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“Endless Melody”: the Middle Earth symphonic universe

Musing over Euterpe, one wonders what can Howard Shore bring to The Rings of Power and, potentially, to The War of the Rohirrim? Good news: even if Shore is legally prohibited from reprising themes, he can build new themes from the same musical building-blocks

In the history of music, there had been there three “symphonic universes”: Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen – four operas (or “music dramas”[1]a term Wagner coined after Lohengrin but which he later abandoned for “Handlung” (play), “festival” and “deeds of music acted out”) and the concert piece Siegfried Idyll; John Williams’ Star Wars – nine film scores and several concert pieces, including The Adventures of Han, Galaxy’s Edge  and – recently – the Obi-Wan theme;[2]Williams composed two themes which he associated with the young Han Solo (Alden  Ehrenreich). These were featured in his concert piece The Adventures of Han and several film-cues, which were written … Continue reading and Howard Shore’s Middle Earth: six film scores, a few concert pieces … and?

Shore is reportedly enrolled in some capacity in The Rings of Power and he has plenty of time to follow John Howe’s steps and also hop onboard The War of the Rohirrim, produced by Shore’s great champion Philippa Boyens. So, what can we possibly expect from Shore to do in these projects? What is his compositional technique, and how may it be affected by legal issues: We know Amazon have legal issues reprising certain designs from the films – could the same be true of musical themes, which are owned by WarnerTower Music? Would that mean Shore would have to abandon his great themes, like John Williams did in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?[3]John Williams only signed on to score three Harry Potter entries. He also scored a trailer with a theme he concieved of as ewoking Hedwig’s flight, but which he implemented in the films … Continue reading

Well, not necessarily. By now everyone with a passing interest in film scoring knows the term leitmotive or “leading musical motives.” Its a term that was coined in 1860 by August Wilhelm Ambros and had been picked-up by Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns and by Hans von Wolzogen, Wagner’s associate. Richard Wagner himself would later refer to “What he [Wolzogen] calls ‘leitmotives'”. In his essays that anticipate the composition of the Ring, Wagner had already spoken about them as “melodic moments of memory” and “main motifs” (Hauptmotive), positing a new technique whereby the whole score will be a quilt of melodic ideas that would develop specific (but fluid) associations with elements in the drama and undergo the kind of musical growth exhibited in Beethoven and Haydn symphonies.[4]This technique is not appearant in earlier operas, nor in Wagner’s operas predating the Ring: recurring themes associated with narrative elements have been in practice since early French opera, … Continue reading

More importantly, however, Wagner talked of a different kind of motive: “Urmotiven” (basic motives), “Grundthemen” (fundemental themes) and “platische naturmotiven” – malleable, natural motives. These are not the leitmotives, per se. Rather, they are the building blocks from which the leitmotives are made: if the “basic motives” are the atoms, the “melodic moments” or “leitmotives” are the molecules, and the actual music is the materials that those molecules form. Indeed, Wagner publically called-out Wolzogen on his proclivity to list and name the motives, pointing out that instead its more insightful to examine the motives development “through the shifting passions of the four-act drama.”[5]Nevertheless, literature that notates the various leitmotives into lists had become very popular: Dr. Allen Duning and Sir Roger Scruton provided the most up-to-date menus of leitmotives in … Continue reading

This is exactly the technique implemented by Howard Shore,[6]It is not quite the technique used by John Williams in Star Wars. Not that the leitmotives in Star Wars don’t develop or interconnect through common harmonic progressions that are associated … Continue reading and its incredibly important because, as in Wagner, it achieves several important goals: one, it delineates the themes (at least initially) into sets and subsets of related and opposing themes: all the themes built-off of a specific “basic motive” are related to each other through that motive, and distinct from all the themes that are built off of a different “basic motives.” It also means Shore and Wagner can keep on introducing new themes, even very late in the game, without it feeling like a hail mary move, because they’re based on “basic motives” that we’ve already heard over and over again in earlier themes. This is especially pertinent to The Rings of Power where, in case Shore should be legally prohibited from reprising his existing themes, he can nevertheless construct new themes out of the same basic motives that will therefore carry over the associations of the themes we already know. In order to illustrate this, lets spend a few moments looking at how the music of Middle Earth is organized based on these basic motives. Throughout, I’ll point out other important observations about how these composers like to handle their musical material.

Dwarves

The main “basic motive” of the Dwarven music are the parallel fifths: we hear them chanted by a deep male choir both in the Erebor prologue and throughout the Fellowship’s journey through Moria. Indeed, if we organize an ascending line out of those fifths, we get a theme we associate with the dangers of Moria. If we change the rhytm a little bit, we get a theme we associate with the Battle of Azanulbizar. If we take one of the fifths down a halfstep, we get another danger theme that we associate with the fight with the Cave Troll but also with Gimli leaping over the broken stairs and Gandalf striking at the Balrog as they plummet. The latter motif was also tracked by the filmmakers as Legolas sees Wargs coming over the brow in Rohan: this shows us something about these themes: occasionally they’ll be used without any dramatic context, except that they sound appropriate in the moment, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.[7]I’ve yet to hear a good explanation of why Wagner plays the theme associated with magic when Waltraute tells Brunhilde that Odin’s spear was broken, except that it sounded right. In John … Continue reading

All three of these themes also illustrate something else: its important to Shore, as it was to Wagner, to implement early, “hidden” versions of his themes well before we first hear the theme properly. These danger motives both appear in early “embryonic” forms: the Moria danger motive first appears very beningly when the Doors of Durin crack open, so that when we hear it later on, a part of us recognises it as something we could have possibly heard before: it means something to us.[8]Wagner’s first introduction of the main love theme is when the Rhinedaughter Flosshilde mockingly leads Alberich the Dwarf on, later again when he bemoans their teasing and so forth. Williams … Continue reading

