In the early days before home video became ubiquitous, the way to relive a movie after it left the theater was to own the soundtrack. I’ve been fascinated by film scores all my life as a direct result of this, starting with John Williams and eventually moving backward and forward to find his influences, his contemporaries, and those who were influenced by him, and so on. Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Barry, Henry Mancini, Alexander Courage, Bernard Hermann… the list goes on and on.
One can’t study Williams without learning of the concept of leitmotif, connecting individual themes to characters, settings, or situations within the context of the larger story. As a Tolkien fan, the realm of Middle-Earth was always listed as “the unfilmable story,” and as such I had no belief that it would ever be made into a movie series. But almost from the beginning, there were musicians who would take the leitmotif approach and connect the cultures of Middle-Earth to different styles of music and different instruments or voices. Middle-Earth music was hard to find sometimes in the days before the internet, but it was always there for the asking if you knew someone who knew what you were talking about. For me, the most notable of these would be The Tolkien Ensemble, who eventually were able to record the complete songs and poems of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
When Peter Jackson made his films, he honored Tolkien’s legacy in as much as film probably can without going to TV mini-series. With the budget came the sets, the costumes, the actors… and the music. Howard Shore’s scores for The Lord of the Rings remains in my eyes the one set of compositions that can compare to or even best the body of work from the great John Williams. From the beginning, Shore sat down with multiple annotated copies of Tolkien’s masterpiece to create a musical work that would stand side by with the films and the original books. He decided early on he wanted to document this, and that decision resulted in this book, quite possibly the book I’ve been waiting for my entire life.
Written by music journalist Doug Adams and filled with accompanying illustrations by Tolkien artists John Howe and Alan Lee as well as promotional stills from the films, this text between all of this eye candy is nothing less than the keys to the musical kingdom. I’m fortunate enough to own the 10-disc set of The Lord of the Rings: The Complete Recordings, which numbers an astounding 135 tracks. Within that, there are nearly 100 themes and variations that weave together the story as Tolkien himself told it from the beginning, through musical language. This book, with a little help from those CDs, will practically hold your hand and personally guide you through each of those themes and variations, offering up the connections Shore made during composition. If you don’t have those CDs, the original single-disc soundtracks will suffice, but it’s a lot like reading an abridged novel. Each theme in the book tells which track introduces the theme, how it connects and relates to other themes, and offers a bit of the sheet music for those who know how to read it for illustrative purposes.
The accompanying CD, The Lord of the Rings: The Rarities Archive, features music not available in the big 10-disc set. These are early demo versions of the music, mock-ups and alternate themes that help to outline how the music developed into the finished work. For the uber-Tolkien fan (like myself) who delights in seeing the creative process behind the finished work, this is just icing the already incredible cake. There are 21 music tracks and 2 tracks of Howard Shore in conversation. To take all of it in context is to sit in the mind of a genius. I don’t say that lightly.
I moved through this book so slowly that snails were whizzing by me. I wanted to drink it all in with the aid of those soundtrack CDs. I will continue to do so, because much like anything else in the world of Tolkien, a single pass-through isn’t nearly enough for full comprehension. The haunting wonder and majesty is laid out here for those who have ears to hear, rendered no less beautiful for the peek behind the curtain. I would love to have books like this for the Star Wars saga and a great many other films. But that I have this one lends itself to applying what I’ve learned to those other favorites, which then additionally lends itself to furthering my studies in classical music and even Opera.
To say that my life has been enriched by this is understatement. I am truly awed by this book and the work of the composer that inspired it. It’s a gift worthy of the Valar.