The Music of Battlestar Galactica, Part I – Passacaglia

So now that the proclaimed “best show on television” is over (except for a tv movie prequel and the new prequel show Caprica), I feel it appropriate to start talking about some of the music of Battlestar Galactica.  It ironic in a way that a science fiction show that set out to create a ‘naturalistic’ sci-fi and take the ‘opera’ out of space opera ended up creating a show that can now be said to define “space opera” in a way.  We have gritty, real characters acting out a grand, mythical story among the backdrop of the universe, plot fit for Wagner in a way.

And for a musical score that started out not wanting to have “themes” or, dear one say, “leitmotifs,” that very thing has become a defining aspect of the the score.  In the finale, these were used to great effect as all the major thematic ideas come to their end.  Payoff for all the major musical ideas.  It was so satisfying.  Even if you didn’t like the finale (which I won’t discuss here…at least without some warnings), from a musical standpoint I doubt few would argue the satisfaction of the musical conclusions.

Anyway, for what might be the first of several posts dealing with a specific theme or themes, I want to discuss what was the first cue that really made my ears perk up and notice what was going on aurally.  There have been four major iterations of this theme, all unique.  On the Season 1 score disc the tracks are called ‘Passacaglia’ and ‘The Shape of things to Come.’  The two cues bookend the two-part Season 1 finale of “Kobol’s Last Gleaming.”  In Season 2 it is ‘Allegro’ from “Home, Part II.”  And in Season 3 it is ‘Violence and Variations’ from “Unfinished Business.”  What is interesting, I think, about how these cues are used in the show is that, unlike the majority of the themes, this one seems to not have a specific character association.  It is even difficult to make a clear conceptual association, though I will discuss my thoughts on this.

The first scene, our first introduction to this music, isthe very opening sequence of “Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part I,” it is a montage if you will.  It is also one of the early examples of a BSG opening teaser that is a montage given almost completely over to music.  (Other good examples are the Season 2 episodes “Pegasus” and “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part I.”  Both of these episodes are major structural episodes in the BSG canon, if were we to apply Schenker to them, they would definitely be part of the ‘ursatz.’)  The scenes that the music backs up are of Lee and then Cmdr. Adama sparring, Starbuck and Baltar (wow, this was long ago!) making love, Helo and Sharon/Athena on Caprica and Helo shooting her eventually, and Boomer on Galactica contemplating suicide.  All these scenes are inter-cut with some dialogue, but really, it is a slice of life, setting up the chess board.

What was most remarkable about this cue is that it was the first real usage of a more traditional orchestral sound in the show.  It immediately set aapart this music and this sequence.  It is a very calming theme, but is set against images of the life of our players, and some rather dark moments.  Here is a YouTube video of just the music (I was hoping to upload short clips I made of the themes, but I can’t seem to get that to work, oh well, that’s why the gods invented YouTube):


The second time we hear the music is the penultimate scene of ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part II,’ in one of, I think, the shows best sequences.  Baltar and the Cylon Model Six that he can see and hear, but no one else can (which was finally explained in the Finale!), walk towards the ruins of the Kobol Opera House, and when they walk though the archway they are in a vision of the Opera House as it was.  It is here that Baltar learns of humanity’s future and the child that is to come.  But my favorite line is Six’s little musing on music and life: “Life has a melody, Gaius.  A rhythm of notes that become your existence once they’re played in harmony with God’s plan.”  This iteration of the theme is called “The Shape of Things to Come,”  coming from Six’s line that the child, the hybrid of human and cylon is the future.

“The Shape of Things to Come”

Two things to note: first the high held note that starts the cue, this will become a feature of later variations.  Second is the different meter:  “Passacaglia” is in 3/4 while “Shape” is in 6/8.  This is also a hallmark of this particular theme.  Not only is the original “Passacaglia” a variation form, but all the subsequent version are also variations on the original!  Also, the “Shape of Things to Come” variation is used in most of the subsequent visions of the Opera House that are see for the remainder of the series, and is the most common heard form.

