Even if you are not a fantasy fan, by now you have probably heard of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien created the world of Middle Earth to be an alternative pre-history of Britain, but in the years since the books were published, it has become clear that he also established a sub-genre of fantasy that is still emulated by many of today's authors.
The popularity of Tolkien's works has ebbed and flowed over the years, and most recently has been raised by the first live-action and CGI production of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. Jackson gained tremendous respect and renown from Tolkien fans for his treatment of the books in the film adaptation, and the films themselves brought many new fans into the fold. While much of this had to do with the visual effects and actors, a great deal of credit also goes to composer Howard Shore's soundtrack.
Enhanced one-disc versions of the soundtracks for each film were released around the same time the films saw their theatrical debuts, but now complete recordings in deluxe box sets are available, culminating in the release of the final set, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, last November. This set contains four discs with more than three hours of music, as well as a DVD-Audio disc with the entire score in 5.1 surround sound. Also included is a booklet with liner notes by The Lord of the Rings music expert Doug Adams.
Alone, without the action on the screen to distract the listener, the soundtrack plays the role of storyteller much like classical pieces such as Peter and the Wolf. Each character in the film, including locations, is given a theme. The themes are blended together to enhance the mood and setting of each scene. I have not watched the films since I saw them in the theaters, but years later I am able to recall elements of the story with only the music to aid my memory.
"Into the West," sung by Annie Lennox, won 2004's Academy Award for Best Original Song, and the score as a whole won the award for Best Original Score. Listening to it again, it is easy to hear why. Tolkien provided rich material, ready to be harvested and presented by any talented composer. And, much in the way Jackson approached the film adaptation with reverence for the source material, Shore has done the same with the soundtrack. I don't know what I expected for the soundtrack, but the one Shore has given us fits, and will forever be what plays through my mind as I re-read the books.