Op. 73 - Musical Chapters from The Lord of the Rings

This page is still a work in progress

It was I think while sitting by the lake at Chiddingstone in Kent during the summer of 1967 that I first began to sketch musical material for the works of J R R Tolkien, even before I had begun work on the Nativity Mass which was later to become my Op.1. These first sketches included a lightly rhythmic theme for the hobbits and an early version of the Shire melody, and were followed in the autumn of that year by other elements that survived into later work: the lament for Boromir, for example, and an early version of In the willow-meads of Tasarinan. These short pieces were originally fragmentary, but soon began to coalesce into a larger framework in the shape of a complete setting of Book IV of The Lord of the Rings, originally given the grandiose title of The Doom but eventually to materialise as The Black Gate is closed.


Work on this fully operatic setting had advanced far enough for piano rehearsal of the first scene given in the summer of 1968, and the score was substantially sketched by March 1969 including some passages – such as the thunderstorm in Act Three – which would later find their way in largely unaltered form into The Silmarillion. The final chords of the score were written during my Easter holidays that year in a freezing cold cottage near the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry – as I discovered much later, some years after Tolkien himself had spent a holiday in the same Irish mountain landscape. But even so at that time much of the work was left incompletely orchestrated, and some of the scoring was clearly impractical. The amateur orchestra at the London School of Economics rehearsed a much-reduced orchestral suite in the autumn of 1969, but that was as far as the work ever progressed, despite some interest expressed by those in London who saw the score and a suite from it given by the LSE orchestra in 1971. Indeed I was far from clear in my own mind regarding the function of the three-Act torso, except that it might in due course form part of a complete Lord of the Rings cycle of a massive scale. Having completed the sketches, I soon turned to the more practical subject of Michéal Mac Liammóir’s Diarmuid and Gráinne which had reached completion and indeed partial performance by the summer of 1971.


During that period I had not entirely abandoned thoughts on the projected Tolkien work, and indeed this took a new departure with my setting of the lengthy poem The Sea Bell completed early in 1972. The principal theme of this song, which returns several times in varied forms during the progress of the narrative, is in all essential features the same as the extended melody employed initially for the Elves as the second subject in my third symphony Ainulundalë, and eventually associated in The Silmarillion with the elven realm of Doriath. At the same time I finally established a projected form for the putative operatic cycle on The Lord of the Rings, a totally impractical scheme extending over thirteen evenings of performances (including two evenings devoted to The Hobbit); and I went so far as to devise a complete text for this monstrous construction, covering the whole territory in great detail and leaving very little out. In due course I began some very tentative work on this task: the two evenings which set The Hobbit were fully sketched, and some other Acts – Tom Bombadil and The Grey Havens – were also substantially completed in short score (although the end of both was missing). A good many other sketches also date from this period, but of course the whole enterprise was brought to an end by the difficulties of obtaining copyright clearance for the texts, and in due course – following the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977 – the diversion of my musical attention to the newly emerging material.


I have explained elsewhere how, beginning with my purely orchestral and instrumental approach to the texts in the Ainulindalë symphony and the piano rondo Akallabêth (both dating from the period 1978-79), and with the approval of the Tolkien estate – and encouragement from both Christopher and Priscilla Tolkien – I eventually began work on my epic scenes from The Silmarillion with The Children of Húrin in 1981-82 and then followed this with the other segments of the cycle during the following years. The completion of Beren and Lúthien, the last of the cycle to be composed at that time, in 1996 was followed by a frustrating series of attempts to obtain performance of at least some part of the cycle which was ultimately defeated by the incessant refrain that the work was too long and too complicated, even when attempts were made to reduce the size of the orchestration and forces demanded for suites of excerpts. An attempt to utilise some of the material from the cycle for a setting of Bilbo’s Lay of Eärendil was equally stillborn, although the use of texts from The Lord of the Rings had been authorised by the Tolkien estate as part of the construction of the Silmarillion scenes. At the same time I assembled the remaining fragments from the Lord of the Rings material, completing the scores for Tom Bombadil and The Grey Havens and putting the other sections into some sort of order.


