Listening to Things: The Return of the King, original score by Howard Shore

After a weeklong hiatus, I’m back with this little “let’s listen to all the music that won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in the twenty-first century” project with Howard Shore’s score for The Return of the King.

How many times have I listened to this? A lot. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many. It’s been a favorite for twenty years, though I don’t often listen to it by itself. Usually, I’ll have played through the previous two scores in the trilogy first, and then come to this one. Like I do with the movies.

But not this time! This time, I listened to the extended score for The Return of the King by itself.

The score starts the way the film does: with a little hobbit named Déagol finding the Ring while fishing in the Anduin. Shortly thereafter, Sméagol kills Déagol and takes the Ring for himself. The music, like the scene, begins innocently enough but things quickly take a turn when we hear the ‘seduction’ leitmotif that accompanies the Ring when it is influencing those around it. Conflict arises in the score, and the Dies Irae shows up.

Have I mentioned the Dies Irae before? I don’t think I have. If you don’t know what the Dies Irae is, let me sum it up for you. About 800 years ago, Christian monks sang a particular melody known as the ‘dies irae’ (day of wrath) when they sang the story of the Last Judgment. Centuries later, Hector Berlioz wrote his Symphonie Fantastique and included the old melody of the Dies Irae, and it’s become enshrined in Western music as a theme for death.

If you know what you’re listening for, you can hear the Dies Irae all over film music (and if you’re not careful, it will spoil the plots of a lot of movies), and it’s all over Shore’s The Lord of the Rings music– particularly when the Nazgûl show up, which makes sense given their somewhat undead status.

But anyway. A strain of the Dies Irae shows up in ‘Roots and Beginnings’, and right away we’re off to an ominous start.

The music for The Return of the King is the darkest of the three scores, which also makes sense. Gandalf and Pippin arrive in Gondor, which is immediately besieged. Merry and the Rohirrim are riding for war. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take the Paths of the Dead. Frodo and Sam reach Mordor. There is nothing particularly cheerful about these events.

And yet. There are moments where the music veers away from the darkness and takes on a hopeful tone- specifically when hobbits are involved, such as in ‘A Coronal of Silver and Gold’, or in ‘Flight from Edoras’. These grace notes keep the tone from being dragged down into something approaching the more grimdark nature of Ramin Djawadi’s score for the relentlessly dark Game of Thrones television show. Given that the great themes of The Lord of the Rings involve hope, loyalty, and friendship, it is perfectly fitting that Shore’s music reflects these little moments of hobbit lightness and fidelity. It would be easy to overlook them in the score, but that would mean a net loss for both the music and the films themselves. As grim and dark as it often is, Tolkien’s Legendarium never veers completely into grimdark.

We also get a taste of the truly heroic in the completed theme for Gondor, which was introduced in fragments in The Fellowship of the Ring with a quiet French horn. We get to hear it in all its glory when Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Gondor, and we see the city in splendor as that quiet French horn solo turns into a bright, fortissimo call that outdoes the rest of the orchestra. We get another heroic piece in ‘The Lighting of the Beacons’, when Pippin has lit the beacon of Gondor, and the camera pans across mountains as each successive beacon is lit, until finally we arrive in Rohan, Aragorn leaps into action to announce that the beacons are lit, and Theoden declares that Rohan will answer the call. These two pieces only slightly outshine Bel del Maestro’s solo in ‘Osgiliath Invaded’, where Gandalf and Pippin ride to the aid of Faramir’s shattered company as they flee the Nazgul on their way home to Gondor.

And let’s not forget my favorite musical piece in any movie ever: the rising theme of Rohan as the Rohirrim prepares to charge onto the Pelennor Fields. Is there a piece of film music more stirring than the one playing as Theoden makes his battlefield speech, and then 6,000 cavalry ride into battle?

I tell you, the Hardanger’s flourish gets me every time.

What else is fabulous about this piece (aside from its sheer emotional effect)? The fact that it’s primarily a piece for strings. Most battle music I can think of is centered on the brass section, but Shore went for strings during the actual charge and achieved musical perfection.

Vocal performances are more heavily featured in The Return of the King, too, with gorgeous solos from sopranos Renee Fleming and Sissel, boy soprano Ben del Maestro, Liv Tyler, and of course Billy Boyd’s rendition of one of Bilbo’s walking songs taken out of its normally cheerful context and set against Faramir’s hopeless charge against the orcs in Osgiliath. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theater at the end of that song during my first time watching it. I know mine weren’t.

We’re also treated to all of the familiar leitmotifs from the previous two films– the hobbits’ ‘friendship motif’, the ‘Rohan’ motif, and even the ‘Fellowship’ motif makes an appearance, though in a brief and somewhat diminished version as compared to its triumphant peak in The Fellowship of th Ring. There are new leitmotifs, too, with the most notable one being that of ‘Into the West’, which makes its most notable appearance in the story played by cellos in ‘A Far Green Country’ and then on the flute as played by Sir James Galway in ‘The Mouth of Sauron’ and ‘The Journey to the Grey Havens’. In one sense, this theme represents death, but not as a grim thing to be feared. In this sense, it is- as Gandalf says, ‘…just another path. One that we all must take”, where we find “white shores, and beyond that a far green country under a swift sunrise”. Which is probably the most hopeful take on death in pretty much all of fantasy literature, and fits in with Tolkien’s own view of it in his work.

Of course, the most notable appearance of the ‘Into the West’ motif is in the song Into the West, as sung by Annie Lennox (which won yet another Academy Award for the franchise, this time for Best Original Song). When I first saw Annie Lennox’s name on the credits for the song on my CD, I was confused. I associated Annie Lennox with 80s music, not fantasy film scores. I had forgotten just how powerful and beautiful her voice can be, though, and the first time I heard ‘Into the West’, I knew she was the right choice and now I can’t imagine anyone else singing it.

I have nothing but good things to say about this score. I have no criticisms about it. I have a few critiques for the film itself, but as far as I’m concerned Howard Shore’s score for the film is about as perfect as they get. It’s a fitting cap to a trilogy of amazing scores, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Now excuse me as I go listen to it yet again.

Next week, we move on to the 2004 winner, Finding Neverland by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek.

2 thoughts on “Listening to Things: The Return of the King, original score by Howard Shore

  1. I’m really struggling to accept these came out 20 years ago. 🙂 I had no idea it was that long ago. I don’t believe I was in any way familiar with Dies Irae so I appreciate learning about that. I can’t say I definitely recognized the piece but I did recognize the feel of it so it’s very likely I’ve heard some of versions of it without realizing it.

  2. I know! I can’t wrap my mind around the time span, either. It feels like it was not so long ago that I was looking forward to the movies coming out in theaters!

    You have definitely heard the Dies Irae if you’re watched many movies from the past 30-40 years. It shows up all over the place, even if it’s not very obvious. It’s not until you know to look for it that you really start to notice how often it’s used.

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