The Most Incredible ThingThe Most Incredible Thing

Released - 2011
Chart peak - UK #57 (didn't chart in US)

Visitors' rating (plurality): ★★★☆☆
Visitors' rating (rounded average): ★★☆☆☆
Wayne's rating: ★★☆☆☆

These star-ratings reflect how PSB albums compare to each other—not how they compare to albums by other artists.

A double-CD set of the score composed by Tennant and Lowe for their original ballet The Most Incredible Thing was released in March 2011. The album is produced by the Pet Shop Boys and Sven Helbig, co-founder of the Dresdner Sinfoniker, who wrote the orchestrations and with whom the Boys had previously worked on their Battleship Potemkin recording. The music—described as "electronic plus orchestra"—is performed mostly by the Pet Shop Boys and the Wrocław Score Orchestra conducted by Dominic Wheeler.

How would you categorize this music? Is it classical? Is it pop? You can't just call it "ballet" since that term applies to the dance form rather than to the music itself. I think the term that may come closest to doing it justice is "new music," which has been used now for several decades to describe "serious" (as opposed to "popular") music that embraces elements generally outside the conventions of most "classical" music, including electronic instrumentation. If Potemkin represented Chris and Neil's first major foray into "new music," Incredible firmly establishes that the earlier work was no flash in the pan. They clearly wish "Tennant/Lowe" to be considered potentially significant composers within the genre.

Neil and Chris had been toying for several years with the idea of composing an original ballet score, and they had mentioned it from time to time in their interviews. So it was actually no great surprise when they announced in early 2009 that plans were already under way (apparently having begun the year before) to create a ballet scheduled to premiere in March 2011 at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre. They are collaborating with Venezuelan-born (but U.K.-based) dancer/choreographer Javier De Frutos and British director/playwright Matthew Dunster in staging the work.

As Neil told Metro Weekly interviewer Doug Rule, "We have a friend who's a ballet dancer at The Royal Ballet and he asked us to write a ballet for him. Chris had this idea of turning this particular story into a ballet. And then we were introduced to Sadler's Wells, which is a big dance theater in London. And they're putting together a company to do this." The friend that Neil is referring to is Ivan Putrov, formerly a principal dancer with the Kiev Ballet and who subsequently served in that capacity wth The Royal Ballet. He would wind up assuming the role of the villain in The Most Incredible Thing. This, however, wasn't the first time that Putrov had been involved in a PSB production. He also took part in a performance piece with Sam Taylor-Wood at the launch party for Disco 3, a photo from which appeared on the sleeve of Taylor-Wood's PSB-produced 2003 remake (in the guise of "Kiki Kokova") of "Love to Love You, Baby."

The Boys stated early on that their ballet would be based a story written by the nineteenth-century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), but for many months they would say nothing more about it except to suggest it wasn't one of his more famous tales (such as "The Ugly Duckling," "The Little Mermaid," and "The Emperor's New Clothes"). Rather, it would be a somewhat lesser-known story that Chris had "discovered" while using a collection of Andersen's fairy tales as bedtime reading. Finally, in May 2010, it was revealed that the story they had chosen was "The Most Incredible Thing" (Danish Det Utroligste, sometimes alternately translated as "The Most Astonishing Thing" or "The Most Extraordinary Thing"), published by Andersen in 1870. As far as anyone knows, this tale is completely original with Andersen, with none of the folk antecedents from which many of his other stories can be traced. Despite its relatively obscure status, Andersen considered it one of his finest works.

The basic plot of Andersen's tale is quite simple:

A contest is held in a kingdom for who can present "the most incredible thing." The prize is half the realm and the princess's hand in marriage. People come from miles around to display their "incredible" talents, many of which are downright bizarre and rather tasteless (such as the guy who can spit high into the air and catch his sputum on his own back). The apparent winner, however, turns out to be a young man who has created an amazing clock that marks the hours with an astonishing variety of lifelike mechanical displays, including the Three Wise Men for 3 o'clock, the Seven Days of the Week and/or the Seven Deadly Sins (the text admits that it's open to interpretation) for 7 o'clock, and the Ten Commandments for 10 o'clock.