Our next version of the theme, now in 4/4, comes in the concluding episode of the whole Kobol storyline in “Home, Part II” and the cue known as ‘Allegro.’  Once again, our theme is used to underlay an opening montage sequence.  We have the erstwhile President Roslin on the surface of Kobol struggling through the rain to reach the Tomb of Athena, all the while grieving the loss of her spiritual adviser, Elosha.  There are some loaded religious imagery here with Roslin being soaking in the rain (rebirth), and going through the Sacred Scrolls, a pilgrim and a leader.  On the other side, we have Adama (back in charge after begin shot by Boomer) planning a mission down to Kobol and hopefully reuniting the divided fleet.


It is important to note that all these cues are compelte musical ideas and pieces.  As they appear on the score albums, so they are in the show.

We next don’t get the theme until Season 3’s “Unfinished Business.”  Unlike the previous versions, it is not just used for one scene, but, as the album title “Violence and Variation” indicates, it is used in many different variations throughout the episode.  It even introduces a new overall theme for the very complex and volatile relationship between Lee Adama and Kara Thrace (Apollo and Starbuck).  This episode is set up as a series of flashbacks that fill in some of the time on New Caprica prior to the Cylon occupation, and sets up the love square between Dualla-Lee/Kara-Anders, not to mention the budding Adama/Roslin relationship.  The flashbacks take place within the framework of a Galactica boxing match in which anyone can challenge anyone, rank left at the door.  Here we have the obvious parallel to the original ‘Passacaglia’ with boxing, but there is a deeper level that I’ll discuss in a moment.  This version is in a 12/8 meter mostly, but with some detours.

‘Violence and Variation’

Now, what, if anything, can we say about this theme, if we can even call it a theme?  It is more truly a set of variations set up by the original ‘Passacaglia.’  My thought is that it is the melody of life, as Six indicated.  The music is heard over some of the most human moments of the show.  It accompanies the many complex character relationships, not to mention involving some of our most basic human actions (fighting, loving, crying), and it also points towards the future of humanity in its association with Hera and the Opera House (which was brilliantly culminated in the finale both visually and musically). It is also the penultimate BSG theme heard in the show (last true theme with the exception of the tag on the ending, but I will not say more for fear of spoilers).  So it is the theme that sends our characters on their journey into humanity’s future.  The sequences of notes that create the melody of life when played in harmony with God’s plan (I won’t espouse on the religion of BSG here, but it is an interesting aspect of what the finale brought full circle).

I also believe that the Kara/Anders theme ‘A Promise to Return’ (first heard in Season 2’s ‘The Farm’ as Kara is leaving Caprica to return to the fleet and has to leave Anders behind) is related to the ‘Passacaglia.’  Judge for yourself:

‘A Promise to Return’

It starts like many of the ‘Passacaglia’ variations with the lone high note, and the pulsating accompanying figure bears many similarities to the ‘Passacaglia.’  But without close theoretical analysis which I haven’t done yet, I can’t say anything with certainty except that my gut tells me it is related.  If it is, then it fits with the overall way in which the music is used.  It is an indicator of life and the future, the very human side of the show.

So, hopefully this will be the shape of things to come in this blog.  I’m not sure of which theme to do next or when the post will be, but I am open to suggestions.

Note:  Re-reading this, I realize that I neglected to name the composer.  Maybe since I’ve mentioned Bear McCreary’s name so many times in this blog already, I sub-consciously thought it wasn’t necessary to name him again.  Well, Mr. McCreary did the score and will also be scoring the upcoming prequel series Caprica.

One thought on “The Music of Battlestar Galactica, Part I – Passacaglia

  1. A bit slow in getting here, but great post…
    I’ve been stuck on this soundtrack ever since I got it back in…’07? Crap.. that’s a while ago, but the music is truly timeless and will continue to be racking up the “times played” on iTunes.

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