as he can.

The main theme is prominent throughout much of the score. In “Bohemia 1402 (Prologue)” Klein moves the theme around between solo voices and solo cellos, punctuating the statements with ominous string chords, lively percussion textures, and unusual, haunting muted brass ideas that paint medieval Prague as a dangerous place. Later, “Journey to Prague” gives the main theme a sweeping classical sound when it backs the choral statement of the melody with vivid undulating strings, while in the “The Exchange” a religioso choral version of the theme plays in interesting counterpoint to a low, sliding, slithering motif that represents the character Torak, a dark specter from Žižka’s past. There’s also some quite anguished-sounding electronic dissonance here that really enhances the ominous, treacherous mood.

The first iteration of Katherine’s theme appears thirty seconds into the third cue, “Katherine and Jan,” a calm and serene melody initially carried by a solo voice, and backed by a solo cello echoing the theme’s chord structure. This then gives way to the first performance of the Love Theme at 2:18 in the same cue, a lovely, lilting piece for solo violin backed by undulating, classically rich cellos. Further statements of Katherine’s Theme come back later in “Did You Love Her?” and the gently moving, emotionally poignant “A Good Death”.

One other interesting idea in the score is Klein’s use of “Ktož Jsú Boží Bojovníci,” translated to English as “Ye Who Are Warriors of God,” an old Hussite chorale written in the 15th century, with the Hussites being the religious sect that emerged in Bohemia and Moravia through the teachings of reformer Jan Hus, whom Žižka followed. The story goes that the song was sung with such intensity during the Hussite Wars that it instilled fear throughout some enemy armies, making it a weapon in itself. One army is said to have fled the battlefield before the battle itself after hearing the Hussites singing it. As such, it makes sense for Klein to use it here; you can hear it carried softly by solo bassoons at 0:24 in “Mistakes of Men,” and then as a gruff, moody vocal chant at 0:30 at the beginning of the action sequence “Storming the Castle”.

The score’s action material again follows a Zimmer-esque template of flashing string runs and low, dominant brass chords, with a tone and texture that clearly has its origins in the Dark Knight trilogy. The brief “Kidnapping Katherine” is exciting and energetic, as are “Saving the Boy,” “The Caves,” and the majority of the intense “Storming the Castle,” whereas things like “Rock and Flame” tend to be quite grungy, more interested in drones, ominous atmospherics, and oppressive rhythms. Some of the brass writing in “Rock and Flame” is impressive – listen to the sequence of rapid flutter-tonguing in at the 2:45 mark – and the big action arrangements of the main theme in “Storming the Castle” are striking, but I have to admit that overall these are my least favorite parts of the score, especially as the music most often makes me think of the Batmobile racing around Gotham than it does of medieval warriors.

The finale of the score begins with the 9-minute “Death Brings Life,” which offers a variety of emotional settings of the main theme for religioso choral textures, lilting strings, and even moments of standout brass, as well as prominent reprises of the Love Theme and even the Hussite Chorale; this really marks one of the few times where Klein brings together several powerful thematic statements in one cue and has them play off against each other. The opening refrains of the main theme are really interesting, carrying a sense of funereal remembrance, and the way these eventually give way to an angelic, ethereal vocal performance of the love theme, followed by a poignant violin performance of the same, is really lovely. The version of the Hussite Chorale that begins at 7:10 sees the song being taken over by a folk choir for the first and only time, and the way Klein swells the melody during its second stanza is an album highlight.

The score ends with “Lord, Forgive Us (Epilogue)” and “Prayer and Resurrection,” which move through tender harmonies and lovely combination writing for strings and choir, and slowly build to a superb final performance of the main theme that is saturated with emotion, mournful but uplifting at the same time. This 15-minute sequence is a knockout, some of the most impressive stuff of Klein’s career so far. The final track is an original song, “Listen for Me,” which was written by Klein with Seth Stachowski, is performed by vocalist Cassandra Violet, and is built around the love theme as the chorus. I really like it.

There is a lot to appreciate and admire about Medieval. The three main themes are interesting and engaging, with the strong recurring main theme being especially memorable; the way Klein adapts and changes its tone through varied orchestrations is especially impressive. I also really like the historical authenticity and research detail Klein showed through his sourcing of the real Hussite chorale, and his subsequent use of it at relevant times throughout the score.

The only letdown is the fact that a great deal of the action music is very clearly modeled on Hans Zimmer and The Dark Knight; it just doesn’t make sense to me for this music to be used in this context when it has such strong connotations with an entirely different character in an entirely different time period. I can only assume that the director was wedded to it and wouldn’t budge, because Klein clearly has the talent and skill to write something much more original, less anachronistic, and less redolent of an entirely different type of caped crusader than Jan Žižka. This one mis-step aside, however, there still is enough good stuff in Medieval for me to recommend, and I hope that Philip Klein’s impressive career continues to develop.

Buy the Medieval soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Warrior or God (Main Theme) (3:16)
  • Bohemia 1402 (Prologue) (2:30)
  • Katherine and Jan (3:10)
  • Kidnapping Katherine (1:34)
  • Journey to Prague (3:06)
  • The Exchange (3:29)
  • Saving the Boy (2:46)
  • Did You Love Her? (2:22)
  • Rock and Flame (4:56)
  • Mistakes of Men (4:05)
  • The Caves (3:25)
  • Blood and Water (3:26)
  • A Good Death (3:15)
  • Storming the Castle (4:26)
  • Death Brings Life (9:18)
  • Lord, Forgive Us (Epilogue) (2:23)
  • Prayer and Resurrection (3:34)
  • Listen for Me (written by Philip Klein and Seth Stachowski, performed by Cassandra Violet) (3:57)

Running Time: 64 minutes 48 seconds

Moviescore Media MMS-22041 (2022)

Music composed by Philip Klein. Conducted by Michaela Rózsa-Ruzicková. Orchestrations by Daniel A. Brown, Brendan Moriak and Nate Tronerud. Recorded and mixed by Michael Greene and Michal Pekárek. Edited by Scott Johnson. Album produced by Philip Klein and Mikael Carlsson.

  1. September 16, 2022 at 3:29 am

    Just to clarify, none of those “historical facts” in the first paragraph are true. The movie’s story was completely made up for the movie. Very little is known about Žižka’s early life. He only rose to prominence in his late 40s. Before that, he was a relatively low-level mercenary/bandit and there are almost no reliable historical records about his life.

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