Just as the clockmaker is about to be formally declared the victor, a crude man wielding an ax steps forward and, without so much as a word, smashes the clock to bits. He then proclaims that he, in fact, has done the most incredible thing by so callously destroying such a remarkable work of art. The judges grudgingly agree and name him the winner. The princess is none too happy about this turn of events—she would have preferred the handsomer, more refined and talented clockmaker—but a deal's a deal, and she resigns herself to the marriage.

But later, as the royal wedding is about to take place, the bits and pieces of the destroyed clock suddenly come back to mechanized life and march one-by-one into the church. As the dumbfounded members of the congregation look on, the clock pieces attack and beat down the would-be groom. This incident is judged by all to be even more incredible, and the prize is promptly re-awarded to the clockmaker, who then proceeds to marry the princess. Everyone in town is delighted—except, presumably, the ax-wielder (who may actually now be dead; the author is ambiguous on this point)—and there the story ends.

Such a tale provides ample opportunity not only for dramatic dance but also for the great variety of music that the Boys composed for it. The presentation of the clock's twelve different "hour markers" alone begged for a veritable smorgasbord of musical styles. (I wonder whether Chris and Neil were tempted to incorporate a bit of "It's a Sin" into "7 o'clock." If so, they didn't succumb.) Indeed, Neil noted in the July 2010 issue of Literally that the story offers "lots of dances," to which Chris added, "So it's actually quite an ambitious story to take on, really, as a musical project."

Aside from its musical possibilities, it's also not surprising that story would appeal to the Boys thematically. Consider their own status as among the supreme purveyors of "synthpop." They might be likened to the tale's clockmaker, who has created a magnificent work of art, but one that is "mechanistic" or even "synthetic" in nature. Throughout their career our musical heroes have been lambasted by rockists who deride them as "inauthentic" musicians, more "technicians" than true artists. When you also consider that to most rockists the archetypal "authentic" musical instrument is the guitar—which for more than 50 years has been referred to in popular music slang as an "ax"—then the tale's villain becomes the perfect stand-in for PSB's rockist critics (although, as it turns out, he doesn't use an ax in the ballet, but instead destroys the clock with his bare hands). The story suggests that, though their critics may enjoy temporary victory over them in the eyes of the general public, Neil and Chris will nevertheless triumph in the end and be more widely recognized as great artists.

In discussing the ballet with interviewer Judith Mackrell of The Guardian, Neil was considerably less personal, however, about its central theme. According to Mackrell, he spoke of "the life-changing power of art." Neil noted further that, with regard to the clock pieces coming back to life and having their revenge on the villain, "It's basically saying you can destroy an object, but you can't destroy an idea."

The Boys' official website reported in early June 2010 that they had just finished writing the score, although in a mid-August interview Neil said that they needed to write one more scene—a late addition perhaps necessitated by rather practical matters of stagecraft. Even as late as October they affirmed that they still needed to compose music for "an extra scene." In early December 2010 the official website noted that Neil and Chris had just returned from several days in Wrocław, Poland, where orchestral parts of the ballet score had been recorded. Sven Helbig did the arrangements and, as noted above, Dominic Wheeler conducted the orchestra. The production of the ballet itself would involve 15 cast members and a 26-piece orchestra.

After its initial 2011 run at Sadler's Wells, the ballet is scheduled to return there for a second run in March 2012. One of the performances in its original run, however, was filmed; it had its world television premiere on July 1, 2011 on BBC4. So there's a distinct possibility that it may ultimately see DVD release. As for critical recognition, The Most Incredible Thing received the "Beyond Theatre Award" at the 2011 Evening Standard Theatre Awards, presented on November 20, 2011. Javier De Frutos has also been nominated for Best Modern Choreography at the Critics Circle Awards, scheduled for presentation on January 23, 2012.

The fact that the CD credits cite Tennant/Lowe as lyricists as well as composers indicated that the ballet score isn't strictly instrumental—that we could expect to hear Neil's vocals on one or more of the tracks. But lyrics are indeed few and far between. The most notable lyric appears very briefly in "The Grind" in a rather unconventional manner: a short snippet of the PSB demo of "Baby." There are also brief (and somewhat distorted) lyrical elements in "The Clock 4/5/6," and a succinct recitation of the Ten Commandments can be heard in "The Clock 10/11/12." And we shouldn't ignore assorted countdowns, countups, and "tick-tocks."

