Interview with Jeroen Bakker
conducted in 2007
As a music collector and a Tolkien interestee, it it difficult to get around the massive musical interpretations of all kinds of artists—from Bo Hansson’s creative progressive-organ-rock to the classical formation of the Tolkien Ensemble, the progessive metal of ‘Battlelore’ and techno sound of ‘Sauron’. Amongst this turbulent scene there springs a light bright as the Silmarils: Paul Corfield Godfrey.
It all started for me when I was reading a article about Tolkien-inspired music in the publication Lembas of the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor. There was a name and a remark that made me curious. But I could not find his music anywhere for sale. Not even any of the Tolkien-related works, and most remarkable of all not even René van Rossenburg (owner of Tolkienshop.com) had heard of him. On the internet I came across a website, and found out that the production company was in Wales. I sent a letter, and I received one; I bought at once almost all there was on Tolkien and started to listen as soon as it came in. One thing I noticed at once: these CDs are odd. And when I put one on, I noticed that this was not, as I had hoped it to be, a orchestral recording (the work was Ainulindalë—Symphony No 3); instead it was the composer playing a synthesiser keyboard. I was not hooked on this; but instead a growing interest for the music played with me. I played it over and over again; I was turned on by its beauty and its complexity, but also by the remarkable performance as well. Next I played the Akallabêth, a rondo for solo piano; and again it got me in its grasp. At that point I knew I was not ready for the operatic settings, because I was not prepared for the way it would have come to my ears; but the next day it was the first thing I put on when I woke up. With the opening of Fëanor there came a click in my head; I had not experienced anything like this in a long time, and only thrice before in my life.
The music breaks down into many parts, of which the most complete is the operatic cycle based on The Silmarillion. These can be performed as solo operas, or as a whole. Of course a complete performance is to be desired; but the realisation of this would require an enormous organisation—perhaps even more so than a performance of the entire Ring by Richard Wagner.
Personally I think of the Beren and Lúthien opera as one of my favourites; but the part of the Awakening of the Elves in Fëanor is the most beautiful of the cycle, because I love this part of the book and with the music it reads even better. But there are many more beautiful `scenes’ in the music, and it would take me forever to describe them all. The reason I like Beren and Lúthien is because the story allows the composer to leap into romantic themes and write some action cues as well. I think it is a composer’s dream to work on a story so full of possibilities.
It would be nice to make a special report on one of the operas not from the Silmarillion cycle. Most of the media adaptations left him out—movies, theatre, radio and music—but not Mr Godfrey, and I think that calls for a special word devoted to it.
Imagine... A man enters the stage; he looks worried, the voices in the theatre grow quiet. The man coughs and in a deep but pleasant voice he says; ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the theatre is pleased to announce Paul Corfield Godfrey’s opera Tom Bombadil. Please enjoy the performance. Good evening.’ Tom Bombadil is an character often left out in many productions of just as many media. Mr Godfrey devoted one complete work to him; more on this in the interview.
However Mr Godfrey does not limit his works to Tolkien; amongst others his music includes works by Liam Blake, Oscar Wilde and Leon Wiltshire. His works also include arrangements of folk tunes, mostly from Wales, where the composer now lives.
There some works released on CD that share the disc with non-Tolkien music as well, that form ‘only’ fragments from the story; none the less they are also a great part of the works written by Mr Godfrey based on works of Tolkien. All of them are linked to Middle-earth only—so don’t expect any music based on Mr Bliss or the Father Christmas Letters, though I regard (for example) Farmer Giles of Ham as a very good candidate for a very nice comic opera.
There is so much to tell about these works that it is hardly possible to grasp it in one article and one interview; one may find oneself to have more questions than answers. My only advice would be get in contact and listen to the music yourself, or play it yourself.
There is so much to say about the works, but why should I tell you when the composer could do so instead, once asked the right questions? That was one of my greatest objectives: what are the right questions? As one may conclude from my questions, I have not done this before in such an extensive manner, and I am not a interviewer by any means. The questions came at first slowly but from the perspective of a musical hobbittist. The questions evolved once I started to entrust them to paper, and before I knew it I had to cut questions because they lost the drift of a consistent interview or delved too deeply into matters and would bypass the interest and/or knowledge of the average reader (no offence intended) of any Tolkien-related publication. I hope you (the reader) will enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it.
How did you first came to be in contact with classical music?
I sang in my local church choir, played with my school orchestra and then sang with my school choir which was quite adventurous in their choice of repertoire. We sang everything from Monteverdi and Palestrina to Britten and Finzi, and I was also introduced to the great romantic composers like Wagner, Strauss and Berlioz.
In the orchestra what was your instrument, and what was your rank?
I played the oboe and timpani at various times, but I was never a great performer!
Which was your favorite instrument?
I’m not sure I have a favourite instrument—I make use of what I need for the effect I want. However I do have some instruments I avoid, and I have a real aversion to the 1970s habit of lacing all orchestral scores with swathes of tuned percussion.
And when did you started to compose music (classical or not) yourself?
