This is the text of a post I made to the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.movies back in March, about Howard Shore's Oscar-winning score to Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. I've linked to the article on the Google Groups Archive, but I wanted to have a copy here on Byzantium's Shores as well.
Now that Howard Shore has won his Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I should like to explore for a moment the score’s remarkable qualities.
It seems at first to be precisely the kind of score one would expect for a large-scale epic fantasy, and in many ways it is. It is full of gigantic orchestral passages, fanfarish heroics, darkly scored passages with lots of low brass for the villains, big choral passages, ethereal choral passages, and melodies both happy and melancholy. Shore’s work is deftly done in all those regards and more. While his orchestral and choral writing are indisputably splendid, with Shore directing his massive resources with consummate craftsmanship and aplomb, the score is hardly unique in that regard; instead his work here stands squarely in the tradition of Goldsmith, Williams, Herrmann, Rozsa, Korngold and all the other great composers of epic scores. What makes this score so remarkable, especially in this day of frequently substanceless bombast, is its construction: its symphonic and leitmotifistic cohesion in which many themes are interrelated and manipulated with a constant eye and ear for Story.
When the track-listing for the LOTR:FOTR CD was made public, the striking detail was that most of the track titles were actual chapter titles from the book. And then, in his Oscar acceptance speech, Shore specifically noted "the words of Tolkien". These are not coincidences. The LOTR film project is tied to its literary forebear to a much greater degree than most other notable book-to-film translations, and this turns out to be the key to Shore’s work on the LOTR score. Shore uses his music not just to create mood but to reflect Tolkien’s themes and stories. In fact, while Shore’s score almost perfectly enhances Peter Jackson’s film, it is Tolkien’s story that dictates how Shore uses his themes.
Consider, first, what can probably be called the score’s "main theme": the theme for the Fellowship of the Ring itself. In its boldest form, it is a fairly obvious heroic theme, and it is heard in full at the film’s most overtly heroic moments: when the Fellowship is first formed at Rivendell, and when Aragorn and Frodo leap the bottomless gap in the Mines of Moria. These are moments of undeniable triumph, and the use of the Fellowship theme there is entirely appropriate. What makes the theme interesting is in how it is formed. Shore gives us very brief snippets of it throughout the score up to the Fellowship’s official formation, musically depicting the slow coming-together of the Fellowship’s core. And then, after Gandalf’s fall in Moria, the Fellowship’s theme is never heard in full again. It is quoted as the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien by a single horn, so soft as to almost be offstage. We hear it again a few moments later, louder but no more complete. The musical symbolism is clear: the Fellowship itself is incomplete, and the lack of balance in the theme foreshadows the eventual final breaking of the Fellowship. We next hear it partially quoted as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pledge to go after Merry and Pippin. However, the theme immediately seques into the score’s other main theme, that of the Hobbits.
The Hobbit theme is first heard when we first lay eyes on the Shire, and the theme is similar in contour to the second phrase of the Fellowship theme. That interrelatedness of the Fellowship and the Hobbit themes allows Shore to effortlessly switch between the two, and this similarity – the way the middle section of the Fellowship theme echoes the Hobbit theme – musically depicts the fact that the Hobbits are central to the mission of the Fellowship itself. Shore is musically illustrating Tolkien’s conceit that a race long-ignored is about to step to the fore of the crucial moment in Middle-Earth’s history.
It is also important that the Hobbit theme is first heard when we actually see the Shire, but not when we first see a Hobbit in the film: in the Prologue we see Bilbo finding the Ring, but the Hobbit theme is not heard until we see Frodo in the Shire. Thus Shore tells us several things musically: that it is Frodo, not Bilbo, who is to form the central focus of the Fellowship, and that the Hobbits are bound up very closely with their homeland. Hobbits, Tolkien tells us, rarely leave the Shire; in fact, they rarely leave their own communities within the Shire. Thus it is that when we first hear the Hobbit theme it is played as a folk-tune on a fiddle over a playfully tapping drum-rhythm. The next notable use of the Hobbit theme comes at Rivendell. Shore does this to convey a sense of homecoming – Tolkien calls Rivendell "The Last Homely House" – but Shore scores the theme for solo clarinet, the purest sounding of instruments, and gives it some extra ornamentation, enough of a variation to make the theme sound somewhat different. The sense of homecoming is fleeting, and we know from the music that it is not to be permanent.
