Musical Themes in "The Lord of the Rings"
By Eric Rawlins
Much has been said and written about Howard Shore's use of the Wagnerian leitmotif idea in his score for "The Lord of the Rings." Briefly, the idea is that the composer represents the important elements of the story — characters, objects, ideas — as musical themes or motives (leitmotif = "leading motive") in the score, and then uses these themes to expand and comment on the developing action.
Note on The Hobbit:
Several people have written me to ask if I intend to expand this site to include The Hobbit. I do not. Unhappily, I found the movie, and Shore's additional music for it, too uninteresting to justify the effort it would take to do this kind of analysis.
Movie composers have been doing something like this, of course, ever since the invention of the talkies. But most such themes are treated in a rather straight representational way — see the character, hear his theme — and many a film composer must have wished he had the opportunity to flesh the system out a bit — to develop the themes, and use them not just to signify but to add layers, to elucidate and comment.
Why has it never been done before now? Time. Three hours simply isn't time enough to introduce a whole set of themes, associate them with certain concepts, and then use those associations to comment further on the action. That's why Howard Shore must have thanked his gods, his muses, or whoever he figures watches over his life when he was offered the chance to write a single coherent piece of music across an 11-hour space of time. And that's why I consider his results worth the effort of putting together this site.
There is one other movie composer who has ever attempted this kind of Wagnerian treatment, and that is John Williams for the six Star Wars movies. He, too, had a canvas large enough to allow for it. Listen to what he does, for instance, with the theme for The Force when he takes Luke to the weird Dagoba world in Episode V. I would argue, however, that Williams' theme treatment still does not approach the richness of Shore's.
And I'll go ahead and say it now: This is the greatest movie score ever written.
The names I've given the themes are my own. I dislike naming themes, because names tend to corral the themes into certain specific, rational meanings rather than let their associations emerge organically from the way they are used. Wagner never assigned names or specific meanings to his leitmotifs for exactly that reason.
To take a case in point, the theme I call Elves is called Galadriel by some writers, and could probably just as easily be called Lothlorien, or perhaps The Power of the Elves. Any of those names would work in the context of the story. So which does the theme "mean"? The question is, in my opinion, not very interesting. For one thing, these themes don't "mean" things in the same way that, say, papillon means butterfly. They suggest; they resonate. Galadriel is an elf-queen, she wields great power, and that power is centered in Lothlorien. They are all of a piece, and the theme calls them all up at once and allows them to rattle against each other.
But you have to call the themes something if you're going to speak about them, so I've given them such names as seemed to me to make the best fit. Please don't take the names too seriously. Resist the temptation to turn this music into a set of one-to-one codes.
For each of the major themes, I have tried to capture an audible sample in its most simply-stated and clearest version. These I picked off the soundtrack CDs so as not to be distracted by dialogue and sound effects.
I also include samples of some of the theme occurrences. The ones I chose are not necessarily the most memorable, but the ones where Shore varies the theme or develops it in some interesting way, or in some cases where the occurrence is particularly subtle and easily missed. These I took from the Extended Edition DVDs, because I specifically wanted to present each occurrence in its environment — including hoofbeats, sword clashes, dialogue, etc. — since these occurrences are highly situational. I have in most of these cases also included a screen shot as an aid to triggering memory.
The Big Three
The Shire theme (with its variants), the Fellowship theme and the Rohan theme are the most recognizable and infectious of all the thematic material in the films. Each is repeated countless times, in countless orchestrations and moods, so that it is hardly possible to watch the movies through even once without learning to recognize them.
Other Important Themes
The remaining themes are not as melodic and catchy as the Big Three, but they are what set this music apart from other great film scores. A film score, even a great one (Lawrence of Arabia, The Great Escape, Fargo) will have one or two very memorable themes which are repeated with minor variations at key moments. But I count at least two dozen distinct repeating musical ideas in "Lord of the Rings" — themes which are developed across an 11-hour canvas. (Shore, in an interview, has said there are "forty or fifty" repeating themes, so it appears I have only scratched the surface.)
I have also included a few that I'm not sure actually qualify as themes, but I thought they were worth a word or two.
Comments and Corrections
There is no way I could have put this web site together without missing something. Have I missed a theme or an appearance? Is there some clever transformation of Shore's that has escaped my notice? I warmly welcome comments, corrections and additions, and fully intend to improve this site based on the insights of others.
I am grateful to the following for helping motivate me to take on this rather quixotic project:
For more discussion of Shore's themes (and for a good list of links to other sites, Shore interviews, etc.), see "Magpie's Nest".
The four samples from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen are from the Deutsche Grammophon recording by James Levine.
This site last updated 7/17/2006.