I was almost entirely self-taught as a composer until I was in my twenties and had already written a number of works. I then undertook some study with Alan Bush and David Wynne, but my style was very much formed by then—after a period of radical experimentation—I settled down to a late romantic style; although I had been writing since the age of about nine, my first published work dates from 1967 when I was seventeen (and the published version was subsequently revised).
You studied with Alan Bush; on the webpage he has quite an extensive musical repertoire. How was he to work with, or study with?
I only studied with Alan Bush for a short time, but he was a most inspiring teacher. He gave me encouragement when it was needed, although he did not share my enthusiasm for Tolkien’s work and thought that my work on The Hobbit would have benefited from a lot of cutting! The last time I met him was when he came to Cardiff for the first performance of my opera Arcturus, but shortly after that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was seriously ill for some time before his death.
Alan Bush’s music is very much under-estimated and some of it, such as his opera Wat Tyler, is truly great. Unfortunately only one item from Wat Tyler has ever found its way onto CD, but there are an increasing number of other works now available. I must however admit his insistence on political texts can sometimes lead to an over-emphatic and didactic approach, and I am rather afraid that his massive Piano Concerto is one such work.
Did you ever write a composition with him?
No, although I did write some pieces as exercises for him and some of these have been published subsequently as movements in my Eight Studies.
You also studied with David Wynne. I can’t seem to find much about him; how was he to work with? What kind of a person was he?
He was quite elderly at the time I studied with him. I originally asked him for advice when I sang in the choir which gave the first performance of his cantata Owain ap Urien, not because I particularly liked his style (which although interesting was heavily atonal) but because I admired his imagination and particularly his innovative sense of rhythm. He never tried to influence the way in which I wrote, but he was extremely good in fostering my sense of self-criticism, to try and avoid the mundane and mechanical. This has always stood me in good stead, although it does mean that I have probably written rather less music than I would otherwise have done—I feel that if something is not exactly as I want it, I will not let it out into the public domain until I have got it right. David Wynne’s music has been very much under-rated even in Wales, and the recordings of his music that did exist in the 1970s never seem to have found their way onto CD. However Lyrita own the copyright on a number of the recordings, and one hopes this may change shortly. I do have superb off-air recordings of his Third Symphony and Owain ap Urien.
Which composer do you like best?
There are no composers (and never have been) who do not have their off-days. It is for that reason that I would say there is no such thing as a perfect large-scale piece of music. I suppose my immediate influences are Holst and Vaughan Williams, but I also appreciate the sparer style of the later generation of composers like Britten who demonstrate that little can often mean more. Although I enjoy much of the music of the American minimalists like Adams and Glass, I often find their solutions to dramatic problems too simplistic to be properly convincing.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you say that the solutions to dramatic problems by—let’s say—Philip Glass are too simplistic. Do you mean that they are too minimalistic to provide drama at all, or is it something else?
Of course minimalism can provide drama, but I must say that I find it of rather a generalised kind. There are sequences in Akhnaten, for example, which have a superb hieratic power and generate great heat; but this is achieved by sheer force of repetition, rather like Wagner working up to a climax through repetitions of sequences of notes. What minimalism finds much more difficult is to react to sudden changes of mood and interreactions between characters. I think that musical drama must be able to do this as well.
Holst, to name only one, is best known for his Planets Suite (and less known is Colin Mathews’ additional piece Pluto); he uses a very orchestral drama to convey his characters. Is this what you want to achieve yourself in your works: to let the music ‘be’ the character or the dramatic situation rather then relying on the performing actor?
Of course the orchestra must assist in the business of characterisation; it is as vital a tool in that respect as harmony or melody. But the ‘performing actor’ also has a part to play, of course. There are passages in The Silmarillion where the whole burden of expression falls on the performer: I could cite the eighth scene of The Fall of Gondolin, which is (exceptionally) entirely for unaccompanied voices. By the way I very much dislike Colin Matthews’ Pluto, which I think totally ruins the original ending of Holst’s suite with the offstage voices fading away at the end of Neptune. Anyway, Pluto isn’t a planet any more, is it?
Besides Tolkien, what are your interests?
I am a trade union representative for the Public and Commercial Services Union, being the secretary for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although I suppose this would be described as an ‘occupation’ rather than an ‘interest’ it does not leave much free time for anything other than music. But I read extensively.
How did you get in contact with the writings of Tolkien?
I was first introduced to The Hobbit in 1956 (I think) when my then sister-in-law Lois Mitchison (the daughter of authoress Naomi Mitchison who wrote some of the publicity for the first edition of The Lord of the Rings) gave me a copy. I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until some ten years later, but then I devoured it wholesale; and I have avidly followed each further instalment of the posthumous works as they have been published. I originally started with a projected opera cycle on The Lord of the Rings, of which I suppose about a quarter was completed. Apart from The Black Gate is closed, there are six acts of The Hobbit, one act apiece of Tom Bombadil and The Grey Havens, and a collection of other scenes which I have gathered together as The Lord of the Rings: fragments and episodes. Some of these items were also published with piano accompaniment as Seven Tolkien Songs and Songs of the Mark (settings for male choir of two alliterative Rohirric poems).
