The Music of Middle-Earth, part 1

tolkienby Thomas Mathie

I am a Middle-Earth nut. I love the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. He has created a universe which I can, and regularly do, escape within. Peter Jackson’s movies have helped, but for the most part it is Tolkien’s writings that have given me shelter and inspiration.

I am an avid, albeit amateur collector, having amassed a hotchpotch of books, films, artwork, and importantly for this article: music.

I love the music of the films and I love music inspired by the books. I am the person who runs out and gets the extended soundtrack … I am THAT guy!

On a recent record-hunting safari into deepest, darkest Glasgow I stumbled upon a CD I didn’t own: Johan de Meij’s Symphony No. 1, a suite that was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. I immediately snapped it up. The cover looked woeful but I was interested enough to look beyond the cover — and I was not disappointed. De Meij’s symphony is a wonderful, bright and vibrant orchestral piece. While it lacks the visual connotations that Shore or Rosenman’s soundtracks have, it certainly has a particular elegance about it, even at higher volumes. I am glad it is in my collection.

MI0001924877This find got Allister Thompson thinking … he asked if I would do a post on music inspired by Tolkien’s work. I agreed, and what you’re reading is the first of two posts. This post will focus on music I have in my collection, whereas the second will have me looking for others who have been similarly influenced.

In addition to de Meij’s Symphony No. 1, what other music do I own that draws direct inspiration from the books or from the film adaptations?

First off, we have Howard Shore’s soundtracks to the Peter Jackson films. I’ll be honest, I was hooked on his work from the opening bars of “Concerning Hobbits” on the Fellowship of the Ring OST. I find the music a fitting accompaniment to the films — vibrant, extremely dynamic, personable, engaging, eloquent and expressive. Even now, as I listen to the original release I have goose bumps as I visualize the Hobbits in Farmer Maggot’s fields.

Shore’s ability to turn the mood from jolly to serious is utterly remarkable.

Howard Shore’s scores really add to my enjoyment of the film, so much so that I sought out and obtained the “Complete Recordings” for each of The Lord of the Rings films. I didn’t get them at the time of their release, much to my chagrin & the stabbing pain in my wallet. I am glad I have them and would highly recommend them to any collector — 135 tracks in total over the three films, instead of 57. However, “Concerning Hobbits” isn’t one of them, which is rather strange.

I have learned from this and purchased the extended editions of the soundtrack from the Hobbit films. I guess I just want all the music can have from the films.

61LlUZFs16L._SY300_Before Howard Shore’s scores came to pre-eminence, the soundtrack to Ralph Bakshi’s version of The Lord of the Rings (only scenes from the first four books are featured) was my go-to soundtrack. Scored by Leonard Rosenman, it is phenomenal as a piece of music, let alone as the score to a great film.

I call this film great for two reasons:

(a) because it is filmed in Rotoscope in a way I have never seen done again … a mix of cartoon and live action that is just fascinating to watch; and

(b) because I have fond memories of watching it with my younger cousin on a VHS tape recorded one Christmas. For a spell it was all we watched when we hung out, that and Enter the Dragon.

Rosenman’s score really aids the film, giving it some real feeling and depth. I had it on vinyl but appear to have lost it, to my personal distress, and have to make do with the CD. It is highly recommended for folks who like their orchestral music dark and disorientating.

I have the soundtrack to one more film version of a Tolkien story — the cartoon of The Hobbit. I’ve never seen the film and from I’ve read about it on Wikipedia I don’t think I want to … however, I do enjoy the soundtrack when I’m in a folky mood.

2965430Glen Yarborough’s songs have a delightful Americana/folky vibe … although there is possibly a tad too much vibrato for most folks. He really takes the themes from The Hobbit and brings them to life. He could easily have released this album without its connection to the Hobbit cartoon. I would love for indie folks to cover the songs and update them for a new generation to enjoy.

From the films we move to music inspired by the books. I’ve already mentioned Johan de Meij’s symphony and should, therefore, point to Sweden’s Bo Hansson and the work of the Tolkien Ensemble.

Hansson’s Sagan om Ringen/Lord of the Rings is a wonderfully progressive psych album, filled with fantastic out there organ, guitar and drums. This instrumental album is a ‘must have’ for any fan of psychedelic music. I have the reissued English version on vinyl and am always vigilant for the original pressing … it will be mine, my own, my precious.

What the music has to do with The Lord of the Rings, I do not know … it doesn’t provide the sense of space or movement that the scores do, and with no vocals, there isn’t that connection either … but that’s almost beside the point, it is such good album that it does work in a weird way.

911813_01One thing I love about this album is its sound. According to it’s Wiki page, Hansson stated that his original intention for the album was to include a string section and other exotic instruments such as the harp, but the lack of finances available from Silence Records resulted in the majority of the album having to be recorded using primitive electronic keyboards and Moog synthesizers.

I, for one, am glad Hansson was so constrained … he really did make lemonade!

Lastly, we have the work of the Tolkien Ensemble. According to their wiki page, the Danish Tolkien Ensemble was founded in 1995 and (with the help of Christopher Lee) aim to create “the world’s first complete musical interpretation of the poems and songs from The Lord of the Rings“, a project approved by both the Tolkien family and HarperCollins publishers. They have released four CDs from 1997 to 2005, in which all the poems and songs of The Lord of the Rings are set to music.

Now … this is for fans of classical/folk music or for completists like myself. I’ll be honest and say that I think Tolkien wrote a better story than he did a song … and some of the songs presented by the Tolkien Ensemble have taken a few listens to full sink in. That said, however, I do love these CDs and find them very moving. They bring to life an element of the books that I didn’t really get before … I lack the musical imagination to read lyrics and ‘hear’ a song, so to have their faithful renditions really does help my experience with the books, just as the couple of vocal tracks on the soundtrack for the first Hobbit film help me too.

the-lord-of-the-rings-tolkien-ensembleWhat’s more, Christopher Lee — Tolkien’s number one fan and Saruman — narrates/sings on some of these tracks and is featured heavily on their 2002 album At Dawn in Rivendell, which is my recommended starting point for their music. In fact, the opening track, “The Verse of the Ring”, is now my ringtone. Ominous just doesn’t quite say it.

I hope you’ll join me in exploring the music featured here. In my next post I will look for new (to me) music inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I already have my eye on the work of Battlelore, Blind Guardian, Chris Thile and even the music from The Lord of the Rings: The Musical … until then.

Read part 2


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