Not included on the CD—or, for that matter, in the original 2011 staging of the ballet—is a new scene titled "King's Lament," which the Boys' official website has described as an orchestral arrangement by Sven Helbig of the earlier segment "Help Me." Helbig characterized it on his Facebook page as "four minutes of desperate orchestra music." It's slated to appear in the ballet's March 2012 return engagement at Sadler's Wells. It occurs in the revised second act of the ballet (which in its 2012 staging is changed from three acts to just two) shortly after the destruction of the magical clock. It reportedly helps express a greater sense of closeness between the king and his daughter than conveyed in the original production as the two of them share their mutual distress over the recent unfortunate turn of events. ("King's Lament" is not listed among the tracks below, however, since it's not included on the CD release and so far no plans have been announced for it even to be released in recorded form.)

Not counting this late addition, the score is a little more than 83 minutes in length—just long enough to require its two CDs. (If it had been only about four minutes shorter, it would have fit onto one.) The first CD includes the original Acts 1 and 2, with the third act on the second. As a result, the second CD is significantly shorter than the first: it's less than 21 minutes long. It offers some of the most complex, sophisticated music written and released by Chris and Neil to date. Frankly, it won't be to everyone's taste. (I've read a few online comments from people who despise it. Essentially, they just don't get it.) But to those who are open to the Boys stretching—no, more like smashing—their musical boundaries, the score of The Most Incredible Thing provides a most rewarding listening experience.

Top Picks by Voter Ratings

  1. The Grind
  2. The Clock 10/11/12
  3. The Miracle: The Meeting (reprise)

Wayne's Top Picks

  1. The Clock 4/5/6
  2. The Clock 7/8/9
  3. The Clock 10/11/12

Annotations


Prologue

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The ballet's "Prologue" was apparently written somewhat later than most of the rest of the score, only after the Boys and their collaborators determined that one was actually needed. Following introductory keyboard arpeggios played against an unusual series of string chord progressions—the same basic progression played three times, differing in each instance with its final chord—the predominant melody is carried by the woodwinds (bassoon, oboe, English horn, clarinet), especially those with lower registers, imparting a mildly comic tone. The effect is one of moving quickly from an initially very serious mood to one that's somewhat more lighthearted. This may be a bit of intentional foreshadowing and tempering in that the storyline indeed blends serious and comic elements.

List cross-references


The Grind

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

"The Grind" is based on a piece of music composed by Chris during their writing sessions for Yes that he originally titled "Moronic" because that's how he described its repetitive melody and rhythm, which he simply couldn't get out of his head. As stated in the July 2010 issue of their official fan club magazine Literally, he and Neil later "realized that this would work … at the beginning of the story, depicting the everyday world of the kingdom." As both the title and the music suggests, this piece helps convey the daily "grind" of ordinary life.

During this segment, a little less than a minute of the Pet Shop Boys song "Baby" (sung by Neil rather than by Alcazar, the band that had previously recorded it) can be heard. It accompanies a ballet segment that suggests the peculiar "grind" of the lonely and bored Princess, who in her isolation fantasizes about a singing pop star. If the interjection of such an obvious PSB track may strike some as a little too self-referential within the context of a ballet, Tennant and Lowe make up for it with the humorously self-deprecating act of abruptly cutting it short midstream.

Incidentally, shortly after the conclusion of the "Baby" vocal, we hear the horns briefly present the first expression of the "primary clock theme" that will become much more prominent later in the score, most notably in the "Clock" sections.

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The Challenge

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The title suggests that this piece accompanies the part of the story where the King issues his proclamation that whoever can present "the most incredible thing" will win his daughter's hand in marriage and half his kingdom. Appropriately, the music provides an uplifting contrast to the preceding pieces, offering a welcome break from the everyday routine. It starts with a very "regal" fanfare, meant to accompany the appearance of the King himself, followed by a highly rhythmic section dominated by base synthesizer. In short, the "daily grind" of the kingdom has been replaced by a far more exciting atmosphere. The routine has been broken.