These fifths also feature in a theme we associate strongly with the line of Durin, which is certainly very fitting for The Rings of Power with its not one but two Durins. To show how malleable these themes really are, just listen to the opening logos of An Unexpected Journey: that’s the same shape as that theme. And that shape is very close to another theme we hear not long afterwards and which we associate with Thorin. That theme alternates with another related theme, the three horncalls associated with Erebor. So much so, that the two themes become completely associated with one another: the former accompanies much of the montage that establishes Erebor at its prime, but when the company is menaced by Wargs, its the horncall motif we hear. When Kili and Tauriel start flirting we hear the material associated with Thorin, and we also hear it heroically over Bombur’s barrel-trick. Thrain gets the horncall, shot with an arpeggio, while the Iron-hill army gets a very broad statement of that idea: Thorin’s death is commemorated by having that played in the film, but when Gandalf and Bilbo part ways, the music hints at Thorin. They’re not used willy-nilly, but they are very flexible in their associations.[9]Again, this has precedent in Wagner: for instance, the theme Wagner associates with the magic gold, which we first hear when the Rhinedaughters joyously call out to the gold, is heard again much … Continue reading

The themes also insinuate themselves into other themes: a quick dash of Thorin’s music attaches itself to the theme that we associate with the company (the one that grows out of the ensmeble “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold”), tying the melody of that song further into the Dwarven musical world. The love themes associated with Tauriel and Kili contain references to the Dwarven harmonies. When Elrond reveals the moon runes, we hear the three horncalls over an arpeggio we associate with Elrond, and this figure returns for the reveal of the hidden door but also for Thorin’s death. Rather than keeping the musical worlds separate, Shore (like Wagner) allows them to overlap and blur together in the course of their development.

So these are just a few examples of Shore can construct new themes out of the same musical atom. If he can use some of these existing themes in new variations, associated in new contexts with the Dwarves in The Rings of Power, all the better: think of the added dimension some of these themes could acquire! But if he is required to write new themes, he can very well do so based on the same building blocks to maintain a sense of musical continuity. Indeed, as we shall see looking at Shore’s treatment of some other material, we will see indications that he might have preferred to do so to begin with. Composers like to make every score fresh and new, even in a series: John Williams always prides himself on basing each new Star Wars score (except The Last Jedi and, to some extent, Revenge of the Sith) primarily on new material and while the music of Wagner’s Die Walküre is based on the same “fundemental themes” as Das Rheingold, its really mostly new music and has a different soundscape. The Ring ends with a theme we’ve heard only once before, much like the theme of “Into the West” is not introduced prior to the second half of The Return of the King.

Elves

Where the Dwarves’ music is angular, the Elves’ is sinuous. We already saw how the arpeggios associated with Elrond “infected” the Erebor material to create a new theme with a new association. But those arpeggios also engender more material connected to Elrond and Arwen: it features prominently, for example, in Arwen and Aragorn’s love music. The arpeggios tend to be paired with a rising line in female choir associated with Elrond and Rivendell, and as an offshot of this idea we get not just the aria that reveals Arwen to Frodo and later to the crowned Aragorn, but also (when it turns to the minor mode) the line that sees Arwen heal Frodo, and Tauriel heal Kili. Here we also see that leitmotives are not used just for reminiscence: they’re used to create parallels and get the audience to compare or even contrast moments.[10]Wagner caused his reviewers no end of confusion when he appended the theme associated with Alberich’s renounciation of love to Siegmund drawing the sword from the tree, which he does invoking … Continue reading

Lorien is a different take on the Elvish material: both hint at augmented intervals that we associate with exotic, Middle Eastern modes, but in Lorien they’re more overt. In most of its guises, the theme is written in an adapted maqam hijaz which, through development, it ultimately sheds in favour of a more familiar phrygian mode. Lorien also shows us something else that’s very important about these “basic motives” – that composers like to associate them with certain instrumental colours. The Dwarves get male voices whereas the Elves get female voices, but Lorien also gets quite a few exotic instruments, being perpetually bedecked by the strumming of a monochord and often accompanied by Sarangi and Nay Flute. The colours are not necessarily just outside the orchestra: the Elves get harps and cor anglais, the Orcs get low brass, mankind get trumpets and horns and so forth. As is the case with Wagner and Williams, the relevant sections of the orchestra are sometimes augemented for a certain sound: what other augmentation to the orchestral forces will we see? [11]The major presentations of Arwen and Aragorn’s love music merit a fourth flute (all four playing alto flutes), the Moria passages acquire seven trombones and two tubas, the ride of the rohirrim … Continue reading

The Woodland Realm is even more different. Once we hear the unabridged tune as the company are brought inside the realm, it starts engendering a whole lot of the material: when the first phrase of the theme is repeated with a flamenco rhyhtm, it connotates Legolas. When the coda is used, also with a slight change of rhythm, it connotates Tauriel. The way all this material connects is perhaps best illustrated in “Beyond the Forest”, a concert reworking of the Woodland Realm material for the end-credits of The Desolation of Smaug, and this is yet another important aspect of how these composers like to treat their material: they like to seize on certain opportunities to “recap” their material.[12]Williams recalls having a “potpurri of the main themes” in the music preceding the final space battle in the original Star Wars, and he wrote an extended end-credits suite for Revenge of … Continue reading There’s even an Elven theme not associated with any specific culture: we hear it when the Doors of Durin are first revealed, and then obliquely when Haldir shows up at Helm’s Deep: its associated with Elven allegiances with other races, comparing Haldir’s aid to Rohan to that of Celebrimbor to Narvi, which is very pertinent to The Rings of Power.