In most of your works you use, next to the classical instruments and melodies, more traditional instrumentation and melodies. Was this a deliberate choice or did it grow as a natural event? I would like to note at this point that it seems something of our time to use traditional instrumentation and melodies and mix it with the more classical music.
In The Silmarillion the only use of ‘traditional instruments’, as you call them, are the four recorders in The Fall of Gondolin, but I did also use them in The Hobbit. There were a number of reasons for this. In the first place I wanted a deliberately antique sound for Gondolin itself, a city which had been preserved beyond its time. You hear them almost as a block of sound set against the rest of the orchestra. In the second place I had found in live orchestral performances of excerpts from The Hobbit that, contrary to general wisdom, a group of recorders is quite loud enough to make its presence felt in a modern orchestra; and the sound of four recorders combined with the three flutes in unison contributes a rich body of a particular wind sound which cannot be obtained by any other means. In the third place, as a consequence of my decision to use the recorders in the score, they could then be used as an extra battalion of piccolos in the storm music! There are some other unusual instruments in The Silmarillion, for example the ranges of bells in The Fall of Gondolin, the multiple xylophones for Ungoliant, and the wind and thunder effects in Beren and Lúthien which form part of the fabric of the music; but other than that the orchestra is a basic large romantic symphony orchestra. The Silmarillion is of course designed for live performance, and as such a composer always has to consider matters of balance. The use of instruments like the Irish whistle and the Hardanger fiddle such as Howard Shore uses in The Lord of the Rings would be quite impossible without electronic amplification in the studio, at least in the way he uses them.
I think your use of ‘strange’ instruments is a very nice thing to add to the musical world of Tolkien especially the xylophones you mention, where one can almost see her (Ungoliant) walk. Was it indeed used to portray her walk?
It is a matter of atmosphere rather than a depiction of movement. Ungoliant’s music is very different from anything else in The Silmarillion. It is dodecaphonic, for a start (the only such music in the whole work); it is in a limping 7/8 rhythm for much of the time; it is underpinned with diminished harmonies almost throughout; and when she speaks, in the scene of the Thieves’ Quarrel, she is portrayed by offstage amplified voices which I would expect to be subjected to electronic distortion.
Did you use more instruments in a ‘strange’ way to portray other characters? If so can you give us a example?
Again, there are some characters who are characterised by changes in melody, instrumentation and harmony. The Elder King sings invariably on one note, changeless in the face of shifting harmonies and totally immutable. Morgoth tries to imitate this, but there is a continual shadow on the voice provided by orchestral voices a semitone below. Sauron in Beren and Lúthien takes that semitone and creeps from note to note in a more remote echo of it. The Elves tend to be characterised by modal harmonies, the humans by chromatic ones. Elbereth’s music is characterised by string harmonics high above the vocal line. There are many other examples, but obviously the major dramatic characters such as Fëanor, Túrin and so on change their musical characterisation as their mood changes.
The use of special instruments (as in Shore) as you say is very difficult, because of the availability of players. If you had to choose one instrument you would want to use in your works which is not in a ‘average’ orchestra, what would it be?
I do find the use of recorders in The Fall of Gondolin works, and although there is an alternative scoring in the choral suite of movements which allows for the omission of the recorders if players are not available I would not want this to become a general practice. I have always felt the want of a strong low woodwind instrument (the bass clarinet and bassoon are generally too weak in their middle and top registers) and in some of my works for chamber orchestra I have sometimes used a tenor saxophone which I must admit I think is a noble instrument if it is not abused.
Talking about orchestras, if you had to choose one orchestra and one conductor to perform your work what would the combination be?
Oh no, I’m not being drawn on that one. Orchestras have got a lot better in my own lifetime, and many orchestras are now capable of playing modern scores which even as recently as the 1980s tended to sound rather undernourished especially in the string department.
Tolkien’s Ring is often associated with Wagner’s; do you think that this would apply for your musical approach to Tolkien’s Ring as well? Of course your work is more focused on the earlier Ages of Middle earth; but in scope your work is at least as ‘massive’ as Wagner’s Ring, so does it musically compare?
Tolkien had it about right when he said that his Ring and Wagner’s Ring were both round, and there the resemblance ceases. Actually in terms of plot there are more parallels (for example the fight with the dragon) between Wagner’s Ring and the Silmarillion. Musically my setting of the Silmarillion, although like Wagner it does extend over four evenings, is not really very similar to Wagner’s style. For a start each of my individual evenings is considerably shorter—Beren and Lúthien is the longest at around three hours, as opposed to the five hours of Götterdämmerung. The orchestra is rather smaller and the staging demands are less extreme. Also The Silmarillion differs from Wagner’s Ring in its extensive use of choral passages to move the action forward. There are some similarities—for example, the use of specific motifs to represent various characters and emotions—but this is more a practical matter of meaningfully organising the music over such a long time span rather than an imitation of Wagnerian practice. Many of my ‘motifs’ are developed melodic phrases which are subsequently varied, rather than as in Wagner short symphonic themes which are subjected to symphonic development.
