Soundtrack to “Blizzard of Souls” (Who wrote it and where to listen to it)

The film Dvēseļu Putenis – known in English as Blizzard of Souls – is based on the homonymous novel by Aleksandrs Grīns, one of the most acclaimed writers of contemporary Latvian culture, who was also a war hero and journalist. Blizzard of Souls is his most famous work, and it tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young Latvian schoolboy named Artūrs who enlists in the national battalions of the Russian Imperial Army in hopes of finding glory. Artūrs participates in many battles of World War I and eventually returns home to Latvia, only to find that the homeland he loves is threatened by the very forces he fought for. The film was directed by Dzintars Dreibergs, and after its release it quickly became the most successful national film.

Blizzard of Souls’s music is the work of the Latvian-American composer Lolita Ritmanis. Ritmanis has been working in the world of Hollywood film music for decades. Today, she is probably best known for having written the music for dozens of Batman and Superman animated films and television shows for Warner Brothers with her songwriting partners Michael McCuistion and Kristopher Carter, but as of this point Blizzard of Souls it will probably be considered his magnum opus: it is, in a word, impressive. Since its release in North America in the final months of 2020, the music has grown in stature and acclaim, culminating in the SCL Award nomination for Best Original Music for an Independent Film, and its inclusion in the list of 15 Scores that compete for an Academy Award nomination in 2021.

It is not difficult to understand why the music has been so well received. Ritmanis recorded the music in Riga, Latvia, her parents’ birthplace, with a 60-piece orchestra and a 50-voice choir from the Latvian State Choir conducted by Māris Sirmais. It is a multi-thematic epic that runs the gamut of emotions, from rich evocations of the Latvian homeland, to thrilling battle music, devastating reflections on the horrors of war, lyrical romance and everything in between. All of this is achieved thanks to warmly welcoming orchestrations, engaging melodic content, standout bursts of choral majesty, and clever and intricate composition techniques that underscore the fact that Ritmanis is a superb songwriter.

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“1. Prelīde (Prelude” is a perfect example of the dramatic harmonies that prevail throughout the score, offering a sense of loss and longing. The first ideas that Ritmanis explores are different musical evocations of Latvia: its beautiful landscape, its people and their struggle for self-determination and cultural independence The next two parts have the main title of “Blizzard of Souls” they offer beautiful and evocative writing for the instruments section of the wood section, piano and a soft chorus that is peaceful and meditative. The next part, “3. Bicycle”, is warm and summery, with guitars strummed over the orchestra and a light, open chorus; this idea is further explored in track “6. Sunbeams”, and especially in ” 11. Memories, “which accompanies Artūrs as he recalls his childhood and home. This high point of the album is highly thematic, featuring a lilting melody for the strings.

“4. Leaving Home” underscores the first real turning point in the soundtrack; It starts off softly, wistfully, but slowly emerges into a new emotional theme for strings, piano, and chorus that follows Artūrs after he makes the decision to fight for his country. Later evocations of war and action offer a different musical style, often more dissonant and fractured, and propped up with anguish and fraught with danger, but also frequently dropping statements or variations on Artūrs’ theme to place it in the center of history. Pieces like “7. In the Fog”, “12. Through the Tall Grass” and “16Did Not Return”, among others, are often quite unsettling, as they use low intensity orchestral booms enhanced by electronics as sinister implications of the confusion and danger of war.

On the other hand, pieces such as “15. Where Is Father”, “20. My Brother Has Fallen” and “22. Miķelsons, Konrāds” are more oriented to traditional action, and in them Ritmanis uses shaken strings, heavy metals, incredible rhythmic content and moments of dissonance to underline the film’s various battle and fight sequences. The most prominent moment of action is probably “Christmas Battle”, which features an orchestral dissonance offset by an angelic chorus, creating a disorienting tonal disconnect that is very effective. One especially riveting sequence within this track features a chorus of chants about war drums, martial metals, exciting string figures, and echoes of Artūrs’s theme song, in a way that reminds me of Howard Shore and The Lord of the Rings.

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Among these war themes are moments of deeper relief, occasional pride and honor, and grim reflection. “8. Fallen at Sloka” is emotionally powerful, “10. Photo” features an especially searing cello performance, “13. My Son” has a cathartic burst of orchestral and choral consonance, and both “17. With Honor” and ” 19. Everyone on Your Feet! ” they are uplifting and moving. Another interesting idea that Ritmanis occasionally plays with is the one that seems to be about Artūrs’ dreams, which reflect his state of mind, and his hopes and fears, at various points in history. “9. In a dream” uses whispered voices like the echo of the dead, over a lulling chorus, slow strings and piano, while “9. In a dream” deeper “uses the chorus in a more conventional way, moving between the high angelic voices of women and the lower, louder voices of men that are painful and emotionally resonant.

The last recurring idea is a love theme for Artūrs and his romantic interest in Marta, who faithfully awaits him while he is at war, and whose love gives him the impetus to return home. The theme first appears on “21. Marta” as a pretty, but subtly bittersweet, theme for piano and woods backed by soft strings, and then later appears on the melancholic “23. Marta & Artūrs” and the romantic e innocent “24. Love in the Field”.

The end of the soundtrack begins with four more intensely dramatic and suspenseful tracks, as the Red Army arrives in Artūrs’ hometown with the intention of quelling any hint of Latvian nationalism before it takes root, despite all that. Artūrs did for his country. “26. Hide” is a cacophony of unusual metallic booms, throbbing strings, and electronic dissonances. “27. On the Side of the Road” features some Hans Zimmer-style chord progressions for Inception, and has a tremendous sense of threat, before becoming more calm and lyrical towards its conclusion. “28. Attack” is another of the high points of the score: heavy metals, heavy strings, choral pops, rhythmic and powerful percussion. “30. Artūrs Has Grown Up” has a sense of simmering anger and bitterness; the later “30. Artūrs in the Snow” is maintained by a militaristic box tattoo under which Ritmanis layered twisting ropes, with hints of the Artūrs theme on woodwinds. The action music of the second half of the track has a contemporary twist and a sense of powerful resolution.

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The final three tracks on the album are emotional climaxes that are meant to be a strong and lasting reflection of the sacrifices Artūrs and his fellow Latvians made for their freedom. “32. For My Fatherland” is a final evocation of the Latvian homeland idea, poignant and patriotic, with special emphasis on the strings and piano backed by the chorus. “Prayer: Grant peace to our fallen brothers” is a piece performed solely by the Latvija State Choir, and is powerfully spiritual in nature, like a religious mourning for the dead. The final piece “34. Blizzard of Souls End Credits” takes up the thematic ideas heard in the opening tracks and interprets them on a larger scale, but maintains the general sense of memory and respect for the score.

Soundtracks like “Blizzard of Souls” are a perfect reminder that there is a whole world of exceptional film music that exists outside the confines of “traditional Hollywood” if people are willing to look further. Yes, Lolita Ritmanis is American and a respected member of the Los Angeles film music community, both for her work as a songwriter and for her leadership in organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers. But you have to think about the kind of movie that Blizzard of Souls is, how traditionally dark its origins are, and how surprising it is that this music has been recognized and defended by the Oscars. La-La Land Records is to be congratulated for contributing to its publication, and the members of the Academy’s music section for having pre-nominated a soundtrack solely for the quality of the music and not for the profile of the film to which accompanying. They have to do it more often. As for Lolita Ritmanis, she has been rightly praised in her home country for this music, and the response she has garnered in the United States is long-awaited recognition of her talent.

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