Shore could continue to construct new Elven themes from the same augumented scales. I doubt he’d feel that Morfydd Clark’s fiery, warlike Galadriel should merit the same theme as Cate Blanchett’s wise seer of a character, anyway, nor Robert Aramyo’s young ambitious statesman of an Elrond the same theme as Hugo Weaving’s settled loremaster. But he probably would seek to maintain not just the same building-blocks, but also the same orchestral palette: female vocals, harps and exotic wind and string instruments. What new instruments in that vein he could throw in there is anyone’s guess: anyone has a spare Ektara or Mijwiz?

Hobbits

The Hobbits engender a huge amount of musical material. The main theme associated with them needs little introduction, but neither does the theme associated with Hobbiton. Although its easy to hear a connection between the two, what may not be readily appearant that they’re virtually the same music, just dressed-up in folksier orchestrations, and associated with a slightly different aspect of the Hobbits’ lifestyle. When we take the same tune and harmonize it to a series of hymn-like chords, we get a theme we associate more specifically with Frodo and, more generally, with the Hobbits’ maturation and loss of innocence, and this then develops into the theme of the song “In Dreams.”

Like Wagner and certainly like Williams, Shore was cognizent of the fact that its important to have to a few long-lined, italianate melodies (often the main themes of their respective thematic families) in his works alongside some of the shorter motives, and he can later hint at the unabridged melody by using various fragments from it. In a traditional film score like a Williams Star Wars score, this is further anchored in the idea of the series and each entry having a “main theme.” This is less overtly the case in Wagner and Shore, although for instance the theme associated with the Fellowship is also treated as the main theme of The Fellowship of the Ring. At any rate, composers will naturally stress some of their more major ideas, and one of the ways to do this is to make them longer and more memorable, to repeat them and to make them stand-out in dynamic and character from the music around them, and this is what Shore does with the main theme associated with the Shire.[13]It can even be argued that the second part of the main Shire theme has its own field of associations, not just because we sometimes hear it on its own but also because its whole musical character is … Continue reading

The tune itself is built around a modified pentatonic scale: that’s the basic building-block of the Hobbits, and its reprised in a multitude of different themes with different associations: the younger Bilbo is associated with several themes, one of which we hear growing out of the main theme associated with the Shire in the music to the announcement trailer of An Unexpected Journey; the other, we hear growing into the main theme as the title “The Hobbit” appears onscreen in the first film. That’s yet another technique that these composers like to use when they’re transforming their material: they’ll put an existing, recognisable theme in the midst of the composition to make us hear that this new material is in fact an outgrowth of something we already know and heard.[14]Listen to the end-credits of The Phantom Menace: John Williams takes the theme associated in the film with the young Anakin and, towards the end of each phrase, lets it meld into allusions to the … Continue reading

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Bilbo's Adventure

Notice a similar scalar three-note cell opens both the themes associated with the Shire (above) and one of the themes associated with Bilbo (below)

The Hobbit material also infects other music. Perhaps the most appearant is Gollum: the theme associated with Smeagol is the Shire, corrupted by Mordor. The same opening three-note cell appears in his material, bent and corrupted: its not far off from some of the variations of the skip-beat figure that Bilbo merits. As Smeagol temporarily rejects the Gollum persona in The Two Towers, he gets more Hobbit-y music: the bassline of the Hobbiton scenes prominently features a gamesome four-note “outline” figure, and here it returns completely transformed. Indeed, looking at what Shore might do for the Harfoots in The Rings of Power, one needs look no further than the music of the Smeagol and Deagol scene, which is a “different breed” of Hobbit music, both of the main theme and the accompaniment figures – to some extent drawing a parallel between these two riverfolk to Merry and Pippin. Its a good example of how using these fundemental themes also shapes passages of music that don’t pay-off later, just like Wagner would base a standalone aria like Fricka’s on variations of material he’d explored elsewhere in the score. The unity lended to the piece as a whole by the leitmotives makes standalone chapters (or musical silences) stand-out more, heightening their impact. [15]Wagner originally wanted no free-standing chapters, but already by the second act of Die Walkure, he had started to relax his restrictions, realizing perhaps the power of such … Continue reading

Indeed, conforming the themes to abstract musical forms like an aria is something Shore does quite a few times: the piece Warg Scouts has a fugue-like feeling, the early Shire scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring had been described as a “loose rondo.” Beyond The Forest contains a canon based on the material associated with Tauriel. Some of Shore’s music, like The Valley of Imladris, even crosses into the realm of diegetic music (i.e. they’re heard by the characters). The “Misty Mountains Cold”, although not by Shore but picked-up by his score, plays out like a very traditional ensemble of a kind you’d find in traditional operas – very much like the King’s Prayer in the first act of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Shore, of course, like Williams, has the advantage of having pieces where he expands on a certain theme or group of themes in isolation from the dramatic action, either as part of the end-credits (“Beyond the Forest”, “Dreaming of Bag End”) or purely for the album and the concert stage (“Dwarf Lords”, “Ironfoot”), something Wagner only exploited in one piece, the Siegfried Idyll (and, technically, in the Bayreuth Fanfares). Hearing the themes freely on their own both heightens our awareness of them, but also creates a new appreciation for the themes, both as their changing musical form, happening right before our eyes, changes their associative feel, but also as pure musical devices. Indeed, the cycle ends with pure, absolute music: Bilbo’s Song.

Gollum’s music also shows one of the most important functions of the leitmotif: they’re a greek chorus – they tell us things the characters onscreen do not know to heighten the tension or make a statement about the material: that the older, Ring-addled Bilbo gets material close to Gollum and indeed the very material associated with Gollum, is to create a parallel between the two for us: very similar to much of Wagner’s music, especially the way the music reminds the audience of the curse laid on the Ring even when the characters onscreen are unaware of its existence.