On Wagner you say there are only a few similarities; what is the greatest non-similarity?
My leitmotifs are often more extended and melodic than Wagner’s. I tend to develop the music by statement and variation rather than in the purely symphonic manner of Wagner’s mature scores. But I do try to keep a family resemblance between motifs of related dramatic impact, because I think it is important that the listener senses the relationship even if they don’t realise it consciously.
What would you say is the big difference between you and Wagner?
I don’t have Wagner’s fascination with ‘endless melody’, the delay in resolving a musical harmony over an extended period. Wagner writes music which is always in transition, which is fine over the vast paragraphs of his music dramas; I write music which proceeds by contrast and juxtaposition, which is fine over the smaller dimensions of my epic scenes.
When I listen to the vocal parts in the operas based on The Silmarillion I get a feeling as if some of the singing is based on Hildegard von Bingen’s vocal technique. Is this true?
No, except insofar as I often use the same traditional mediaeval modes as Hildegard and every other composer of that period. I derive this through the use of similar techniques as found in the music of the British pastoral composers of the early twentieth century—Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Holst on the Anglo-Welsh borders, Bantock in Scotland. And also, of course, in Celtic traditional music. The modes are not specifically mediaeval in any event; it is just that mediaeval composers used nothing else.
The ‘modes’ you use bring an ancient kind of tone to the music; was this a good way to give a historical feeling to the music, or could you just have picked any other mode?
I don’t think modes are historical, ancient or oldfashioned. They are a perfectly natural way to write in the modern era, and of course they still underpin all folk music.
Your music is sometimes very complicated (Ainulindalë); was this a deliberate choice, or did it occur as a natural event?
I would say that everything in the score is there for a reason and a purpose. Nothing is added just to make additional counterpoint. Most of the score is melodically and thematically derived, and often one theme is laid on another; some of the themes are underscored with harmonic and textural support which are designed to enhance their atmosphere and meaning. The complexity at the end of the Ainulindalë symphony is exceptional (I think at some times there may be as many as seven themes—with their associated textures—proceeding simultaneously); but of course it is illustrating something in the book which is described musically as being extremely complex! I think at no other time in The Silmarillion cycle are there more than three themes at once, although in the Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit (unfortunately the sketches written in 1972-73 are now lost) I remember using five different strands of sound practically throughout.
How does one get from reading Tolkien’s books to composing operas about them?
I always imagined music with the books from the very first time I read them. I wanted to compose an opera cycle on The Lord of the Rings as long ago as 1974, and I wrote The Black Gate is closed as early as 1968-69. There are still parts of that first score which stand the test of time, and (for example) the storm sequence in The Children of Húrin was derived from one of the earlier sketches I did for The Black Gate. The development of the scheme for The Silmarillion took a long time, partly because there were so many difficulties constructing a text which (1) did not get bogged down in inexplicable detail and (2) gave enough vocal material to develop an emotional and dramatic structure.
Many musical works (such as theatre, film, radio adaptations and (pop) music) based on Tolkien’s world have often left out one of the primary characters, namely Tom Bombadil; you devoted an entire work to him. Did you do this because you felt that he was too often forgotten by others?
No, I’m afraid to say it wasn’t, although I regard Tom Bombadil as more essential to Tolkien’s ‘message’ than obviously do the adaptors who have cut him out. It was purely because when I was sketching the music for my projected opera cycle, Tom Bombadil was one of the passages on which I had done most work—the whole of the Old Forest and Barrow-wight section—and that the one act of the cycle which was going to cover Bombadil was nearly completed. It was a matter of some ease in 1997-98 to finish off the sketch and orchestrate it.
Was it difficult to gave musical form to Tom Bombadil’s personage?
Very easy indeed. The words do it all for you. The first passage I wrote was Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo! which immediately suggested a basic theme, and everything else flowed out of that.
Do you feel that Tom Bombadil, by most people regarded as an underestimated character, deserves some more attention?
Tolkien certainly thought he was important, though incidental to the plot. Somewhere in one of his letters he refers to him as representing a strand of thought which is not found elsewhere. In the radio adaptation done in his lifetime, Bombadil was included—as indeed he was in the abortive film script of the 1950s—although Tolkien complained about the way in which he was treated. But for me it was just that he was so easy to set to music. The rhythms wrote themselves without any need for the composer’s intervention—indeed I sometime made a point of adapting them so that this was rather less obvious!
Since you dedicated an entire work to Tom Bombadil, did you find it difficult to integrate him into a work dedicated to The Lord of the Rings?
As I said, he was always intended to be an integral part of the cycle. He would have to be in any event, because the final scene of the one act would have introduced Aragorn’s theme for the first time—as the hobbits see their vision on the Barrow-downs.
The majority of your work is dedicated to the (mythological) First Age of Tolkien’s world; is this because there is so much focus on the Third Age of Tolkien’s world that the First Age is almost forgotten?
