Listening to Things: The Fellowship of the Ring original score by Howard Shore

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
by Howard Shore

I couldn’t begin to guess at how many times I’ve listened to this music.

The soundtrack came out a few weeks before the movie did, and you can bet that I bought the CD as soon as I could. There were four promotional covers you could pick from which featured photos of Frodo or Sam by themselves, Merry and Pippin together, and I think Aragorn. I picked the version with Frodo, and I still have it:

Ah, CDs. Back in the days when you owned your music. And if you scratched the disc, you had to buy it all over again.

My little Discman got quite the workout once I got this disc home because I don’t think I listened to much else for the next month. And probably for the next month after that.

I’ve been a Lord of the Rings fan for a long time, y’all.

The wonderful thing about this music is that it is still as fresh as ever. I’m listening to the expanded score as I write this, which includes music from scenes that only appear in the extended version of the film (such as the ever-gorgeous ‘The Passing of the Elves’). Part of that is due to the evergreen nature of most classical music and film scores, and part of it is due to the score’s iconic nature. Who doesn’t know the triumphant ‘Fellowship theme‘ or the ‘Shire theme‘? They’ve been everywhere over the past twenty years, and while Hollywood reuses so many soundtracks for trailers and commercials, they haven’t been able to do that with any of Shore’s The Lord of the Rings music because the association between the music and the movies is too strong. You can’t plop ‘Concerning Hobbits’ into the middle of a Generic Fantasy Movie trailer, because that music goes along with hobbits and only hobbits, and everyone knows that.

Part of what makes Shore’s music so specific to The Lord of the Rings films is his use of leitmotif. A leitmotif is a musical phrase that represents something (or someone) specific in a piece of music. Shore wrote somewhere around 130 leitmotifs for the The Lord of the Rings movies. The One Ring has five leitmotifs by itself, the Shire has a few, the Elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien each have one or two, Frodo and Sam have a couple, Gondor and Rohan each have theirs . . . you get the picture. And these leitmotifs develop and blend with each other across each film and across the trilogy as a whole. And because the films themselves have become so iconic, the leitmotifs have become iconic, too. All it takes is a few notes on a flute to conjure up the image of the Shire or hobbits, Or Elves, or the Ring, or, or, or. . . .

Suffice it to say that Howard Shore wrote film scores that have become as well-known as John Williams’ Star Wars music.

Yeah, I said it.

I think Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is as iconic as John Williams’ Star Wars music. Though I will admit that Shore had an advantage where he knew the story’s direction ahead of time, so he could properly ground the leitmotifs and themes and develop them through the two film trilogies he wrote music for, while John Williams was at a disadvantage where it came to the Star Wars sequel trilogy because Disney hadn’t fully developed the story in advance and the directors were winging it as they went, thus Rey’s Theme has a flock of motifs within it so Williams could match up her theme to whatever destiny the directors ended up going with (to say nothing of the leitmotifs Williams established in the 1980s that the directors [particularly J.J. Abrams] shoved in wherever they felt like it, making the music/film match-up confusing if you’re familiar with what the leitmotifs of the original Star Wars trilogy are doing). But anyway.

Like Tan Dun’s score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Shore’s Lord of the Rings music tells the story through music, primarily through the leitmotifs. The instrumentation helps, too. If the ‘Shire theme’ had first been played on the clarinet, the feeling of it would be much different. The ‘Gondor theme’ which comes into its final development in The Return of the King has its first appearance when Boromir speaks during the Council of Elrond– there, it’s a solo French horn. You might think that the theme for a militaristic land like Gondor would be best represented by trumpets, but no. The trumpet has a very bright sound to it, while the French horn is more muted. Gondor’s glory days are long behind it, and to paraphrase Gandalf from the books, “whatever happens next, Gondor will never be the same”. The trumpet’s brightness would be inappropriate for a land that is, essentially, in mourning for its past. Thus the French horn with its more mournful sound is more appropriate for the Gondorian theme.

Shore is an expert at finding the perfect instrument to convey information about people or a place with the selection of a specific instrument. For example, the first instrument we hear in the entire trilogy is the monochord (an ancient, single-stringed instrument) playing the main Lothlorien motif. This gives the music a feeling of antiquity that a violin or a cello could not. The primary theme for Rohan is played on the Hardanger fiddle, which looks similar to a violin but is constructed differently and has more strings. These extra strings are ‘sympathetic’, meaning they vibrate along with the primary strings (the ones that are directly played) and cause the instrument to resonate differently than a violin, thus giving Rohan’s theme a slightly different sound. Could it have been played on a violin? Sure. Would it have had the same feeling to it? Not quite. And when you’re scoring something at this level, “not quite” is as bad as “completely wrong”.

There are so many factors that make Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings iconic. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but if you want to find out more, Doug Adams wrote a highly detailed book solely about the music. I’ve read it, but given that my grasp of music theory is not great, a lot of it went over my head. But I enjoyed reading it, and I learned a lot about my favorite film scores.

I could keep going about this and talk about how, say, the ‘Fellowship theme’ is played in full just twice, and then slowly breaks down or is played incompletely as The Fellowship of the Rings progresses and the Fellowship itself starts to deteriorate, but I won’t keep jabbering. But I will encourage you to listen to the full soundtrack, whether it’s the version for the theatrical release or for the extended edition. Howard Shore deserved the Academy Award he won for this score. It is beautiful, dramatic, ominous, exciting, romantic, and heartfelt in all the right moments, and was one of the many reasons these movies were so successful.

Next up in the Academy Award for Best Original Score listening project: 2002: Eliot Goldenthal’s score for the biopic Frida. I’ve never heard this music before, and I’m curious to hear it, as Goldenthal beat out Shore’s score for The Two Towers. We’ll see how it stacks up.

6 thoughts on “Listening to Things: The Fellowship of the Ring original score by Howard Shore

  1. Terrifyingly brilliant score indeed! I can’t even say how many times his soundtrack was on repeat throughout the past months as I worked my way through Tolkien’s books too. It’s so mesmerizing, unforgettable, and easily recognizable. Thanks for sharing this with us though, I learned about leitmotif especially!

  2. Glad I could teach a bit about music! I’ve been a sucker for a good leitmotif since I learned about them. I recommend listening to the podcast The Soundtrack Show if you want to learn more about leitmotif, themes, and the traditions of western music that have ended up shaping how film scores sound.

  3. I don’t (currently) own the soundtrack so I may need to make time for a rewatch of the films just to relisten to the music. Interesting you talk about leitmotif as I just rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark along with some DVD extras that talked about the creation of leitmotifs. And interesting you mention Star Wars as I just rewatched the original film and because of the Raiders extras was thinking about the music and leitmotifs as I watched. It’s amazing how quickly and easily we begin to associate those specific musical phrasings with specific characters or scenes. When done well we don’t even realize it’s happening. I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to more in this theme.

  4. Leitmotifs are great for subtly building characters, themes, and relationships. John Williams is so good at it, too. He’s just a master of film scores. I listened to a bunch of podcast episodes about his music for the Star Wars films, and there are so many leitmotifs and themes, and they’re all so perfectly linked to each other. I never would have realized it if I hadn’t listened to those podcasts.

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