Before audiences see anything on screen, before any other sound, it’s the music of Canadian composer Howard Shore that ushers them into the Middle Earth of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. The movie, the first of Jackson’s blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, was released in Canada and most international markets on December 19, 2001.
The opening sequences of the movie illustrate Shore’s genius, and why the score continues to be as popular as the films themselves. It begins with the ethereal sounds of the theme — or leitmotif — of the Lothlórien elves. A female chorus shimmers above strings in a minor key, leading into the voice of Galadriel, queen of Lothlórien, who narrates the history of the One Ring.
As her voice continues, the One Ring’s own melancholic theme, played on a moody string section, begins to insert itself, then dominate the score. Once the prologue is over, the action on screen and the musical theme shifts, first to The Shire’s happier leitmotif, then to the inspiring Fellowship theme.
Shore’s ability to create evocative leitmotifs that convey both scene and character, and then weave them into and out of each other, gives the movie its solid emotional underpinning.
The Toronto-born composer and multi-instrumentalist studied at the Berklee College of Music after his graduation from Forest Hill Collegiate. He was a member of Canadian jazz rock band Lighthouse. Along with the LOTR and Hobbit trilogies, Shore has composed music for more than 80 films.
His work on the LOTR trilogy earned him three Academy Awards, including one he shares with vocalist Annie Lennox and writer/producer/lyricist Fran Walsh for the Into the West song. He’s also noted for a longstanding collaboration with director David Cronenberg, including his score for the opera The Fly, based on Cronenberg’s 1986 movie. He was the original musical director for Saturday Night Live from 1975 until 1980.
Shore has also taken home three Golden Globes and four Grammy Awards.
LvT: How familiar were you with the Tolkien’s books before taking on the assignment? Many people have read the LotR books, but don’t necessarily have an intimate knowledge of the characters or plot twists.
HS: I read the books in the late 60s, as many of my friends did. I was reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction back then. I was touring with my rock band Lighthouse and I read a lot on the road. I devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on the bus. I particularly liked the Sam/Frodo relationship, that’s really at the heart of the story. Even though this is a large, epic novel about war, at the centre of it, it’s the intimate relationships I found inspiring.
LvT: In an interview at the time (for Classicfm), you mentioned that your guiding principles were “everything that is green and good”, something you share with Tolkien himself. How did that influence the music you wrote for Lord of the Rings?
HS: A lot of my writing is influenced by nature, and I related to Tolkien’s work very closely. I was writing in an oak forest and watching the seasons change. I was also restoring a 19th-century house, and the garden. And I noticed that as the gardens improved, the sense of balance was returned, my composition improved. I related to Tolkien in the sense that everything green and good was worth fighting for. It’s the struggle for preservation of nature over industrialization, and it was going to be a battle to save the goodness of the earth.
LvT: The score contributes immeasurably to not just the mood and emotion of the films, but to the depth of the characters. In fact, much of the music consists of themes related to character, as opposed to atmosphere on its own. How did you come upon that approach to composing the music?
HS: The use of the themes and the leitmotifs were used for clarity in storytelling. Tolkien’s world is considered to be one of the most complex fantasy worlds ever created. And, he creates dualities in the story, so not only do you meet and need to understand the elves of Rivendell, but also the elves of Lothlórien. It’s the same with the world of men — you need to understand both Rohan and Gondor. Not everybody who sees the films may have read the books and have understood all of the different characters, cultures and objects. The music was used to help clarify this complex story.
LvT: As you became involved in the project, did you have any sense of how sweepingly popular it would become – a real part of the zeitgeist for many?
HS: Peter called me in 2000 and told me about the film he was making, and I was intrigued enough to journey to New Zealand, and once I saw the quality of the production and met Richard Taylor; met John Howe and Alan Lee, the great Tolkien illustrators; met Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh; and once I saw a bit of the film, maybe 12 or 15 minutes that was cut together, it was so intriguing, you could not say no. We all felt a great responsibility to put on the screen as much honesty, heart and detail to Tolkien’s work.
LvT: Along with the films, the score itself has garnered many awards. Do you have any thoughts on why the music has become so enduringly beloved?
HS: I always think that the success of it really goes back to the interest in Tolkien’s world, the world he created. J.R.R. Tolkien’s story of honour, sacrifice, fellowship, and courage. It’s the struggle to save everything green and good, as we mentioned. It was written in a pure place, and I think people relate to it in a personal way. Peter created this beautiful film over a period of four to five years. I think it was a great collaboration with all of the filmmakers. The book had been read and loved by millions. People from all over the world have now been able to watch the films and enjoy the score for the past 20 years.
Fans of Shore’s work may be able to enjoy his take on Middle Earth again — the composer is reportedly in talks with Amazon studios to pen the music for its upcoming TV series set in Tolkien’s world.
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