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Help Me

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

A slow, ballad-like piece with a lovely piano melody that, as its title suggests, has a pleading quality. It accompanies a part of the story in which both the hero, Leo the clockmaker, tries to find inspiration for the contest and the Princess tries to deal with the uncomfortable and uncertain situation in which she finds herself, torn between her loneliness and being offered as a "prize" in a contest.

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Risk

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

At first there's forceful, ominous music, with prominent fanfare-like brass, as befitting such a title. But then that segment gives way to a more pleasantly melodic waltz, though still with a strongly noticeable dark undercurrent. Unexpectedly, that melody takes another sudden turn to a powerfully "rocking" style. In effect, this part of the score is a traditional theme-and-variations, in which the composers render one particular melodic line in several contrasting styles back-to-back. It serves as the musical backdrop to the part of the story in which Leo struggles with the difficulties inherent in creating "the most incredible thing."

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Physical Jerks

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

A curious title that refers to the ballet's villain, the soldier Karl, and the ruffians with whom he surrounds himself. The music is highly rhythmic and includes "shouting" sounds in the background. The Princess watches as Karl and his buddies exercise in sight of the palace window. Halfway through the segment there's a dramatic shift in style to a slower, gentler mood as Karl dances with the Princess (described as fanciful in the CD booklet, but which apparently offered no suggestion of being imaginary as presented on stage). She is initially fascinated by his physicality, but she ultimately recoils from his aggressiveness—which evolves into sheer abusiveness as the dance unfolds.

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The Competition

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

As indicated by the title, this music accompanies the competition for who can present "the most incredible thing." It consists of several distinct segments that are surely associated with the assorted competitors, the music varying widely in style to befit the specific "incredible thing" at hand in each case. It's basically a musical pastiche with "variety show" elements, which seems appropriate enough under the circumstances. The staging of ballet itself even transforms it into an unsubtle satire of contemporary TV talent competitions like The X Factor, Pop Idol, Britain's Got Talent, and their assorted international spinoffs (American Idol, America's Got Talent, and so on).

The primary melody for this track had its origins with "You're the Exception That Proves the Rule," a song that Neil and Chris had written in late 2007 or early 2008 for Kylie Minogue but which she decided against recording. With its original lyrics, Neil described it as "a really good, funny song," but the inclusion of its melody in "The Competition" now renders the eventual appearance of that song as perhaps unlikely. Also, included in "The Competition" is a bass-synth theme borrowed from the officially unreleased Closer to Heaven demo "You've Got to Start Somewhere." This usage also suggests that the Boys may have no intention of ever releasing that demo—although, of course, that may not necessarily be the case. They also may later decide to re-record and release "You've Got to Start Somewhere" in a different arrangement that avoids the reappearance of that same synth line.

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The Meeting

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

A pretty melody played mostly on piano and acoustic guitar with "soft rock" backing. This is where Leo, the young clockmaker, first meets his prospective princess bride. As such, it provides an occasion for a classic pas de deux—a "dance for two," usually of a romantic nature—for those two characters. By contrast, the preceding "dance duet" between Karl and the Princess during the second half of "Physical Jerks" had served, in a manner of speaking, as a dark parody of a pas de deux on account of its violent overtones.

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The Clock 1/2/3

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The "centerpiece," so to speak, of the ballet opens with the unveiling of the clockmaker's remarkable clock, chiming the hours of one, two, and three. Not surprisingly, the music at first has a pronounced "clockworks" sound (and recurring "tick-tock" choral vocals), making it one of the most musically abstract segments of the ballet. But then—

Most (though not all) subsequent "hour segments" are similarly introduced by the corresponding chiming of the clock.

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The Clock 4/5/6

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The "clockwork" is gradually toned down, but it's still there as we reach the hours of four, five, and six.

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The Clock 7/8/9

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

It sounds as though the "clock music" becomes increasingly forceful and even mildly disturbing as the hours pass.

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The Clock 10/11/12

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The concluding clock segments are in some ways the most dramatic of all:

This brings the "clock section" of the ballet to a triumphant and thoroughly exultant conclusion.

Incidentally, Neil has suggested in an interview that the entire "clock section," with its total length of about 22½ minutes, can be thought of as a single composition and that, had it been released on vinyl back in the glory days of "prog rock," it would almost certainly have ended up as a suite taking up an entire album side. (Think Yes's "Close to the Edge," Genesis's "Supper's Ready," and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's "Tarkus," among other prog classics.) And that's precisely how it appears in the limited-edition vinyl edition of The Most Incredible Thing, occupying the first side of the second disc.

