The musical score behind Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is intricately multifaceted to match the proportions of its epic tale. The plot, based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, is full of deep complexity, wondrous romance, and striking realism. What starts out with a romp through a peaceful hobbit shire quickly progresses into a life or death struggle to destroy the One Ring, symbolizing all that is attractive and desirable about sin. The characters experience personal transformation while at the same time losing their innocence. Mythic cultures of Elves and Men are well-developed, and ancient nations hold their own with individual identities and histories. Love, loyalty, courage, hatred, insanity, betrayal, magic, mysticism, and the unseen force that is Providence all come to the fore, and the symbolic nuances conveying Tolkien’s strong moral orthodoxy are endless.
To create a musical score for this production would be daunting, to say the least.
Nevertheless, the creative genius of composer, orchestrator, and conductor, Howard Shore, weaves a lush instrumental tapestry to capture the essence of the main characters and concepts. This top-rate musical material is made complete with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the haunting vocals of Enya, Sheila Chandra, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Emiliana Torrini, Renee Fleming, Annie Lennox, and many others. Working as a team, they successfully capture the spiritual undergirding of the story, transporting the viewer into a mythic realm of serene beauty and shocking brutality.
Among my favorite musical clips from the score is “The Shire Theme” which is introduced in the beginning of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, when we first meet young Frodo in the peaceful countryside, reading a book under the shade of a tree.
The theme reappears regularly over the course of the trilogy, indicating feelings of nostalgia for the simple way of life the hobbits left behind on their quest to destroy the Ring… and the cause for which the hobbits are willing to sacrifice everything: to preserve the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world. The theme also represents the solidarity and deep loyalty of the hobbits, especially in the case of Sam and Frodo. At the end of the first film, when the Fellowship is broken and Frodo decides to continue his quest alone, Sam insists on following him to the bitter end, and threads of the Shire theme are weaved through the larger piece called “The Breaking of the Fellowship”.
The romance between Aragorn, the exiled king of Gondor, and Arwen, the elf maiden, is also a major source of musical inspiration. This proves to be one of the softer aspects of the story, but it is also interlaced with a sense of peril and otherworldliness that make the romantic scenes surreal and haunting.
In the movie number one, Aragorn and Arwen are shown meeting on a vine-draped bridge in the Elvish city of Rivendell. As a pristine waterfall cascades behind them, Arwen gives Aragorn her star-shaped necklace as a token of undying devotion, and the two kiss for the first time in the trilogy. The Elvish lyrics of “Aniron (I Desire)” is sung by the Celtic/New Age music sensation Enya, whose familiarity with the Irish language no doubt made Tolkien’s mythical, Celtic-influenced language more accessible for her.
Isabel Bayrakdarian picks up where Enya left off in the second movie, The Two Towers, with another Elvish song, “Evenstar”, which correlates with a dream Aragorn has of Arwen while he is on his way to Helm’s Deep with the people of Rohan. After being wounded in battle, Aragorn experiences another vision of Arwen giving him the strength to live, accompanied by the song, “Breath of Life”, sung by Sheila Chandra. In the third film, The Return of the King, Aragorn and Arwen are joyously reunited after the war, an auspicious occasion which is hailed with another set of haunting Elvish vocals, sung by Renee Fleming within the larger musical piece appropriately dubbed “The Return of the King.” As could be expected, there’s a lot of kissing for the finale.
The Kingdom of Rohan and its heroic warriors on horseback, the Rohirrim, play a major part in turning the tide of battles. Their culture is similar to that of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms from the Dark Ages, and their deeds equal that of the great sagas from Northern Europe.
The musical themes for Rohan are stirring and rhythmic, emulating the thunder of galloping hooves. When the kingdom is first introduced in The Two Towers, a simple Norwegian fiddle tune is played. Later, when the Rohirrim ride to aid the kingdom of Gondor in The Return of the King, knowing that death may be their only prize, the simple tune is woven into an elaborate arrangement of strings and horns called “Ride of the Rohirrim”, making their do-or-die mission come of pulse-pounding life. It is my personal favorite piece of instrumentals from the trilogy.
The forces of evil have their own musical themes as well. Dark and foreboding French horns accompanied by strange pounding noises introduce the race of orcs, bred by the traitorous wizard, Saruman, in the fortress of Isengard.
This theme is first played in The Fellowship of the Ring when the hideous mutated elves slither out of mud holes beneath the earth, slaves to their masters and slaves to themselves, motivated only to cause pain out of hatred for all that is beautiful in the world. The theme is repeated throughout the trilogy to hail the approach of orcs. The Black Riders, corrupted men who have lost their faces and are neither dead nor alive, are also major forces, especially in movie one. They are usually announced by eerie choral chanting in Elvish and the sound of screeching horses. To some extent, they are the opposite of the gallant Rohirrim, and examples of the fate which will befall all men if they are possessed by the One Ring.
And finally, the Ring itself has many voices, as does Gollum (formerly Sméagol), a slave of the Ring’s life-sucking power. An eerie violin tune indicates the combination of appeal and peril that the Ring embodies.
In The Two Towers, it is played as Frodo finds himself drawn to the power of evil and massages the Ring with his finger. In The Return of the King, the contrast between the innocent life that Sméagol enjoyed and the life of slavery that he would soon come to know is reflected by the care-free music that precedes his cousin Deagol’s plunge into the lake and discovery of the Ring. Then the eerie violin tune crawls across the score as Sméagol kills his cousin for possession of the Ring, beginning his transformation into the hideous Gollum. His loss of identity makes him nothing more than a shriveled shell and a symbol of what Frodo might become… should he also succumb to the power of the Ring.