Composer Howard Shore's epic musical score for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was an effort that relates to J.R.R. Tolkien's plot (as adapted by Peter Jackson's films) in an opera-like musical adaptation. The heart of the film, the music captures not only its sweeping emotion, thrilling vistas and grand journeys, but also echoes the very construction of Tolkien's Middle-earth. Styles, instruments and performers were collected from around the world to provide each of Tolkien's cultures with a unique musical imprint. The rural and simple Hobbits were rooted in a dulcet weave of Celtic tones. The mystical Elves touched upon ethereal Eastern colors. The Dwarves, Tolkien's abrasive stonecutters, received columns of parallel harmonies and a rough, guttural male chorus. The industrialized hordes of Orcs earned Shore's most violent and percussive sounds, including Japanese taiko drums, metal bell plates, and chains beaten upon piano wires, while the world of Men, those flawed yet noble heirs of Middle-earth, is represented by stern and searching brass figures. In operatic fashion, these musical worlds and their themes commingled, sometimes combining forces for a culminated power, other times violently clashing…and always bending to the will of the One Ring and its own ominous family of themes.
After four years of writing, The Lord of the Rings Symphony was realized - each movement corresponds to one book within Tolkien's tome. The vast scope of the work calls for full symphony orchestra, mixed chorus, boys chorus, and numerous instrumental and vocal soloists. Centuries of stylistic tendencies are treated with equal respect, creating a uniquely all-encompassing vision. Original folk songs stand alongside diatonic hymns, chromatically complex tone clusters and seething, dissonant aleatoric passages.
It is music in the shape of the world reflecting back upon itself, sometimes articulated in the voice of the solo fiddle or ney flute, sometimes expressed literally through the chorus, singing in the Tolkien-spawned languages Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdûl, Adûnaic, Black Speech, and Old and modern English. But within this broad framework resides a remarkably concise musical vision. Shore's writing assumes an earthy, grounded tone built on sturdy orchestral structures and a sense of line that is at once fluid yet stripped of frivolous ornamentation. The lightest moments of the Hobbit's rustic whimsy remains touched with a maturity that acknowledges change inevitably lurks on the horizon. And in the grandest moments of spectacle, where Shore opens up the full forces of over two hundred musicians, the music is forever rooted in the hopes, ideals, and frailties of this very human drama.
The Lord of the Rings Symphony keeps one foot in the literal world of opera while depositing the other self-governing consideration of J.R.R. Tolkien's philosophical contemplations. "It's storytelling," says the composer, but it is storytelling on many levels.
The work had its genesis during the period between the completion of Shore's score to The Fellowship of the Ring and the beginning of his work on The Two Towers. At the suggestion of conductor John Mauceri, Shore began to think of the yet-to-be-written completed film scores in terms of a two-hour concert work. Together with Mauceri, Shore worked on the form and transitions from the longer film scores, transforming them into manageable instrumental movements: a series of tone poems free of the specific visual linkage with the films and adhering more to the traditions of the programmatic orchestral works of Strauss, Liszt, Smetana, and Sibelius. All of this is quite amazing, since the composer was writing his film scores (which he orchestrated himself) while simultaneously adapting them for the concert hall.
At Shore's request, videographer Davey Frankel incorporated imagery of renowned Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe, and the entire work was completed in time for the festivities surrounding the world premiere of The Return of the King in Wellington, New Zealand, on December 1, 2003.
Shore stated: "It is very gratifying to see the music from The Lord of the Rings trilogy find a new life on the concert stage. The music was originally conceived in Wellington through collaboration with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, and it is only fitting that the piece had its premiere in Wellington, New Zealand, which is the home of Middle Earth."
- Doug Adams is a Chicago-based musician and writer. He is the author of the upcoming book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films.