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The Winner

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The title indicates that this is where Leo is declared the winner of the competition for his remarkable clock, accompanied by cheers and applause. Overall, the music is appropriately joyful and uplifting. It begins with a recurrence of that bass-synth riff borrowed from "You've Got to Start Somewhere," previously heard in "The Competition."

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Destruction

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Karl callously smashes the amazing clock—and, in so doing, claims Leo's victory for himself. The music is as appropriately foreboding as the previous piece was uplifting, dominated by heavy bass synth and lower-register strings and horns. This piece's forceful "percussive strikes" likely signify his crushing blows upon the clockworks.

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Back to the Grind

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Back to the "daily grind. Yes, the dominant "moronic" motif from "The Grind" is there, all but buried within in the cacophony, only now it sounds like even more of a "grind" than before. The implication, of course, is that Karl's victory has hurled the kingdom back to an even darker form of its old, dull routine, as opposed to the bright new day promised if Leo had won.

Some fans got an advance hearing of this part of the score in a somewhat "raw" form. A preliminary demo titled "The Grind 2" was included as part of "Room Divider," a group exhibition that opened in July 2010 at London's Wilkinson Gallery. One listener described it as having an "insistent beat and layers of synth" as well as piano and either actual or sampled/synthesized brass, ending with the sound of thunder. That same description applies equally well to its final form as it appears in the ballet.

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The Miracle - Ceremony

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The five segments prefaced "The Miracle" accompany the climax of the story, where good miraculously triumphs over evil. The subtitle of the first segment, "Ceremony," indicates that the wedding between Karl and the Princess is about to take place. The music is stately, as befitting a royal wedding, but it has anything but a happy sound since, after all, the Princess is about to wed a man she would prefer not to marry.

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The Miracle - Revolution

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The music takes on an extremely curious, dissonant, even vaguely comic sound. Something strange is happening, and things are about to take a dramatic turn. The sounds of clockworks reappear, as do previous melodic themes—including that of the "Prologue," which Neil has suggested represents the survival of an idea beyond the violence intended to destroy it. The clock is coming back to life. Snare drums and a march-like beat lend a martial air. Onstage, Karl, the Princess, and other dancers prepare for the wedding with movements that suggest a dark parody of the "most incredible" clock.

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The Miracle - Resurrection

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The clockworks, magically resurrected, now avenge themselves on Karl. We hear numbers counted off in seemingly random order, though probably in conjunction with actions onstage by the corresponding "clock figures." (One fan has observed that the voice counting off those numbers is apparently that of the same Texas Instruments talking calculator used in "Two Divided by Zero," the very first track on the very first PSB album.) The earlier clock music is now back in full force, but this time sounding rather threatening. Melodic themes continue to be reiterated, punctuated by orchestral "blasts" that signal the clock's attack on Karl. He is literally consumed by the resurrected clock, ironically becoming a part of the beautiful thing he had hated enough to destroy. After a final, brief statement of the clock's primary musical motif, we hear twelve concluding chimes: "midnight" (death) for the villain.

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The Miracle - Colour and Light

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

With the villain now defeated, the music becomes more melodic and positive again. The promise of a brighter life, full of "colour and light," is restored. Leo dances with his muses in celebration of his victory. It's almost as if a curse has been lifted from the kingdom. Indeed it has.

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The Miracle - The Meeting (reprise)

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

A more elaborate reprise of the earlier "love theme" in which Leo had first met the Princess. Now they meet again in anticipation of their marriage. Time for another pas de deux.

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The Wedding

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - The Most Incredible Thing
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Again we hear the sounds of cheers and applause, initially accompanied one last time by the bass-synth riff appropriated from "You've Got to Start Somewhere." There's also more than a hint of the melody of "Baby" (heard previously in "The Grind"), now rendered as a fanfare. The hero and heroine are married, with church bells, triumphant music, and one final brief restatement of the "love theme"—given a mildly comic twist with the added sound of a coo-coo clock—bringing the ballet to a "happily ever after" conclusion both for them and their kingdom.

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