Howard Shore conducting the LOTR symphony

The musical score behind Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is intricately multifaceted to match the proportions of the epic tale. The plot, based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, is full of depth, 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 go through personal transformations and gain experience 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, ensured that a lush instrumental tapestry would be woven to capture the essence of the main characters and concepts. This would be top-rate material, 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 and transport 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 many times 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 of 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, and 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 orks. 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.

Howard Shore conducting the LOTR symphony.

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 brought to life 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 and begins 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 succumb to the power of the Ring.

As the plot reaches its climax at the end of movie three, an intense choral piece called “The End of All Things” electrifies Frodo’s climb up Mt. Doom with a sense of intensity and foreboding should his mission to destroy the Ring fail. Again, the violin theme of the Ring is played, Frodo’s resolve suddenly falters, and he claims the source of power for himself. But there’s one more act to the drama. Gollum, reluctantly spared from death by the hobbits had has harassed and betrayed, leaps out of the shadows and tackles Frodo to the ground. In the ensuing struggle, Gollum and the Ring fall into the fires of Mt. Doom, and the ever-faithful Sam yanks Frodo from the brink of falling in himself. The haunting vocals of Renee Fleming hail the arrival of the eagles who rescue the two hobbits from the lava-soaked mountainside.

Emiliana Torrini

Lest we forget a few other iconic songs from the films, Enya’s “May It Be” from The Fellowship of the Ring serves as the ultimate LotR theme, arranged as a type of prayer for grace and courage in the midst of loneliness and despair, assuring that “a promise lives” within each of us, and that no matter how insignificant we feel, we can stand up to evil and assure that “the shadow’s call will fly away.” In the extended version of The Two Towers, we get a special treat when Eowyn sings a lament in Old English at her cousin’s funeral. Her emotionally taught voice seems to reach out from ages past, especially since words are adapted from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, a work of literature near and dear to Tolkien’s heart. At the end of the movie, “Gollum’s Song” by Emiliana Torrini tells of Sméagol’s sorry plight as he struggles in vain to break free from the bondage and darkness. His pathetic refrain cannot help but draw sympathy: “Don’t say I didn’t try.”

The Return of the King contains two memorable songs. The first one is “The Edge of Night”, a simple yet deeply haunting lament which the hobbit Pippin sings at the court of Gondor for the steward, Denethor. The camera flashes back and forth from the court to a suicidal charge that is being launched against an ork-held stronghold, with Denethor’s son Faramir at the head. The lyrics make it clear that “there are many paths to tread” away from home, and that the mission to conquer darkness with take them all through “mist and shadow, cloud and shade.” The second song of note from final film is “Into the West”, sung by Annie Lennox at the finale. It is a beautiful testimony to all those who have fought the good fight and have won the race, and a belief in a Brighter World to come: “Don’t say we have come now to the end/White shores are calling; you and I will meet again.”

Fran Walsh, Howard Shore and Annie Lennox – Best Original Song ‘Into the West’ Oscar 2004.

In an age when pop music and fan flicks are pathetically simplistic and lacking in taste, it is satisfying to be able to listen to a movie score that takes the essential themes of human existence and brings them to our consciousness with emotionally-charged music and haunting vocals. The frailty of man, the quality of mercy, and power of Providence all play their part to demonstrate the core of courage and the mystery of love at the heart of Tolkien’s epic. With a classical flavor yet a very original approach, the musical moods and penetrating plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy will no doubt serve as a source of inspiration and enjoyment for generations to come.

Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is one of the founding members and the Editor-in-Chief of The Fellowship of the King, a literary magazine with a strong Tolkienite influence (which, by the way, is open to submissions). She reads and writes extensively, and eagerly seeks out the deeper spiritual significance of popular fandoms such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. And yes, she does have a soft spot in her heart for classic Disney movies, The Princess Bride, and Merlin 😉 She is also a recording artist, singing traditional folk songs and her own compositions as well as playing the penny whistle and bodhran drum. She draws her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.