The Shire mateiral is also a good example of just how far musical material can transform across such a lengthy and complex work: between the first statement of the material associated with Bilbo in the opening credits of An Unexpected Journey, and the music of “Bilbo’s Song” which closes the entire cycle, there’s almost no common musical ground left: they’re only related by virtue of the fact that we’ve heard an entire series of intermediate steps linking them across hours and hours of music. With the added expanse of the show, this radical example of transformation could be taken further still.[16]There’s little in common between the music of Fasolt’s warning to Odin: “Was du bist, bist du nur durch Verträge; bedungen ist, wohl bedacht deine Macht” and the theme … Continue reading

In changing so much, the material fullfils its main purpose: underscoring the passage of time, and this exists on several levels, one being the amount of time the film or episode takes: in the case of the films we’re talking 2.5 to four hours, plus intermissions, and in the case of the show around 50 minutes per episode. But there’s also the time within the story, which (at least with the various flashbacks) encompasses millennia. There’s the time of composition: when all is said and done, all three composers have spent decades working in their respective musical worlds and their understanding of their own musical material evolves and changes. Perhaps most significant is the time-lapse between the experiences of hearing different entries: The Ring was composed to be heard over four straight evenings, but Shore’s scores were composed for films debuting a year apart each – mitigated to two months by the extended editions – and now for episodes released on a weekly basis. Acroos all these respects, the leitmotives and how they’re treated helps us appreciate the passage of time.

Again, its doubtful Shore would have wanted to reprise any existing Hobbit-related themes for the Harfoots we will see in the show. Even for Bilbo, he was (at least initially) reluctant to do so, preferring to write new themes based on the same scale pattern for him and relating them to the Shire material we’ve heard before. Again, there are certain instrumental choices that can help cement the connection: although we also hear the tin whistle in the concert piece “Ironfoot”, otherwise we associate it completely with the Hobbits and their themes; and there are other instruments like hammered dulcimer and celtic harp that are also associated with the Hobbits. Shore could also build on it further: for The Hobbit, he added recorders and concertinas – who’s to tell what he might write for next? Pibgorns, perhaps? The thematic “families” are even associated with certain key centers and compositional styles like polyphony, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.[17]Again, the use of instrumental colours come from Wagner, who associates the horn with Siegfried, the trumpet with the sword, and even had special instruments like the tuben – also used by Shore … Continue reading

Sauron and the Orcs

All the “bad guy” music ties back to Sauron, through another “basic motive”: a three-note cell that goes a halfstep down and fullstep back up. Its a movement that creates a disonance that we associate with evil, and it manifests itself into the music associated with the One Ring. So much so, that we often hear that cell as an embryo or premonition of the Ring. Look no further than the opening logos music of An Unexpected Journey: the shape is an embryo of the theme associated with the line of Durin, but the string line repeats the “Ring” interval; and what about the music of Bilbo puffing smoke rings? the whistle and sonority connotate the Shire, but the figure ends on the same telltale interval. Much of Bilbo’s fondelling and occasional doning of the Ring through his quest merits this gesture, with only a scarce few dramatic places where Shore  lets loose with the unabridged theme. Tellingly, although it was not composed by Shore, the music of the title reveal for The Rings of Power was built off that exact same interval, as well.

But this cell manifests itself in other music, too. When the apparition of the Necromancer appears to Radagast we hear cor anglais wail a theme that incorporates the same cell and which we associate with the Necromancer. By the time he reveals himself as Sauron to Gandalf, the melody stops trailing off and becomes an agressive motto for muted trumpets and rhaita, which is a theme we will come to associate with Sauron. By the time we get to The Return of the King, not only have the themes accumulated a huge amount of associations, but it will become impossible to tell whether we’re hearing this theme or the one associated with the Ring: as was the case in Götterdämmerung, Shore’s preference as the story comes towards its resolution is to stop using the themes as encapsulated statements but rather to merge and confuse them with one another and use them in more generalized ways, in what’s in what’s been described as “leitmotif soup.”[18]Its this technique – also used in The Battle of the Five Armies to some extent – that shows Shore really learning from Wagner’s music, because mixing-up the motives to the point of … Continue reading

This cell also appears in Smaug’s material, foreshadowing the reveal that Smaug is allied with Sauron. Like Sauron, Smaug is associated with eastern instruments, but where Sauron gets reedy, nasal sounds like muted trumpets, rhaita and pipe organ, Smaug mostly gets metal percussion that evokes his treasure hoard: namely, an entire Gamelan ensemble. The cell (and other elements) is never too far away from the music of the spiders, who otherwise seem to inhabit an atonal world all of their own. Wargs and Ogres, used by Sauron’s servants, also merit themes which point to this connection. Indeed, as the title “The Desolation of Smaug” appears we hear the rhythm associated with the Ringwraiths followed closely by the theme associated with Smaug, attached to fragments of Warg material, connecting Sauron, Azog’s pack and Smaug together. This again shows us another things about leitmotives: their associations are also coloured by having the leitmotives play right next to other leitmotives. Shore even uses the bad guys music to misdirect: when Sam is eavesdropping in the bushes, a quote of a motive associated with the threat of Mordor fools us into thinking its a Ringwraith.[19]a technique not appearant in Shore’s score is musical in-jokes, usually between works: Wagner mischeviously quotes Tristan und Isolde in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg when Hans Sachs says he … Continue reading

There are other noteworthy elements to the bad-guy music: From Sauron’s material, Shore derives a pair of descending thirds, but instead of using these verbatim for the Necromancer and his minions, Shore constructs new themes off of this pattern: another pair of descending thirds, totally different in affect, characterizes Dol Guldur and, with a slight change of rhythm and the addition of an accented disonance at the end, characterizes Azog (and his pack). As the score unfolds, the descending thirds associated with Azog will merge into those associated with Dol Guldur, which will in turn transform into Mordor’s descending thirds. Would we perhaps get another descending thirds idea for Adar (Joseph Mawle) in the show?