Originally my focus was on the Third Age, but the scope of what was needed was absolutely immense. The cycle on The Lord of the Rings (including The Hobbit) would have extended over thirteen evenings of some three hours each. Altogether about ten hours of music was sketched—including both the opening and the conclusion of the work—but some of this material was later reworked into The Silmarillion. The cycle on the latter work is much more manageable, and holds together well as a unit although at four evenings it is hardly a compact piece either! In the second place, at an early stage I developed my ideas about ‘families’ of themes, and this conditioned the way in which these were constructed. To the extent, in fact, that I re-wrote the first half of The Hobbit to make some alterations to the themes which I realised were required. The theme of the Ring, for example, is now closely related to that of Sauron—and in fact can be heard to derive from it in passages in both Beren and Lúthien and Akallabêth.
In your opera adaptation of The Silmarillion you use Morgoth more as a presence than as a figure on the stage. Was it a deliberate choice to put the character behind the stage, as if his ‘shadow’ affects all things but we do not see his tremendae ac diabolum majestatis?
It is just that I am always extremely wary of giving operatic producers the chance to ruin something—I have experienced it myself in the past. It is for the same reason in The Children of Húrin that Glaurung is kept to the back of the stage. Of course it is not necessary that The Silmarillion should be staged—it is not described as an opera, but as a series of ‘epic scenes’—and I would suggest that a concert performance, with the audience provided with a scenario to guide their mind’s eye, would probably be preferable to a production that updated Húrin to World War II with Morgoth as Hitler (or Stalin) and the dragon as a tank—as was once seriously suggested to me. On the more practical level, I wanted Morgoth to have an absolutely huge amplified voice which should come from speakers all round the auditorium. He needs to be amplified, because the part often lies extremely low for a bass, and is accompanied by a cacophony of heavy brass and percussion. So to have Morgoth as a presence on stage would be totally impossible unless an actor was miming to an offstage voice. Of course, in Gondolin, he only has the one line What is that to me? which is accompanied solely by a bass drum.
You say you experienced in the past that operatic producers had ruined something good; what was that?
I was not happy with the Cardiff production of Arcturus, and neither were most of the critics. The plot of David Lindsay’s novel (which was much admired by Tolkien) is complex enough in its own right, and the addition of layers of ‘interpretation’ by the producer served only to make the story-line incomprehensible to most of the audience. Although I have to say that some of the audience very much enjoyed some of the production, other scenes actually produced unintended laughter.
You are currently working on a new piece based on The History of Middle-earth. Can you tell us something about this new work?
The Silmarillion was never a finished musical work, any more than the book itself was finished. The cycle finished with the departure of Tuor across the sea, and although Eärendil was mentioned in the text of The Fall of Gondolin (and a theme depicting him was heard in the struggle between Tuor and Maeglin), he never featured in the work itself. It only occurred to me some years later that there was scope for a setting of Bilbo’s Lay of Eärendil for voice and orchestra as an independent work (it was, of course, already planned as part of the setting of the Lord of the Rings cycle) using the later developments of the text that Christopher Tolkien had published in The Treason of Isengard. This realisation coincided with my desire to write a work to feature the superb tenor voice of my young friend Craig Harvey, and the music for The Lay of Eärendil was written in the summer and autumn of 2005. Because of his many commitments we have had to postpone the first performance, but we still hope to record the work in 2007. The music actually features his name (C-D [=French Re]-A-G) as one of its themes, both to separate out the verses of the original poem and also to depict Earendil as the Evening Star.
About Craig Harvey, can you tell us something about him?
I was introduced to him about four years ago, when he lived in my local village of Ynysybwl and was studying music at the University of Glamorgan. He is a superb natural talent—not only an extremely good young tenor, but also a self-taught pianist and a highly original composer.
The Road Goes Ever On
What drives a man to spend most of his musical life dedicated to the works of Tolkien?
