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Return of the King Mailbag

Letters responding to Jon and Al Kaplan's recent ROTK web column


The letter from Jon and Al Kaplan requesting special attention towards Howard Shore's score for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is quite possibly the best, most impassioned and thoughtful article I've read in Film Score Monthly. I agree absolutely, that Shore's work is staggering in its brilliance. Unfortunately, I also concur that the most insipid drivel usually wins each year. I have always felt that the overall voting block of the Academy will vote for the final music award by "the way the title of the film sounds to them." They will see the five nominees listed and say, for instance, "hmmm, Red Violin, (must be about music, I'll go with that one)." The Music Branch that nominates is about as accurate in its nominations as The Documentary Feature Branch.

--David Jeffrey Moraza, Brooklyn


Calling the letter from Jon and Al Kaplan a "kind-hearted message" is more than an understatement. Howard Shore's score to LOTR: Return of the King definitely deserves to be nominated for the Academy Award, and certainly deserves to win. Mr. Shore's score for LOTR -- the entire trilogy -- is a remarkable achievement unmatched in recent times.

Mr. Shore is not the first composer to write music for multi-part films. John Williams has written the music for all of the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones Trilogy, the Superman films, etc. The music for the Star Trek films have been shared by several composers including James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith. However, Mr. Shore's score for the LOTR trilogy is the first in recent times where the musical material and themes are presented and developed as the film (and story) progresses from start to finish -- much as a symphony or tone poem. In short, Mr. Shore's score for the entire LOTR trilogy is a monumental achievement in the history of film music, and sets a standard by which future scores will be measured.

As someone who enjoys symphonic and chamber music, I have long felt that original film scores written by composers such as Mr. Shore is modern American symphonic music, and should not only be heard as background music as part of a film, but should be enjoyed by concert audiences. One can only wait for the symphony that Mr. Shore is preparing from the music written for the LOTR trilogy. Until the day arrives when music from LOTR can be performed by symphony orchestras and enjoyed by concert audiences on a regular basis -- the ultimate recognition of a composer's music -- Howard Shore deserves to be honored for his achievement.

--David Naden


Wisely spoken guys! Hmm...but what is it now? Are sequel scores allowed to get a nomination or not? At least shore got a Golden Globe nomination. This year was awful and it's even more depressing to see that the only two scores that were good, (Matrix Revolutions and ROTK) didn't get the attention they deserve while crap like The Last Samurai gets full coverage everywhere. I really don't understand all the positive reviews of that score -- it's just the usual boring Zimmer thing...major yawn!

--Roman Deppe


I think that Shore's work on all three LOTR films is superb -- which is why I hope it doesn't get nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score. What does it need to prove? The film series is probably one of the most successful in history -- the court of public opinion has spoken and has paid over and over again to see the films. Why does the film, its score, or its actors need recognition by an industry who is just as politically and selfishly motivated as any other group out there? Remember E.T. and Ghandi? Which film has stood the test of time? LOTR will become the industry standard for fantasy films, in spite of what the Academy decides is deserving of an award. Shore's scores will also stand the test of time. I understand that winning an award does get people "recognized," but who actually recognizes them? I say that most people still don't know who John Corigliano is, even after winning for The Red Violin.

Again, popular opinion has spoken. The Academy can have their backlash and give awards to other films and other scores (why Thomas Newman hasn't won yet baffles me), but despite their efforts people know and love the things they don't. And that's good for us.

From: Deacon Greg Zoltowski
I am listening to the soundtrack for Return of the King, and it's marvelous. It is in so many ways the best of the three scores, and the other two were marvelous. I'm left with a feeling of immense gratitude toward artists like Howard Shore.

--Deacon Greg Zoltowski
  Siena College
  Loudonville, NY


SUBJECT: Jon and Al Kaplan: Idiots

I believe they may have shot themselves in the foot with their own campaign. If I was part of the Academy, I'd do everything in my power to prevent the nomination of Return of the King on account of their poor understanding of music, whiny and insulting tone, and sad writing skills. An opera? Really. Do they have any clue what an opera is? I can't tell you how many times I rolled my eyes while reading that rant. Of course, I'm glad this was written, because I don't want ROTK's (and the entire Trilogy's) massively sub-par score to get nominated for anything.   

--Chris Tilton

On account of Jon and Al Kaplan's poor understanding of music, esteemed writer, composer and musicologist Doug Adams will respond in their stead:

I am vouching for the Kaplans' feet, which I can assure you are free of bullet wounds. Yes, there is fair ground to make a comparison between Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings films and the world of opera. Really. Now, understand, I'm not saying, opera-like or not, that you must enjoy Shore's work. That's all a matter of personal taste. But just because you dislike it, you shouldn't deny it its lineage. Personally, I can't stand Rossini, but I'm still more than happy to recognize his as worthy efforts within the established world of opera. There's nothing technically lacking. I just don't like the repetitive structure and the turn-on-a-dime emotions. That's just me.

