Howard Shore and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s The Lord of the Rings soundtracks

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Original scores composed and conducted by Howard Shore, The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra featuring Enya, Annie Lennox, Rene Fleming, James Galway and others

When the announcement was made in the late 1990s that a trilogy of films was to be made from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epochal fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, fandom worldwide cranked up to debate every aspect of such a massive film project. The questions came fast and furious:

“Peter who?”

“How can they possibly get all the important stuff from the books into three movies? Are they gonna be six hours each?”

“Will they include Tom Bombadil?”

“Who’s playing Frodo? Aragorn? Gandalf? Legolas? Gimli? Galadriel? Gollum?”

“Are they seriously considering having Arwen go with the Fellowship?”

“They’re filming it where?!”

“Let me get this straight: the kid from Deep Impact is Frodo, and the guy from Rudy is Sam?

And so on. Questions about the director, about the casting, about the production design, about the special effects, about the screenplay, and about the music.

For film music fans in particular, the announcement of any major film project is always greeted by speculation as to who might be composing the score. For the announcement of a film project of the magnitude of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, speculation was heated and rampant. Names mentioned as possibly being attached to the films included James Horner, especially after his Oscar triumph for Titanic, and Wojcec Kilar, the noted Polish composer behind the music for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

cover art for The Fellowship of the RingThe composer finally announced for The Lord of the Rings was a surprise to film music fans, in that it wasn’t one of the giants of film music like John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, nor was it a composer known for such big-budget epic scores in the past, like Basil Polidouris or Danny Elfman. The announced composer was Howard Shore, a Canadian born musician who for several years worked with Saturday Night Live on NBC before making a name for himself as a composer for some of the darker thrillers in recent Hollywood memory: The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and The Cell. To some, it seemed a strange choice; to some, questionable; and to a distinct minority, a possibly inspired choice. Time would tell if the music for The Lord of the Rings would well serve the films.

And now, three years after The Fellowship of the Ring opened in theaters, we have our verdict. Three immensely popular and successful soundtrack CD releases and two “Best Score” Oscars later (for Fellowship and The Return of the King), Howard Shore appears to have not only delivered, but done so in triumphal fashion. Let me lay my cards on the table: As far as I am concerned, Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings constitutes not just the finest individual aspect of the films themselves, but also one of the finest efforts in film scoring of the past two decades, if not the finest.

cover art for The Two TowersShore’s approach to scoring The Lord of the Rings somewhat mirrors the approach John Williams took with the Star Wars trilogy, using a large orchestra to perform a score composed in the leitmotif tradition. Shore, however, had more music to compose for The Lord of the Rings — nearly twelve hours of it, when the extended editions are factored in — and he used even larger musical forces, supplementing his full orchestra and chorus with instrumental soloists on instruments ranging from the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle to Sir James Galway himself on the flute and whistle. Figure in myriad vocal soloists ranging from Enya to Isabel Bayrakdarian to Emiliana Torrini to Renee Fleming to Annie Lennox, and you have one of the most complex and impressive sound-worlds created by a film composer in years. This is no “cookie-cutter” film score, delivering pounding rhythmic music of predictable melodies and performed by the same-sounding Hollywood studio orchestras augmented by synthesizers, as are so many film scores of today. Howard Shore was given immense latitude with this project, and he was given resources to work with that many film composers can only dream of having at their disposal.

cover art for The Return of the KingIt stood to reason that a project like The Lord of the Rings, with its immense cast of characters ranging across a vast tableau of action in a very complex storyline, Howard Shore would employ the leitmotif technique. This is the practice of assigning themes, or motifs, to certain characters, objects, regions, or even ideas and emotions and then using these themes at appropriate points in the score. Leitmotif scoring is often confused with “Mickey Mousing,” the use of music to almost exactly mirror the events on screen — think of all those loud “stingers” whenever Bugs Bunny delivers the blow to Elmer Fudd, for example. The sophisticated use of leitmotifs involves the skillful use of the musical themes to enhance and extend the emotional fabric of the score, and therefore the film. It’s not a case of “Oh, Aragorn is on the screen, so it’s time to play Aragorn’s Theme.” The main thing to remember about musical motifs is not that they are motifs, but that they are musical. Richard Wagner, who raised the use of leitmotif to its apotheosis in his music-dramas — including Der Ring des Nibelungen, the monumental four-opera cycle that draws in part from the same body of Northern European myth that later inspired one J.R.R. Tolkien — described leitmotifs as “melodic moments of feeling,” and he did so with good reason.

