Lord of the Rings CD Review
The Fellowship of the Ring *****
By Doug Adams
For the past several years, Peter Jackson and the crew of The Lord
of the Rings films have obsessed over the creation of a Middle-earth
that both reflects the aesthetics of its creators, yet appears to have
spontaneously grown out of ages of heritage. As a filmic goal, this is
at best a challenge, but it creates a real difficulty for a composer. On
one hand, the composer is free to add his own aesthetic spin to the story,
his musical interpretation of the plot, characters and events. However,
if this approach is applied too liberally, the composer is moving the audience
a step further away from the films' version of reality with a second level
of interpretation. Ideally, the films call for music that is both from
this world, and about this world -- a cross between source music and score,
a seemingly contradictory requirement.
Past composers who have tackled Tolkien's legend have, pretty consistently,
only addressed one of these two concerns. Leonard Rosenman's score to the
1978 Ralph Bakshi animated version is unquestionably a strict account of
the story as heard through Rosenman's mental filter -- an "about the world"
score. Same goes for Johan de Meij's popular First Symphony based on his
reading of the book's characters. Several lesser known works have found
composers setting Tolkien lyrics to music, and in such, almost entirely
suppressing their musical personalities to create music consistently "from
the world" -- music that, say, a Hobbit supposedly could have written.
Still, neither of these polarized approaches could have been entirely successful
in Jackson's new films. An "about the world" score, a score that related
events only through the perspective and interpretation of someone outside
of the film's reality, would stand between the audience and the story.
Yet a diagetic/period score would fail to acknowledge the story's larger
issues, dramatic connections, and resonance.
Howard Shore has long been known for his talent to tie music to film.
In works like Crash, Naked Lunch, The Game and so
on, he related music to stories that didn't immediately suggest simple
musical counterparts. But the Lord of the Rings challenge was one he had
not faced before, because not only did it require the above stylistic balancing
act, but it demanded an unprecedented scope and scale. Happily, Shore proves
himself more than up to the requirements, in one of the most intelligent
and emotionally satisfying scores of 2001.
Shore's score begins with "The Prophecy," utilizing an ensemble of amassed
instrumental and choral forces in a confident and powerful display. The
cue functions somewhat like an overture, though displaying an array of
ensemble colors rather than a parade of themes -- dramatically and musically
the perfect choice. The writing establishes Shore's "about the world" voice,
and it is this voice that will underscore the film's two main recurring
elements: the One Ring itself, and the Fellowship of the Ring. Shore scores
these ideas with the full resources of his palette, although this isn't
to imply that every time these themes occur they're blasted in a full orchestral
garb. Rather, Shore allows himself access to his full ensemble to pick
and choose colors as the moments dictate. It should also be noted here,
that the vocalists are treated as part of this ensemble, and not as a featured
element. Soloists, choral ensembles and instrumentalists commingle in cohesive
textures that continually push new elements to the foreground.
The Ring has a number of motifs, the most prominent being an alluring
Swan Lake-like melody heard over a series of twisting minor chords -- Bb
min., Gb min., Bb min., Db min., F min. in the opening track. The Fellowship
theme, on the other hand, develops out of pieces -- most notably a trio
of major chords, descending by step then returning -- sprinkled throughout
the album's first half until they coalesce in a forceful, revelatory statement
in "The Council of Elrond."
For his "from the world" tone, Shore pulls from this menu of timbral
colors to provide each culture and setting in Middle-earth a signature
sound. Shore's egalitarian treatment of his forces in the Ring and Fellowship
music allows him to create an almost limitless number of variant ensembles,
all of which relate to this greater musical/dramatic whole. Shore is also
free to apply specialized vocal soloists to specific characters and regions,
while they're still an extension/reduction of his amassed ensemble. Not
only does this provide a wonderful parallel construction to Fellowship's
story, its clear structure makes the album all the more enjoyable.