Yes, clearly Shore's work on LOTR is not an opera in strict terms; it's a film score. But in development and execution it is probably the most opera-like film score I can imagine. Shore, like the Italian masters, loves grand emotional statements and even shares Puccini's passion for stepwise melodies and a flexible sense of the bar line. But, let's ignore all that, because it's pretty difficult to pin a geographic tag on emotional scope. Plus, these qualities are not entirely unique to either Italian opera or Shore's LOTR work. Brahms loved to obscure that nasty little bar line too, and Shore had a similar emotional pitch in Looking for Richard, The Fly and the finale of Silence of the Lambs.

So let's head elsewhere in Europe for a better connection. German opera has long upheld many of the concepts exemplified in Shore's LOTR writing. Shore's architecture for Lord of the Rings is based entirely on races and cultural interaction. His thematic material is grouped into pools from which his individual settings flow. Upon close inspection, the entire score -- thematically speaking -- can practically be boiled down into three pitches: do, re, mi. Played circularly, it's a Ring theme. Stepwise, it belongs to the Hobbits. Or stepwise in the minor key it's a different Ring theme, which is also the B phrase of the Fellowship theme -- which creates the Gandalf the White theme and the Aragorn theme -- which creates the B phrase of the Gondor theme. Repeating, leaping up and falling it's Rohan. Stacked into a vertical harmony it's the Ring Wraiths. Thread an augmented second later in the scale and you've got the music of the Elves. I could go on, but I won't because even this intricate level of interconnection oversimplifies the detail in the score. I'm not mentioning the fact that within each musical culture Shore's themes develop and reform depending of character arcs and interactions between cultures. And there are catalogues of accompaniment figures and secondary themes that provide new material while adding shadings and layers to the more central themes. In the Rohan music, for example, the character of Eowyn has three separate themes and two characteristic instruments to play to her relationships and to affect our perception of the greater collection of Rohan music.

I recently spoke with Jonathan Dean of the Seattle Opera about the connection between Shore's work and German opera, so I hope he doesn't mind if I quote him here. "Look at it form the point of view of motives and the Wagnerian principal of motives spinning off other motives. Wagner really got off on the motif spin-off effect, where this motif reminds us of this other motif because this something in the story is supposed to remind us of what happened last night. The fascinating thing about this is that all the principal motives [from LOTR] are closely connected -- By the time you get to the final version it's like motive soup. That's what Gotterdammerung is like. I'm sure for a composer at that point it's all subconscious because your tunes are your characters. You're writing a story, except you're a composer so you're writing a piece of music."

Shore also plays with the idea of scoring against the visuals, like when Gandalf falls in the first film, which is an idea straight out of Wagner. See Mina in Siegfried. Shore also drops hints of the third film's primary themes in a couple of scenes in the first film. Operas also do this. See the Saloon Girl's / miner's waltz in Fanciulla Del West. See the Fate Motif / Habanera theme from Carmen.

And Shore's work isn't an opera in the traditional sense of key structures, although there is a very strong pitch class structure that's related to the orchestration. Most of the Mordor music is in d-minor because that puts the performers in a certain range. The History of the Ring theme is generally in a-minor because of where that sets the first violins. The Hobbit music usually pops up in D-major or C-major. Nice opposition to the Mordor d-minor, isn't it?

With composers like John Adams, John Corigliano, Philip Glass, John Harbison and even Andre Previn changing the face of modern opera on a regular basis, can't we set Shore's work at the edges of opera pretty easily? It's not an opera, per se, but with an outsized story, an intricately conceived structure (which has barely been hinted at here), and a carefully chosen cast of performers, isn't the comparison more than warranted?

--Doug Adams

And now the Kaplans will respond for themselves:

We're glad we received this one hateful email. When we speak of bitter, frustrated composers who are jealous of Lord of the Rings, we're talking specifically about Chris Tilton, who will spend the rest of his life scoring Muppet video games. Obviously, when we called Shore's LOTR an "opera for film" we didn't mean to imply it was a staged opera where the players sing all of their dialogue. And we didn't need to take the time to clarify that to Chris Tilton. But we did want to take this opportunity to show exactly how operatic the work is, because it's a very interesting topic. And thus we hope you all enjoyed Doug Adams' analysis.

--Jon and Al Kaplan, Idiots

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