What a leitmotif approach allows, if the composer does his job well, is for the music itself to suggest emotional and psychological connections between seemingly disparate elements of story. Howard Shore’s work on the three Lord of the Rings scores accomplishes this, and more, along the way. This isn’t the appropriate place for me to provide a long analysis of the motifs in The Lord of the Rings, but there are a few examples that show up in pretty remarkable ways throughout the scores:

  • The most important motif in the trilogy, that representing the One Ring itself, is heard at the beginning of each film, as the title The Lord of the Rings appears on the screen after a brief musical introduction.
  • The “One Ring Motif” is often used when characters are tempted by the Ring’s power, or even when it changes “owners.” It is heard, for example, just after Isildur’s death in the prologue, and after Bilbo leaves Bag End and Frodo walks in the front door and picks up the Ring, the motif is heard again. (Interestingly, the “One Ring” motif is also notable for when it is not heard: when Frodo and Aragorn speak on Amon Hen near the end of Fellowship, and when Faramir discovers that Frodo has the One Ring. The lack of the “One Ring” motif in both instances makes me wonder if Shore is subtly telling us that neither man is truly tempted by the Ring.)
  • The motif for Saruman, heard in many of the Isengard scenes in Fellowship and The Two Towers, opens with identical intervals as the motif for Gandalf the White, which is unveiled in The Two Towers.
  • Since the Nazgul were created through the malice of the One Ring and its power over the Nine Rings given to Men, it fits that Howard Shore’s screaming motif for the Nazgul is itself a variation on the motif for the One Ring.
  • My favorite: when the theme for the Shire is first heard in The Fellowship of the Ring, it is given a sprightly, English folk-dance type treatment, with a solo fiddle playing the tune in a stutter-step type of rhythm over a single tapping drum. At the end of the film, when Frodo and Sam are walking into the Hills of Emyn Muil toward Mordor, the Shire theme is heard again, this time in a stately rendition for full strings  and that same rhythmic drum tapping. This is Shore’s way of telling us that it’s not just two hobbits against Sauron, but that it is also the Shire against Mordor.

Leitmotif can also be used by composers to foreshadow events and provide connections between early events and later ones:

  • In Fellowship, when Gandalf rides to Isengard to consult with Saruman, a foreboding, minor-key version of the “Fellowship” theme (which to this point has only been heard once, as the Fellowship doesn’t even exist yet) plays. In this way Shore is able to foreshadow Saruman’s betrayal.
  • During the Council of Elrond sequence (in the Extended Edition), a single horn sounds a proud theme during Boromir’s speech that is not heard again until The Return of the King — when that motif is revealed as the Gondor theme.
  • During the Lorien sequence, also in the Extended Edition, a lofty theme is heard during the conversation between Boromir and Aragorn, when Boromir is urging Aragorn to come home to Gondor and Minas Tirith. This theme is the “Return of the King” motif, and it shows up magnificently in the third film, most notably in the scenes during the forging of Anduril, and Elrond’s presentation of Anduril to Aragorn.
  • When the Fellowship rides the waters of the Great River past the Gates of Argonath, a swelling version of the “One Ring” motif is heard. This usage was very striking, especially when one considers the use of that motif in that context. Why not use the Fellowship theme there? Or the Gondor Theme, since Aragorn muses on returning home and claiming his lineage? It turns out that Howard Shore knows his story well: from that point, only the Ring and the Ringbearer (and his unfailing companion, Sam) will go on; everyone else either dies (Boromir) or turns west into Rohan.

This constitutes a mere handful of examples, but many more abound; these three scores reward repeated listening more than any other scores I have encountered in quite a few years. There’s a constant sense of discovery as one studies what Howard Shore has wrought, as one discovers more and more connecting tissue between all of those separate and distinct motifs. The theme for the Shire, for instance, is a totally separate and self-contained theme, but Shore is able to quote it in short form numerous times throughout the trilogy, and at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring he is able to blend that theme with that of the Fellowship itself (that heroic tune that’s probably the most well-known theme from the trilogy) to show that the two storylines, that of Frodo and Sam and that of the remainder of the Fellowship, are still connected even though the Fellowship itself has broken.