Mordor Descending Third
The Necromancer A

Some of the transformations of the descending thirds “plastic motive”: it appears as several different themes with different associations: as “danger” motive associated with Mordor and the wraiths (above), quietly menacing as the theme associated with Dol Guldur, and overtly threatening as a theme strongly associated with Azog (below).

These motives again illustrate something composers will do: they’ll take one theme from one thematic world and transform it into a theme from another one. Wagner first did this in Das Rheingold, where the theme associated with the Ring of Power transforms into the theme associated with Valhalla. Shore also does this when the four Hobbits tumble into the Woody End, where the Hobbit music changes to minor and out of pungent tubas readings of this material will emerge the material associated with the Ringwraiths. In his Symphony, Shore then attaches this material to the material of Saruman’s fight with Gandalf, showing a further connection.

Another “fundemental theme” that allows the Orcs to carve their own identity, within the bigger “bad guy” musical camp, is the offebeat rhythm: Almost everyone knows the five-beat pattern associated with the Uruk-hai, but the fact is we hear similar rhythms with the Gundabad army, with the Moria Orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring, and finally with the Orcs of Mordor. The thing that sets the Uruk-hai apart is the accents and the orchestration for metalic percussion: Shore actually had a player strike the chords inside a grand piano with steel chains to achieve the desired effect. But all the Orcs get variations on this rhythm (usually with the addition of japanese Taiko drums) and even the music of Goblintown occasionally wanders into it. Would we hear it surrounding the Orcs in the show? Not unlikely. Since the music of the “bad guys” is among the most exotic, the options of instrumentation are all but limitless, Shore having already mustered orchestrations as outlandish as using tuned artillery shells for Smaug, twenty aboriginal yidaki for Gundabad, waterphones (sometimes struck with knitting needles) for Mirkwood, and gongs pretty much everywhere.

Mankind

Like the Elves, the world of mankind includes several interconnected vignettes. They’re all modal and all feature certain leaps: Rohan has the fourth, while Gondor and Laketown have the fifth. Rohan gets a telling “fundemental” motive that mimics the galloping of a horse: we hear a version of this motive as yet another “embroynic” form of the main Rohan theme, which we associate with Eomer’s riders. Rohan is also distinguished through its colours: droning string instruments like the Hardinfelle that evoke a Norse atmosphere, but also a ratchet and even a custom-built instrument in the form of the double fiddle.

Of course, unless the origins of Halbrand presage the Rohirrim, it isn’t really relevant to The Rings of Power, but it is very relevant to The War of the Rohirrim, should Shore choose to get involved in it, too. Here, of course, the licensing issue doesn’t exist, and so we could be expecting to hear the familar fanfare associated with Rohan. Nevertheless, its possible Shore or whatever composer that will take the project on will seek to introduce a new “spin” on the same theme for the different context of Rohan centuries prior to The Two Towers. Again, brining back the hardinfelle alone will conjure up associations of Rohan’s music. Other than the main theme and the fragment we associate with the riders, there actually isn’t a lot of Rohan material except for the themes associated with Eowyn. But, then, the main theme associated with Rohan is extremly flexible: as Theoden rides up to Dunharrow, the Hardinfelle and horns gets to do an extended development of that theme, and we can hear it inflected in all sorts of ways, almost representing the various districts of Rohan.

Gondor is a bit more stately. Its set mostly to the brass section (augmented with rotary-valve trumpets), with only Faramir getting any speciality instruments: in this case, panpipes and a wood flute (the latter is also used in source music played in Rivendell). The themes stress the perfect fifth leap, but the tune trails off until its reinvigorated by the arrival of Gandalf and Aragorn: although the Fellowship’s “fundemental theme” is outside the scope of this discussion, there is a down-and-up “There and Back Again” figure (very nearly an inversion of the figure associated with the bad guys) that features in the themes associated with the Fellowship and its members, and this figure comes to replace the coda of the theme associated with Gondor, creating a new theme that we associate with Gondor’s renewed rise to power. In an alterate take on the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Shore constructed another version of the Gondor material with a third, different coda. If Shore is in fact not prohibited from revisting his themes, this would be prime musical real-estate to evoke Numenore.

In fact, the “There and Back Again” shape is noteworthy because its the basis of the music we associate with Aragorn in his “Strider” persona. When Isildur lays seemingly in the mercy of Saruon in The Fellowship of the Ring, we hear a version of the “There and Back Again” figure that not only helps the prologue serve as an “overture” that exposits the main themes of the film upfront – a popular operatic practice also used by Wagner – but also creates a connection between Isildur and his heir Aragorn: could Isildur’s music in the show be built off of the Fellowship material in anticipating his great descendent?

Except Laketown – which has an extremly developed musical family-tree – Other human civilizations in Middle Earth have yet to gain a musical portrait in Howard Shore’s score: Bree is portrayed as an extension of the Hobbit material, mostly associated with a skip-beat figure from the Shire turned to minor modes. The Dunlendings, sure to appear prominently in The War of the Rohirrim, are portrayed as musical allies of Saruman and are associated with the themes that connotate Isengard (as is Grima’s music) – again, prime unexplored musical territory going into The War of the Rohirrim.

The Haradrim, too, get only glimpses: Doug Adams lists a “Mumakil theme” for The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but as he points out, its not really a theme but rather a certain treatment of the orchestra that’s appearant in both films, as well a new colour: an indian Dilruba. However, could Shore take those isolated glimpses and expand them into a proper theme? I wouldn’t put it beyond him: Shore had taken the music that accompanies Gandalf’s examining Thorin’s map in The Fellowship of the Ring – itself an outgrowth of one of the Hobbit motives – and not only used variations of it in several places in An Unexpected Journey (mostly in association with Bilbo’s eccentricity), but he actually reverse-engineered the theme associated with Thorin from it, so that when we hear that music in The Fellowship of the Ring, we should remember Thorin and company.