It was only when recording work on the epic scenes finally and belatedly began in 2017 with The Fall of Gondolin that I began to give any further consideration to this material. The indefatigable Simon Crosby Buttle, as I have described elsewhere, began by urging me to bring the legends of the First Age to a proper conclusion with the addition of a further Silmarillion segment based around my existing Eärendil setting, which we eventually decided to entitle The War of Wrath. And it was he who suggested at much the same that it might be an interesting idea to provide an Appendix to the recording – in the time-honoured Tolkien tradition – including some of the Lord of the Rings material which had not been incorporated into the Silmarillion cycle. This would also have the advantage of binding the various scores together, allowing listeners to appreciate the connections between them. The theme of Eru which opens Fëanor also closes The Grey Havens; and this is not the only theme associated with the Valar to make a subsequent appearance in the Lord of the Rings sketches (although as might be expected much less frequently than in the Silmarillion). The themes of Elbereth and Yavanna both re-emerge in The Mirror of Galadriel as Galadriel presents the Fellowship with her gifts; and the ‘Arda’ theme from Ainulindalë and Fëanor also reappears, both in its original form and to represent the downfall of Sauron as in the Akallabêth rondo. Even Morgoth, long-banished from Middle-Earth, returns musically in the Balrog scenes and to menacingly underpin the threat of the Nazgul. Ulmo too reappears at several points; although significantly not Mandos, whose curse has been exorcised during the War of Wrath (even at the death of Saruman).


With these considerations in mind, Simon Crosby Buttle began the long task of reducing down my original rambling libretto to a series of relatively briefer musical chapters which would require a relatively more limited amount of new musical composition to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. With the completion of my work on The War of Wrath in the early summer of 2020 I turned back to the earlier sketches, beginning in an entirely arbitrary and fortuitous manner with the completion of the scene of triumph at The Field of Cormallen, and linking Frodo’s song at The Prancing Pony through to the first appearance of Aragorn’s description in the following scene. I then worked backwards through the earlier version of Tom Bombadil, making some thematic amendments; and returned to my 1970s sketch for A long-expected party, again revising and bringing the score into accordance with the existing Silmarillion. The revision of The Black Gate is closed had perforce to be much more extensive – some of the themes, such as that for the Ring itself, had been substantially altered over the years – and the music later written for the Gondorian scenes had to be incorporated into the originally much more basic material supplied for Faramir. Because of the isolation imposed upon me as a result of the worldwide corona pandemic, I found with the opportunity for uninterrupted composition that the new and revised music fell into place with remarkable fluidity and ease; and what emerged was a set of musical chapters which formed a partnership with the epic scenes from The Silmarillion in a manner which reflected Tolkien’s own scheme for his work as envisioned in the 1950s with the two cycles forming part of an integral whole.


In some ways, of course, the musical chapters from The Lord of the Rings are quite distinct in dramatic style from The Silmarillion in the same manner as the disparate texts themselves. The role of the chorus in delivering the narration in the ‘epic scenes’ vanishes altogether in the ‘musical chapters,’ which therefore become somewhat more conventionally operatic in form. At the same time the Lord of the Rings texts themselves, generally more closely argued and complex in their development, engender a more contrapuntal and elaborate response in the thematic treatment. The action sequences, for example, which form such a major part of both the Peter Jackson films and the Howard Shore scores for them, are trimmed back considerably with many of the battle sequences taking place ‘offstage’. The chapters focus on the lyrical and philosophical aspects of the text in a manner that goes far beyond the simple restitution of Tom Bombadil and the scouring of the Shire to their places in the tale. One example may suffice; the whole of the chapter The Steward and the King, extending from the Song of the Eagle (written in 1970) to the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, is condensed in the film to a single scene of some five minutes in which only Aragorn’s speech in Quenya is actually delivered in the actual words written by Tolkien. In the ‘musical chapter’ we not only hear the song of the Eagle developed as part of the coronation scene itself, and the return of the wedding music from The Fall of Gondolin now transfigured in the same manner that Frodo describes in his summons to blessing on the night (his speech on the subject concludes the scene); but we also hear the lengthy philosophical debate between Gandalf and Aragorn regarding the future development of the world and of the realm of Men in particular. And the discovery on the mountain of the scion of the Tree returns us musically past the era of Gondolin to the second scene of Fëanor, with the theme associated with the Two Trees finally reappearing after its age-long absence (all of this omitted entirely by Jackson) as part of a complete structure lasting nearly half an hour.