Actually, of over sixty works I have written, less than a quarter are actually based on Tolkien. But it is fair to say that these works are by far the most substantial I have written. Apart from The Silmarillion, over ten hours of music and the largest-scale work written in Wales in the twentieth century, there are also a number of works which rose out of work I did on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the 1970s; my third symphony, Ainulindalë; two shorter works, Akallabêth and Shadow-bride; and my latest piece, a setting of The Lay of Eärendil which I only finished in late 2005. Firstly, of course, there is the attraction of the works themselves. There are the intense dramatic situations and also the more ‘impressionist’ passages describing landscape and character, all of which seem to me to cry out for musical depiction. The very first work I did on Tolkien (an operatic setting of Book IV of The Lord of the Rings) centred on the character of Gollum, whose split personality could be described precisely in musical terms. I found this sort of challenge fascinating, although 1 have to admit that when I returned to the score last year to edit and prepare it for publication as part of my collected works I realised how much more three-dimensional I could have made the character. I don’t know if The Black Gate is closed will ever be performed (apart from the orchestral suites) but if it is, I will most certainly need to do a thorough makeover on it! Secondly, and to me nearly as important, is Tolkien’s use of the English language itself. He evolved in the writing of The Lord of the Rings a slightly elevated style which seems to me to be ideally fitted to musical setting. Often the rhythmic element in the prose (most noticeable in Tom Bombadil, which I have also set, but also to be found throughout) leads immediately to a musical phrase which fits the words like a glove. He obviously derived this from his experiments in the 1920s with alliterative poetry, and also from an experience of Welsh metrical techniques which similarly inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins; but he used it with a freedom and mastery which quite surpassed its original models. When I was working on the text for The Silmarillion, much of which had not been subjected to the same process of refinement and polishing, I sometimes needed to make minor adjustments to the text to obtain the same rhythmic drive; but in my work on The Lord of the Rings, I never needed to make the slightest alteration to the words Tolkien himself used. It was this sort of rewriting, without any consideration for the underlying rhythm of the words, which I found so distressing in much of the Peter Jackson films. Finally, there is the sheer scope of the works themselves. I use an adaptation of Wagner’s system of leitmotifs in the dramatic construction of my music, and the same themes occur in all my Tolkien work with the same significance. But the recurrence of the same dramatic themes throughout all of Middle-earth means that there is a continual chance to refine, redefine and remould the musical material which results in the whole of my Tolkien-based work becoming a massive symphonic structure of its own. It is precisely this sort of overarching consistency that one cannot find, for example, in Koechlin’s work on Kipling’s much more episodic The Jungle Book—which otherwise had the same significance in that composer’s writing as Tolkien has had in a mine.
Rumour has it that you are aided by the son of Professor Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien. Is this true?
Christopher Tolkien has been extremely helpful throughout the course of the construction of the text for The Silmarillion. He has seen all the texts before I used them, and has given some advice about tone and style, for example. For this reason the first of my settings to be written, The Children of Húrin, is dedicated to him. In his response to this dedication he said “I have no objection to being included among those to whom the work is dedicated, quite the reverse!—though it does not seem to be that my contribution has been so great.”
It may interest scholars to know that you use Elven text in your works. Was it a logical choice to do this, or was it a difficult choice to make?
And what role does or did the younger Mr Tolkien have in this process?
I was always going to use Elvish texts in my setting. It is a lovely language to sing. Christopher Tolkien did nothing to influence me in this. I wanted to make the Elvish sound like a living language, so I took extreme care to ensure that the accentuation and word-meaning were fully taken into account in my setting. The hymn to Ilúvatar in the last act of Gondolin, for example, was treated as a sort of cross between Gregorian plainchant and Russian Orthodox chant, but I also wanted something different as well, and so the free rhythms were sometimes notated, sometimes not. I would have to admit that the texts in The Silmarillion were constructed from various Elvish texts written by Tolkien at various stages in his development of the languages, and that I have not tried to be consistent in my use of either Sindarin or Quenya.
In what way does the young Mr Tolkien aid you? Can we conclude that the help of the young Mr Tolkien will lead to the process of becoming a official Tolkien-acknowledged music?
After I contacted Christopher Tolkien following the publication of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, he was very helpful in letting me have alternative versions of various texts so that I could construct my ‘libretto’ for The Silmarillion using as far as possible Tolkien’s own words. In the end I practically re-edited the book for my own purposes, mainly to draw the most extended versions of the plot together but also to reinforce the sense of internal rhythm in the writing itself which 1 mentioned earlier. One example of Christopher Tolkien’s aid was in the preparation of the libretto for Beren and Lúthien. I had used the original verse versions of the Lay of Leithian as the basis for this, but at various points I had sought to change the verse into prose to match the prose texts used elsewhere. Tolkien himself had experimented with the idea of a prose version of the Lay (the text remains unpublished), and Christopher Tolkien supplied me with some lines from this so that I could compare my version with that of the author. I am delighted to say that much of my re-wording was identical! However I do not think that the Tolkien Estate are happy with the idea of ‘official Tolkien music’. I am one of the few composers who has been given permission to use the words of Tolkien himself, and this I regard as quite sufficient; I do not have exclusive rights to any of the texts. I recall that Goethe tried to designate a ‘recognised composer’ and frustrate any efforts by other composers to utilise his texts, and I don’t think the world would have been served better if Schubert and Beethoven had never set Goethe.
There is a lot of music in the world which is ‘inspired by Tolkien’s work’, from Bo Hansson up to the Tolkien Ensemble. We know as well that Tolkien in collaboration with Donald Swann wrote The road goes ever on, the so-called ‘authorised music’. What do you think mainly of ‘music inspired by Tolkien’? What do you personally think of Donald Swann’s effort, and how do you think people should approach this work?