Extrapolating new thematic ideas from what originally concieved of as an isolated moment is something Wagner had already done with the material concieved of for the Siegfried Idyll, which was inserted into the second half of the Ring. This is noteworthy because many of the new themes in the second part of the cycle, whether they derive from the Idyll or from the pre-existing “fundemental themes” are of a notably different character: while the existing themes continue to be used in extremly malleable ways, many of the new themes do not share this plasticity: Wagner not only keeps his themes fresh, but also his concept for his themes. [20]Indeed, the idiom of the second half of the Ring is closer to Wagner’s other late works like Tristan and Parsifal. Because of the comparative simplicity of their plots, Wagner can get away with … Continue reading

Nature

Perhaps closest to Howard Shore’s heart is the world of nature. At its core is another “natural motive”: a chordal progression from A minor to F major. Go and listen to the music of the Stone Giants: its not reprised anywhere in the score, and the music sounds worlds away from the elegant music of the moth, but it has the same harmonies: the theme associated with the Stone Giants is yet another one of those “perliminary forms” that anticipate music that’s yet to come: as the Eagles fly the company over the Misty Mountains, there’s a beautiful aria which is also based on this harmonic progression. In The Desolation of Smaug, the theme associated with Beorn is also associated with a bassline that stresses the same progression. Even the Ents are connected to nature, as is Gandalf the White.

Heck, beginning with The Two Towers, the Rohirrim become musically allied with the world of nature: as the main nature theme plays both when they resolve to storm out of Helm’s Deep (at dawn) and as they ride towards Gondor and finally where they rally against the forces of Mordor (also at dawn). Again, the very value of these motives is that their associations are flexible and undergo change just as much as the musical form of the motives does.

That is not to say all the motives are always changing: the main nature theme actually retains a fairly stable musical form. Some of Wagner’s motives also don’t really change: the theme associated with the renouncation of love stays pretty much the same in musical form (including orchestration and key) and, largely, in its association, very much in the style of the “reminiscence” themes of earlier operas. Some specific variations will return when a similar dramatic situation is reprised or recalled: John Williams puts the same version of the Imperial March in the fight between Sidius and Yoda as between Luke and Vader, so as to draw a parallel, and Shore often does the same. Some passages in Wagner will quote an entire sequence of music (comprising a whole sequence of themes) and even words verbatim, and so does Shore: when Bilbo goes to the market, we hear the exact same music as in the early Shire scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring: so much so that Shore’s earlier piece is credited in the end-credits! This technique is reserved to situations in which the composer wants to create a very strong parallel across a large time span: in this case, a full nine hours later!

At the moment, we don’t know about the presence of many forces of nature in the show: maybe the introduction of “The Stranger” (Daniel Weyman) via a meteor could merit nature-related material (I hope it doesn’t merit any of the material associated with the wizards!) but otherwise we’ve yet to learn about the eagles or any other notable force of nature appearing in the show. But then, could nature-derived themes be relevant to, say, the wiles of the sea that Galadriel and Halbrand are braving in the first two episodes? Perhaps such material could be a premonition of the material for the eventual deluge of Numenore. One wonders, one wonders…

”Middle Earth”

Its not always easy to clump all of the themes into common sources: of course not all the music in works as vast as the Ring cycle or the Middle Earth films will fall into neatly delineated categories. Doug Adams identifies a rather large group of themes under the name “Middle Earth”, which divides into several subcategories. In effect, it is Middle Earth’s musical miscellanea. But there are some noteworthy connections between many of the themes in this category. For instance, the same diminished chords that crop-up in the theme of Boromir’s death (which is also the theme of Theoden’s death) also crop-up in the music of the Dead men of Dunharrow and, eventually, in the theme of “Into the West.” Doug Adams calls that later theme “The Grey Havens” but that is not to say its a theme associated with Lindon: rather its associated with the Grey Havens only insofar as they’re a pathway to Valinor and the beyond, which is how we mostly hear it.

This is a noteworthy collection of themes when looking at future forays into this musical world, precisely because some of these motives are used very sparingly: for instance, a motive that links the fall of Isildur to that of Boromir would earn an entirely new dimension if its attached to other tragic events earlier in Middle Earth history, and much the same could  be said for the theme linked to the “Nameless fear” that Galadriel references in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

But there are some more important motives here. One of them is actually one of Shore’s fundemental themes: so fundemental, in fact, that we’ve already heard it pervade many of the above examples without realizing it: Shore associates arpeggios of a certain shape with the concept of weakness and fallibility. That’s why Elrond (portrayed as a great skeptic, certainly regarding mankind) gets arpeggios. Its why Thranduil (certainly a very flawed character) gets arpeggiations of the chords of the Woodland Realm, and its why the Dwarven diaspora, “brought low” and embittered, merits Dwarven motives based on this idea. This shape also appears in Gollum’s music and many other pieces beside – it permeates everything. Expect to see more of it in future Shore compositions in this world.

Another shape doesn’t really become appearant until the end of The Battle of the Five Armies: we’ve already illustrated the theme associated with Thorin, which we hear in many guises and with many associations. But as Thorin expires, we hear it played alongside a new theme which then segues into Tauriel and Kili’s love music to show that the same element is also present in their music: its associated with death and grief. It had always been present in these themes, but it takes until this point, when we hear them played in close conjunction, for us to hear the connection: Thorin had carried his tragedy with him all along and, as we cross into The Lord of the Rings, it develops into a theme that highlights the suffering inflicted by the War of the Ring. Would these woeful themes, or some progenitor thereof, crop-up to signal the hardships of the characters in The Rings of Power or The War of the Rohirrim? Hard to say, but lets hope so.