Shore does have a third recurring melody, a pastoral and gently beautiful
Celtic tinged tune that develops throughout the score, eventually surfacing
as the song "In Dreams." This melody seems to be associated with the Hobbits'
quest, and I'd imagine we'll see its continued development in the next
two films. Like the other recurring themes, it's allowed access to the
score's full orchestral resources, with its Celtic suggestions growing
from its harmonic inflections. As such it provides a nice bridge between
the Hobbits' quest and their home. The Hobbiton music in "Concerning Hobbits"
is swathed in Celtic instrumental sounds, including fiddle, dulcimer, harpsichord,
wooden flute, accordion and pizzicato strings. The heroic Hobbits are also
associated with the clear tones of a boys choir, aptly representing the
characters' nobility, stature and disposition, and establishing yet another
link to the greater whole. The Hobbit melodies are very tuneful and vertical,
almost song-like in construction, again reflecting this simple culture.
The mystical Elf cultures, on the other hand, receive some of Shore's
most horizontal writing, which creates an ethereal, timeless quality. An
all-female chorus often appears, as do female soloists Elizabeth Frasier
and Enya. Shore compounds this otherworldly writing with the inclusion
of African and North Indian instruments, and by the occasional introduction
of Eastern influenced harmonic nuances -- note the bent pitches in the
The album's two Enya songs are closely related to the Elf styles, and,
as they are orchestrated by Shore, fit rather seamlessly into the overall
musical fabric. In fact, they coexist so neatly, neither Enya song is relegated
to its own track.
Fellowship of the Ring only deals in Dwarf culture during the
dangerously exciting Mines of Moria sequence, so Shore's gruff and angular
men's chorus couples nicely with low brass and string clusters to highlight
both the cultural aspects of the setting and the danger of the moment.
Shore's use of guttural grunting effects and syncopated rhythms in the
chorus augment the general effect, while allowing the choral sounds to
remain audible through the swelling, dissonant instrumental clusters. The
composer also taps into Tolkien's mention of drums in this scene with an
ever-building texture of pounding percussion. The Moria music is Shore's
most extroverted on the album and, over the course of two tracks ("A Journey
in the Dark" and "The Bridge of Khazad Dum"), intensifies into a dense
musical stranglehold, before cutting to a remorseful mixed choir and soprano
The Ring Wraiths are allotted Shore's darkest music (heard prominently
in "The Black Rider," "A Knife in the Dark," "Flight at the Ford" and elsewhere)
as a Gothic mixed chorus chants thick blocks of sound over a network of
churning ostinati. Again, there's an amazing thickness to the counterpoint
made clear by wise rhythmic decisions -- the instrumental ostinati provide
intricate detail while the voices are used in percussive bursts. The Wraiths
also have their own characteristically imbalanced 5/4 galloping motif for
low strings and metal percussion. Interestingly, the metal percussion in
this writing seems as if it may have gone through some sort of electronic
filtering, adding to the ghostly quality.
Shore has described this score as an opera, and while it makes great
copy, it's also an accurate description of the sort of elaborate detail
and scope that the score presents. The CD is overflowing with fascinating
harmonic relationships (some cultures have chromatic music, some have diatonic;
the Ring Wraiths' singularity of purpose is almost always pained in d or
e minor, the pure and simple "In Dreams" melody is almost always in C major,
etc.); with vocal soloists singing mellifluous Tolkien languages; and with
genuine thematic development allowing material to noticeably form and change
in conjunction with its dramatic counterparts. And like an opera, the music
is written in such a way to be satisfying even when separated from its
For a project with unlimited potential and unlimited pitfalls, Shore
has carefully and intelligently crafted one of the year's best works. The
score meets and exceeds the demands of the film, while providing one of
the year's most interesting musical/dramatic efforts. The music demands
a close listening, but the rewards outweigh the exertion.
Howard Shore's The Fellowship of the Ring CD is set for release
on November 20. Doug Adams can be reached at DAdams1127@aol.com