Admiration of the intellectual structure of the motifs in The Lord of the Rings should not, however, crowd out any appreciation for Howard Shore’s emotional creation here, however; music is, after all, the most directly emotional of arts and is used in film for just that reason. Do you want to hear exciting music that will quicken the pace? Listen to the track “The White Tree” from The Return of the King. Do you want foreboding music of darkness? “The Passage of the Marshes” from The Two Towers fills the bill. Do you want raw, heartbreaking emotion? Give “The Breaking of the Fellowship” from The Fellowship of the Ring a listen. There is the amazing way in which Shore suggests the cavernous open spaces in the Moria sequence of the first film; and there is the equally amazing way in which Shore revisits some of those sounds when the opening of the second film brings us up to date on Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog after the two combatants fell into Shadow. There is music of mournful farewell for the Gray Havens, and there is music of delicate love for Aragorn and Arwen.

In terms of the score CDs themselves, they are delightful listening. The running time is generous, at over seventy minutes on each release; and each provides a wonderful sense of the scores as a whole, even though by necessity the albums are little more than “Greatest Hits” collections since there is no way that they could possibly hold every minute of music from these remarkable films. (This point is to be rectified, apparently, in a box set of nine CDs that will contain every note of music from the films. Look for this sometime in 2005, as well as a book on the music.) Nevertheless, most of the key points in the scores are covered on the commercial releases of the scores.

Shore’s music isn’t terribly ground-breaking. In fact, at first hearing, it all strikes the listener as precisely the kind of thing one would expect for a massive fantasy trilogy: lots of dark themes juxtaposed with lots of lyrical ones; heroic fanfares in the brass; large-scale passages for full orchestra and chorus. To really discover what Shore has done here, one must dig beneath the surface a bit. For example, consider his use of the solo female voice.

This is a device Shore uses a lot throughout the trilogy, but interestingly, he uses a surprisingly large number of different vocalists, and he uses each one in a manner consistent with that vocalist’s style and voice. Enya is heard in the pure Elven realm of Rivendell, but in the older and more “deeply Elven” land of Lorien, he employs the deeper, huskier voice of Elisabeth Fraser to sing the Elves’ “Lament for Mithrandir.” In The Two Towers, Isabel Bayrakdarian performs the “Evenstar” track, which underscores the delicate scenes detailing the endangered love between Aragorn and Arwen Undomiel. The closing titles track of The Two Towers, “Gollum’s Song,” is sung by Emiliana Torrini, whose performance has somewhat divided film music fandom between those who find her high-pitched, almost nasal delivery perfectly appropriate to a song for the tortured Smeagol, and those who simply can’t abide her voice no matter what the context. (I personally fall into the former camp.) Finally, The Return of the King, in which Shore’s themes and motifs reach their full maturity, makes use of operatic singer Renee Fleming in the scenes following the destruction of the Ring, and former Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox on the remarkable finale song “Into the West.”

Shore’s use of unusual instruments is also striking. He avoids some of the obvious choices here, like Uilliean pipes and other familiar Celtic instruments (at least, for the most part.) His treatment of the Shire theme, the first time we hear it, almost reminds me of Percy Grainger in character — it feels like an English folk dance. In The Two Towers, Shore uses ethnic instruments more, the most notable being the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, which sounds the Rohan motif several times. In The Return of the King, Shore does use a Celtic type of whistle, but in the hands of Sir James Galway, the effect is anything but the kind of overdone Celticiana that tends to dominate fantasy filmscores. Shore uses ethnic instruments, then, but often in ways that at least partially obscure their status as “ethnic” instruments at all. He is able to cast them almost as “instruments of Middle Earth.”

And that, I think, is what it all comes to in the end: Howard Shore didn’t compose music for a movie, or even a trilogy of movies, with this project. He composed music for an entire world, giving each aspect of his work a depth of thought and ambition that is rarely found in film music these days. These scores are an absolutely essential element in the films’ success at depicting Middle Earth not just as the setting for a story, but as an actual place. For that, Howard Shore deserves all of the plaudits that have been offered him. My only misgivings would be that Shore probably makes a bit too much use of long, sustained tones in his melodies, and that the sound on The Two Towers CD is a bit muddy at times, which doesn’t do Shore’s dense texture any favors. These misgivings are, though, fairly minor.

I find it a pity that Howard Shore’s musical exploration of Middle Earth is done — unless, of course, a film of The Hobbit is in the offing. We can only hope so. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see, and hear, Middle Earth again.

(Reprise Records, 2001, 2002, 2003)