Conclusions

It is very easy to think of leitmotives just as a series of disparate, recurring, crude “calling cards” for characters, artefacts, places and ideas. They are not. Rather, they’re dynamic, interconnected cells that are in a constant state of defining their musical form, their associations, their relationship to other motives and birthing new motives. Their intention is to make the music inextricable from the drama (indeed, as Sir Roger Scruton says, it is the drama) and, at its most abstract, to imbue the drama with meaning. That is the function Shore’s scores have fullfilled for these films, and its one they may still fullfill to future entries in this series.

As such, future forays into this series, either with The Rings of Power and/or The War of the Rohirrim can present wonderful opportunities to expand this material, expand the themes’ associations, expand their musical developments, expand their conjection with other themes and spin new themes off of old ones. Whatever Shore decides to do in this universe, it will further cement Middle Earth as the most developed of the “symphonic universes” since Wagner’s time, and will bolster his achievement as rather a unique one in music history.

References

References
1 a term Wagner coined after Lohengrin but which he later abandoned for “Handlung” (play), “festival” and “deeds of music acted out”
2 Williams composed two themes which he associated with the young Han Solo (Alden  Ehrenreich). These were featured in his concert piece The Adventures of Han and several film-cues, which were written specifically so that composer John Powell could pull from it for the score to Solo. He had just now composed a new theme associated with Obi-Wan for the upcoming show, for the show’s composer – as of yet, undisclosed – to use. Could this be the same kind of collaboration Shore might seek with another composer for the show? John Williams also obliged to a request to compose themes for the Galaxy’s Edge theme park. Williams had also composed several concert pieces based on themes from his scores, specifically for the album (or the concert stage), which Shore had also done with a few pieces like “The Dwarf Lords.”
3 John Williams only signed on to score three Harry Potter entries. He also scored a trailer with a theme he concieved of as ewoking Hedwig’s flight, but which he implemented in the films themselves more generally as the “main theme.” Indeed, many of the themes from Philosopher’s Stone seem not to have very specific associations. The second entry, The Chamber of Secrets, conflicted with his work on Attack of the Clones – small wonder the motive associated with the Separatists conjures up Voldemort – Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, and so some of the score – believed to be around 50% – was “adapted by William Ross.” Across those two scores there are plenty of themes, but unlike leitmotives they do not develop and are in fact abandoned before the third film, with the exception of the main theme (which even undergoes some musical development) and two or three reprises of the themes associated with the flying broomsticks and the invisibility cloak.
4 This technique is not appearant in earlier operas, nor in Wagner’s operas predating the Ring: recurring themes associated with narrative elements have been in practice since early French opera, but they were limited to a few “reminiscence themes” scattered throughout the opera and they did not undergo development either in their musical form or their associations. Even the works which Wagner instigated after he began the Ring – Parsifal, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg or his masterpiece Tristan und Isolde – don’t use this technique, insofar as the themes no longer have specific associations: almost all the themes in Tristan are just a collection of love themes of different shades. Since then, other composers like Strauss, Berg, Schoenberg and Debussi had picked-up the leitmotif technique, but always for the purpse of a single-evening opera or cantata. Some early film scores like John Barry’s work on the James Bond films have generated a lot of themes, but the episodic nature of the films meant that other than one or two main themes, there was not the chance to develop the same material across multiple evenings in the theater.
5 Nevertheless, literature that notates the various leitmotives into lists had become very popular: Dr. Allen Duning and Sir Roger Scruton provided the most up-to-date menus of leitmotives in Wagner’s Ring cycle – which is around 16 hours in length – at around 180 leitmotives each, while Frank Lehman had produced a catalogue of the Star Wars themes, standing at around 71. Doug Adams had identified some 160 leitmotives across the six Middle Earth scores, at a comparable length to Williams Star Wars scores.
6 It is not quite the technique used by John Williams in Star Wars. Not that the leitmotives in Star Wars don’t develop or interconnect through common harmonic progressions that are associated with certain underlying concepts, but one would be hard-pressed to organize Williams Star Wars themes except as the themes of “the good guys” as opposed to those of the “bad guys”: they don’t quite divide into sets and subsets of related and opposing themes in the way that Shore’s and Wagner’s do.
7 I’ve yet to hear a good explanation of why Wagner plays the theme associated with magic when Waltraute tells Brunhilde that Odin’s spear was broken, except that it sounded right. In John Williams scores, its a ubiquitous technique: why do we hear the theme associated with Leia when Old Ben dies? Why the theme that connotate Yoda when they attempt to rescue Han’s effigy? Why “Duel of the Fates” when Anakin is looking for his mother? Why the fanfare associated with the Rebels when R2 defends the buzz-droids? Why the theme associated with the Force is just about any vaguely-impactful moment in The Last Jedi? Why the theme of Luke and Leia’s fraternal connection for the victory celebrations in The Rise of Skywalker? You’ll notice we’ve touched nearly every single one of his Star Wars scores.
8 Wagner’s first introduction of the main love theme is when the Rhinedaughter Flosshilde mockingly leads Alberich the Dwarf on, later again when he bemoans their teasing and so forth. Williams sets-up themes like the original theme associated with the Empire before Darth Vader enters. Anakin and Padme’s love music is first hinted at while Anakin and Obi-Wan are chatting in the elevator.
9 Again, this has precedent in Wagner: for instance, the theme Wagner associates with the magic gold, which we first hear when the Rhinedaughters joyously call out to the gold, is heard again much later with no connection to the gold: rather, its attached to the joy and excitement of Siegfried’s breaching the flames and find Brunhilde. Williams had taken the theme originally associated with the Rebels and, by the time of the sequel trilogy, associated with rather with the Millennium Falcon.
10 Wagner caused his reviewers no end of confusion when he appended the theme associated with Alberich’s renounciation of love to Siegmund drawing the sword from the tree, which he does invoking his great love of Sieglinde. What he is doing is precisely to link the two moments so as to make us contrast them.