Donald Swann was a very great composer of light comic songs, but I’m afraid I don’t find that his settings of Tolkien rise much above that level. His setting of In the willow-meads of Tasarinan is fine as far as it goes, but it still seems to me to be about 150 years out of date—indeed it could well have been written by Schubert, with a strong classical approach which hardly conveys the proper emotional depth. Nor does his music seem to have any differentiation in colour between hobbit, ent or elf. Tolkien’s own setting of Namarië included in the cycle is in a different league, but Swann’s addition of short interlude, postlude and coda adds nothing to it; and Swann’s own setting of O Elbereth Gilthoniel bears no stylistic resemblance to it at all. Stephen Oliver’s music for the BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is a much better effort, and he does at least attempt to make the music for hobbits and elves sound different. The problem with his music—largely I suspect a matter of cost—is the very small scale of the accompaniments (strings, horn and percussion only), and the decidedly inferior nature of some of the singing in the BBC recording. Nor am I convinced that the elves should sound quite so baroque. But his setting of Gil-galad was an Elven-king, for example, is extremely beautiful; and his setting of Bilbo’s last song is immeasurably superior to Swann’s.
I also am a enthusiast about Stephen Oliver; I do like his March of the Ents. Indeed the Gil-Galad setting sets a tone; was his musical interpretation of any use to you?
By the time he wrote his score for the BBC production of The Lord of the Rings I had finished most of the music I wrote for it. So although my setting of the Song of the Eagle (Sing and rejoice) may have some Handelian echoes in the style of the vocal writing, it is not the same as (and was not influenced by) Stephen Oliver’s more elaborate mock-Monteverdi setting. I just think it is a shame he was not allowed larger musical forces and better performers.
Shore’s Ring (and beyond)
It has come to me that you were asked for, or asked yourself to be, part of the Peter Jackson’s motion picture interpretations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. What happened?
I did write to the producers of the film at an early stage, and did some work on music for the film drawing largely on my earlier work on the projected opera cycle. It was clearly decided by Peter Jackson that he did not want to use my music, but I cannot comment on that decision.
Before I start to ask more questions about Shore’s work I want to know two things; what was the very best thing Howard Shore did with the music for The Lord of the Rings? And what was the worst thing he did?
The very best thing was his use of the Gondor theme for the firing of the beacons in The Return of the King, an absolutely marvellous passage which is only spoiled by the sudden truncation of the music before Aragorn sees the beacon. Not a passage in Tolkien at all, of course, but extremely impressive both visually and musically. Far and away the worst thing musically is the male choir music for Moria. Shore and Jackson explain the use of male choir by saying that they thought this best represented the idea of mines—presumably influenced by the Welsh male choirs of the mining valleys, a subject about which I do know a great deal although there are hardly any mines left in South Wales now. But even granted the idea that the use of a Welsh male choir would have been appropriate—an idea I take leave to doubt—the substitution of a Maori male choir shows a woeful ignorance of the type of sound which was supposedly intended, and is also totally at odds with the Western European concept of the book itself—I find it makes the end of the Moria scene almost unwatchable. Nearly as bad is the use of pseudo-Arabic music for Lothlórien—I observe that Shore removed the Arabic overtones when he re-used the music in the later films.
What would you have done differently in Shore’s case and why?
I would certainly have tried to bind the music more closely together in style, while maintaining the correct differentiation between the various cultures. This was done visually by both Alan Lee and John Howe, and I find it a very great flaw in the films that the same degree of care was not carried over into the music. Also, given the size of the undertaking, Shore made far too little use of different themes—there should have been much greater trouble taken both to make the individual themes more memorable and differentiated, and to have more of them. The use of the ‘Ring theme’ in its most grandiose form to depict the Passage of the Argonath, for example, not only is inappropriate; it also devalues the use of the Ring theme when it is properly used later. I know Shore used the Gondor theme in The Fellowship of the Ring (once) and in The Two Towers (once), but it needed to be more firmly established—and it would have helped if the theme itself were more distinctive (the themes for Gondor, Rohan, the Fellowship of the Ring and Moria—to take four examples—are all cut from very much the same cloth).
Did Howard Shore influence the way you look and listen to the world of Tolkien?
No, because I felt it was a great opportunity missed. Jackson took both the plot and the visuals very seriously (even if one might take issue with some of his decisions) but I get the feeling that he regarded the music as rather more peripheral. If the music had been more closely bound in with the filming itself (as happened for example in Prokofiev’s scores for Eistenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible) the results could have been so much better. And I am not sure that the commercial interests which dictated the inclusion of a ‘pop’ song in each of the films’ closing sequences helped either.
If not yourself nor Howard Shore, whom would you recommend to do the scoring of the Hobbit motion picture soundtrack if there ever will be one?
That would depend very much on what sort of film it was going to be. I understand that Tolkien’s later extensive revisions to The Hobbit (more than those included in the 1966 Third Edition) are to be published next year, and there may very well be elements there which would affect the whole nature of any film. I would imagine that the result would be very much more ‘adult’ than the original.
Talking about motion pictures, was Leonard Rosenman’s score for the Bakshi film of The Lord of the Rings of interest to you?
I am afraid I find both the film and its music quite awful.
And needless to ask I think, but just for point of interest, the Maury Laws’s score to the Rankin & Bass Warner Brothers movies (The Hobbit and The Return of the King)—are they of interest to you?
I have seen none of these films.
Do you think Howard Shore should, if there will be a motion picture release, compose the music for The Hobbit, or do you think there is an alternative?