As noted above, the Fellowship theme at the end of the film yields to a lush string statement of the Hobbit theme. This is an obvious musical depiction of the separation of the Fellowship; but the strong relation between the two themes allows Shore to make the transition from the former to the latter without some kind of "bridge" section, highlighting the sense of separation to an even greater degree. Thus it is that at the film’s end the Hobbit theme plays, in its saddest incarnation, as Sam and Frodo head down into Mordor. But even then, Shore gives us something more: underneath it can be heard the same tapping drum rhythm from the theme’s first statement. Shore is here depicting that it is more than Hobbit against Sauron; it is the Shire against Mordor.
The interrelation of themes in Shore’s LOTR score is not limited to the Fellowship and the Hobbit themes. There is a militaristic theme for Saruman and his Uruk-Hai, and this theme opens with three notes (C-B-C), very similar to the notes that open the Fellowship theme (C-b-flat-C). Where the Fellowship theme uses the major-second interval and solid rhythms to create a sense of heroism, the Saruman theme uses the minor-second and an off-center syncopated rhythm to create a sense of malice. Why would these two themes be so related? Because the C-B-C motif, the germ from which both themes are grown, can be said to be the "Man" motif. It is no accident that the first full statement of the Fellowship theme is not heard until the arrival of Men at Rivendell. A scene with Gandalf and Elrond makes clear that the fate of Middle Earth is now in the hands of Men, for good or ill. Thus two themes for the key men in the story, one good and one evil. It is further worth noting that we do hear a variant of the Fellowship theme, in a minor key, when Gandalf rides to Isengard to confer with Saruman. Shore is musically foreshadowing the betrayal. He is telling us, through music, that Gandalf’s trust in this particular man is misplaced and will come to ill.
So Shore gives strong, thematically-based depictions of the story’s two most prominent races. His treatment of the other two is more muted, more impressionistic. This is also perfectly in keeping with the story. There is no theme per se for the Elves; instead there is a kind of tone-painting that is ethereal in nature, hinting musically that the Elves are outside the history of Middle Earth. Shore employs shimmering strings and soprano vocalists to suggest the almost alien nature of the Elves. Their music is entirely different from nearly everything else in the score. But Shore also recognizes that the film’s two Elvish locales, Rivendell and Lothlorien, are very different in character, and thus while he takes a similar approach to each they both still sound very different. Lothlorien has a darker, earthier sound with hints of Middle-Eastern flavor, and Shore even goes so far as to employ a different soprano vocalist for the Lothlorien music, one with a different sound than Enya. The difference in tone is carefully considered, as is the entire decision to not define the Elves with a single theme of their own. He is musically reinforcing Tolkien’s conceit that the Age of the Elves is ending. The Elves are, to a certain extent, "outside" of Tolkien’s history, and thus their music by Shore is "outside" of his symphonic conception.
Something similar can be said for the fourth race, the Dwarves. Of them we only see Gimli alive; the rest is hinted at through the shattered remnants of the Mines of Moria. Here Shore employs very low sounds – men’s chorus, low strings and brass, et cetera – and he takes a leaf from Wagner and uses anvil-like percussion. Like the Elves, there is no Dwarf-theme per se; this allows Shore to compose Dwarvish music that feels incomplete. This is most striking when the music swells as Gandalf illuminates the Great Hall of Moria, but even then we don’t get a full melody. The story tells of empty, cavernous spaces; thus Shore creates music that is empty and cavernous. And he does so brilliantly before moving onto frenetic action music for the escape from Moria.
Finally, there is the Ring theme itself. Shore does not use the Ring theme nearly as often as one might expect; we hear it several times in the Prologue, primarily as the Ring’s journeys from one "owner" to the next are detailed. Its most striking use occurs late in the film as the Fellowship rows past the Gates of Argonath. Aragorn points the great statues out to Frodo, and the symbolism of the exiled King of Gondor coming home is hard to miss; so why is the Ring motif used instead of, say, the Fellowship theme or perhaps some other permutation of the "Man" motif for Aragorn’s return? Because Shore knows his story, and he knows that Aragorn’s return home is not to be – at least, not yet. He knows that soon Aragorn will have to turn west and go to Rohan (in "The Two Towers"), while the Ring’s journey to its home will continue. Thus it is the Ring theme that we hear. Once again, Shore’s sense of Story guides and
illuminates his themes and how he uses them.
And to think of the at-least six hours of "Lord of the Rings" score that Shore still has ahead of him to compose. Music for the Ents, for the Riders of Rohan, for Minas Tirith, for the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, for Shelob and her lair, for the Cracks of Doom, for the Battle at Helm’s Deep, for the Gray Havens….bring it on, Mr. Shore.