11 The major presentations of Arwen and Aragorn’s love music merit a fourth flute (all four playing alto flutes), the Moria passages acquire seven trombones and two tubas, the ride of the rohirrim gets eight trumpets.
12 Williams recalls having a “potpurri of the main themes” in the music preceding the final space battle in the original Star Wars, and he wrote an extended end-credits suite for Revenge of the Sith whose purpose was to serve as a “next time, on Star Wars!” In Wagner, often the tail-end of a scene will recap its musical material, and very often scene transitions and preludes will summarize the music of the scenes and acts that came prior, but really Wagner’s main opportunity to reprise material is his notorious exposition scenes. Shore sometimes has opportunities to recap material in quiet sections, exposition scenes of other such sequences: much of the Dwarven material passes through the scene of Thorin’s funeral, for instance, but its mostly the end-credits that he can have a free hand recapping his material. Of course, Shore like other film composers such as Williams, can also write pieces specifically for the album or the concert stage like “The Dwarf Lords” which gives him even further opportunities to explore his material freely.
13 It can even be argued that the second part of the main Shire theme has its own field of associations, not just because we sometimes hear it on its own but also because its whole musical character is much more soaring and uplifting: Eric Rawlins says that “Where the “Rustic” theme is about a pleasant place to live, and the Shire theme is about the place you want to go home to, the Expansive variant is about the place that makes your heart swell when you think about it.”
14 Listen to the end-credits of The Phantom Menace: John Williams takes the theme associated in the film with the young Anakin and, towards the end of each phrase, lets it meld into allusions to the theme we associate with Darth Vader, precisely so to make us aware that the one is based on the other. In Wagner’s case, much of the music of the first act of Die Walküre, from the storm that dogs Siegmund before he shelters in Sieglinde’s home, to the music of their first furitive glances and many other gestures all derive from the motive associated with the spear of Odin, their father. To make sure we hear the connection, Wagner sandwiches the motive associated with the spear into the scene when Hunding notes: “How like the woman is he, the deceitful serpent glistens too in his eye.”
15 Wagner originally wanted no free-standing chapters, but already by the second act of Die Walkure, he had started to relax his restrictions, realizing perhaps the power of such “interruptions.” Use of silence is perhaps less prevalent in the Ring but very important in Tristan, where there are whole bars of silence. Wagner even seizes opportunities to incorporate a homage or two into the music as such standalone chapters – much of Sieglinde’s nightmare in the same act is scored by a theme usually taken as a homage to Franz Liszt’s Faust symphony. Williams also has a few homages to pieces of music from Star Wars temp-track and, at the end of The Return of the King, Howard Shore places a homage…to Wagner!
16 There’s little in common between the music of Fasolt’s warning to Odin: “Was du bist, bist du nur durch Verträge; bedungen ist, wohl bedacht deine Macht” and the theme associated with the funeral pyre in Götterdämmerung some 14 hours later. But through intermediate steps in Odin’s riddle game and the Norn scene, we get from one to the other.
17 Again, the use of instrumental colours come from Wagner, who associates the horn with Siegfried, the trumpet with the sword, and even had special instruments like the tuben – also used by Shore – built for the Ring. Valhalla is associated with the key of D-flat major, while pure nature is associated with E-flat major.
18 Its this technique – also used in The Battle of the Five Armies to some extent – that shows Shore really learning from Wagner’s music, because mixing-up the motives to the point of ambiguity is not a technique which would be readily appearant to someone who didn’t hear Götterdämmerung: Williams, for example, doesn’t use this technique and its little surprise that he only saw the Ring in the late 60s in Hamburg and, not having a grasp of German, found it offputting. His example was rather the one laid-down by earlier, Wagnerian film composers like Max Steiner. But in Götterdämmerung Wagner decided to use the themes more generally, as he did in Tristan, and to mix-and-match them so that we’re no longer hearing individual themes but rather phrases that are somewhere “between” two or three different themes, and they fire-up the associations of all of those themes all at once.
19 a technique not appearant in Shore’s score is musical in-jokes, usually between works: Wagner mischeviously quotes Tristan und Isolde in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg when Hans Sachs says he heard the story of Tristan and “would have none of King Mark’s lot.” In The Last Jedi, John Williams score includes a couple of such musical in-jokes like a quote of the motif associated with the Death Star when a clothing iron is made to appear like a landing ship. Williams also quotes the theme associated with Yoda in ET, when the titular character sees a kid in a Yoda outfit. Wagner reprises, perhaps less mischeviously, the swan theme from Lohengrin in its prequel Parsifal.
20 Indeed, the idiom of the second half of the Ring is closer to Wagner’s other late works like Tristan and Parsifal. Because of the comparative simplicity of their plots, Wagner can get away with a more streamlined musical style, in which the themes are only delineated into two or three opposing musical worlds – and not necessarily worlds of equal standing – which can be exposited very economically at the beginning of the piece (which, unlike the Ring, contains an overture) and which do not necessarily cross-polinate like the worlds in the Ring do. Could Shore compose for the series more in the Tristan mould?
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Chen

Historian and perpetual Wagnerian, I had discovered the Lord of the Rings along with Tolkien’s other, multifarious writings after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. As an avid filmgoer and writer, I take a particular interest in adaptations of Tolkien’s works – past, present and future, realized or otherwise – and participate with Fellowship’s podcasts in that capacity, researching and discussing the Amazon show.

1 Comment

  • Aaron Rabenstein
    March 10, 2022 at 9:12 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful experience of exploring the art of Shoer’s composition that made me love this soundtrack even more than it already did. One part surprised me a lot: that there is a connection to Thorin’s theme when Gandalfs looks at the map in FOTR. It has always been there and it fits so perfectly that I didn’t notice it in the slightest! All this really gets my hopes up for TROP and WOTR! Thank you, Chen!

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