I think I have said enough to imply that I think this would be a mistake. Moreover after his experience with Jackson on King Kong, I am far from convinced that Shore himself would be willing.
What was the fascination which drew you to the books and stories?
I think I have largely covered this in my previous answers, but there is perhaps something more I can add. Sometimes I have found that music I have originally designed for quite another piece finds its way into one of the Tolkien settings (this happens to all composers, of course) and seems to find its ideal place there. To take one example, a passage that I originally wrote for a Requiem (never completed) and then turned into a song finally found its way into Beren and Lúthien where it actually forms the conclusion of the love scene at the end of the First Act. Each time I re-used the material, it was further refined and finally in its Beren form it reaches its ideal state. Sometimes too I have used music written for a Tolkien work, using Tolkien’s words, as the basis for another purely instrumental piece: I think here particularly of the Three Romances for violin or oboe with harp or piano accompaniment, which although they are to be regarded as ‘absolute’ music nevertheless have what I am told is still a ‘Tolkien feel’. In fact the first orchestral piece of mine that was ever performed, which consisted of extracts from The Hobbit (before it was even revised to become part of the projected Lord of the Rings cycle), prompted comments that “it reminds me of Tolkien” from a listener at a rehearsal who had no idea about the origins of the music. There is a sort of symbiosis here which I don’t pretend to understand.
You wrote four complete operas based on The Silmarillion. Do you expect them ever to be performed as a whole? I like to think of them as one opera instead of four.
It would be lovely if they could be performed as a whole (over four evenings), because they are certainly intended to be a continuous work. To take just one example, towards the end of The Fall of Gondolin on the fourth evening a theme recurs which has not been heard since Fëanor on the first evening, as the theme of the destruction of the Two Trees returns in a triumphal mode. It is an effective passage on its own, I think; but it is much more so if it seen in the context of the whole cycle, like an old friend finally restored to health after a long illness and convalescence.
Who was the most difficult character to put to music?
Fëanor himself, I think. His address to the Noldor in Tirion is one of the longest passages for solo voice in the whole cycle, and it has to build to an overwhelming climax as he and his sons proclaim their fearsome oath. The passage describing the forsaken realms of Middle-earth has to be full of longing and rhapsodical nostalgia, and then the declaration of his intention to return has to rise to heroic heights. And of course we are all too well aware these days of the perils of rabble-rousing oratory. Can anyone nowadays listen to the end of Beethoven’s music for Egmont with Goethe’s original text declaimed over rolling side drums, and not be reminded of Hitler at his most maniacal? Fëanor is not Hitler, but he has to have the same conviction about his own rectitude, and produce a similar sense of revulsion at the same time as overwhelming the senses.
Of all the work you ever composed and recorded, what would be your advice for people to make ‘first contact’ with your music?
Probably from one of the choral and orchestral suites drawn from the whole, which contain most of the selfcontained music. Otherwise, the whole of the love scene from the first act of Beren and Lúthien (only the beginning and the end of the scene are included in the suite).
Of all Tolkien-related work, what would you think is your best work ever?
I must admit that I find the final act of The Fall of Gondolin brings the cycle to a most satisfactory conclusion. Beginning with the wedding march for Tuor and Idril, followed by their love duet, then the unaccompanied choral Hymn to Ilúvatar, then the dramatic music for the fall of the city and the final epilogue as Tuor’s ship departs across the seas, it also contains some of the finest of the set pieces in the cycle.
Most of your work is recorded by you as a solo artist; are there any recordings by other performers?
Unfortunately there are no commercial recordings by other performers, largely I fear because of the expense of assembling the full forces required for such a purpose.
Next to the Tolkien related work, you have also put other literary works to music; were they just as difficult to put to music as the Tolkien related works?
Often more so, but I have to say that I have always found Tolkien’s words easy to set. The worst was probably my own text for The Children of Lyr, because I kept wanting to fiddle around with and improve the words as I was going along.
What is your favorite non-Tolkien musical piece you have written?
My highly spiced and very romantic setting of Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. Apart from giving me the opportunity to write some very lush music for the nightingale, it also gave me the chance to exploit some satirical references to other styles in the cynical final scene.
How did Tolkien influence the musical development of non Tolkien music you write?
I am not sure that it has, because my style is something personal to me rather than just a reflection of another author’s text. I have however raided various of my Tolkien sketches for themes which I have used in other works, but this is something all other composer’s have done as well. I like to think of my entire musical output as being in some way a unit—like Elgar did in his setting of The music makers (“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”) where he quotes from all his other major musical works to illustrate the sources of his visions; or like Strauss did in his autobiographical symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben.
Do you (or did you) have any contact with other Tolkien musicians or composers?
I do not personally know any other composers who have worked in the field of Tolkien, and I am not aware of anybody who was worked more extensively with the actual and original words of the author. And while there are many composers who have worked with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in one way or another, the only large-scale classical work I know based on any part of The Silmarillion is Glen Buhr’s symphonic poem Beren and Lúthien—an ambitious and interesting piece but (at least in the only performance I have heard) perhaps overly discordant for its subject matter.