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Book Review: The Music of The Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore’s Scores by Doug Adams

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Seven years after Peter Jackson’s vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings captivated imaginations and revolutionized filmmaking there’s another reason to discuss the films.  This time the discussion centers on Howard Shore’s Grammy winning score.  The films were brilliant. and part of the reason was certainly  the beautiful, epic soundtrack.  If we take Howard Shore’s musical score of The Lord of the Rings films as a musical interpretation of Tolkien’s work (which it is) then Doug Adams book chronicling the story behind the score would be The Silmarillion.  Adams wrote the history of the musical creation of the cultures, characters, alliances and tragedies of Middle-earth.  Adams had unrestricted access to Shore’s work and recording sessions and truly made a “comprehensive” guide to the music.

The work that went into this score is staggering, at least to me.  Shore began his work in 1999 and he really delved into the world of Tolkien and made it real.  One sentiment repeated in the book is that Shore wanted the music to sound ancient and as if it had just been discovered as opposed to written just for the movie.  This is reflected in the music.  It is incredibly moving and memorable and, like the book itself, it does indeed feel as if it has just always been, as if it’s really part of the history of the world.

Adams begins the book with a review of the themes that are used throughout the films for the different cultures of Middle-earth:  Men, Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, and even for Sauron and the Ring itself.  He mentions often the instruments used in the composition of each theme, or the singers and choruses used.  While reviewing these themes, Adams focuses on the theory behind each one and how it relates to various other themes in the movies.  There is a good deal of technical music jargon in this first section, accompanied by excerpts from actual sheet music so not only can you hear the music in your head you can see it play out on paper.   Seeing the music, for example the “down-and-back” notation used extensively and the intertwining notes of the themes, greatly helps in understanding Shore’s approach to the score.

The last two-thirds of the book is a synopsis of each movie.  Adams recounts the plot and highlights the major issues in each of the three films, but he tells it using the musical themes which was unexpectedly exciting.  He explains the deeper issues behind the action and how the music foretells and supports the emotional dynamic we see on screen.  The bold Fellowship theme is used throughout but in subtly different fashion as the Fellowship unites, fights and is ultimately scattered though not broken.  Aragorn’s quest to accept his lineage and responsibility and to be the herald of hope.  The music makes us feel the dreaded power and seduction of the ring.  Discussing these themes helps us understand the movies that much more.  I know I felt that I came away with a deeper understanding of the films.

And the storytelling is outstanding.  This isn’t just a recitation of recording sessions  and musical notes.  Like the Lord of the Rings story itself, this book is a journey.  It can feel overwhelming since this is a big book fit for a proverbial coffee table, but it does not become dry or too technical.  Adams makes us hear the music, feel the tension or hope or despair through impassioned narrative and a rich musical vocabulary.  Fans of Lord of the Rings will want certainly want this book.  Musicians may also appreciate it, since it has so much technical information and thematic discussions and notations.

Middle-earth was worth visiting once again.

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