The Scoring Session - The Fellowship of the Ring

The Scoring Session


The Fellowship of the Ring

Welcome back ladies and gentleman, if you feel that a full blown edition of The Scoring Session is overdue – then I come back to you now at the turn of the tide and I come bearing good news.  Not only are we releasing this Lord of the Rings Centric Scoring Session, October may deliver another surprise or two – so keep your eyes peeled for any strange stalking shapes.  Now, without further ado, we begin our long promised journey into Middle Earth…


We’ve talked a lot about John Williams’ use of Leitmotif to create a shorthand for the narrative elements and characters in his film scores, and if John Williams is the King of leitmotif – then Howard Shore is his heir apparent.   With a career that began in the seventies, spanning television shows like Saturday Night Live; films like Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Se7en, Dogma, Big, Naked Lunch, etc; Shore is now best known for his work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies – and well he should be.  The scores for The Lord of the Rings trilogy comprise a masterfully crafted canon of work that could easily be viewed as a single unified operatic score broken into three broad movements.  It is an impressive and incredibly nuanced work that has become the focus of much scholarly study, and today we’re going to be breaking it down into just the score from The Fellowship of the Rings.


The film score begins with a chorus chanting in a vaguely unsettling minor key and transitions into a piece of music that within the first ten minutes introduces us to motifs that will recur throughout the entirety of the film series. This densely written composition effortlessly introduces us to the motif that defines the Lothlorien Elves who will come to represent the magic of the old age; the motif that defines the ring and its corrupting influence on the hearts of men which will come to represent the constant pull of the one ring upon Frodo; the motif that defines the Dark Lord Sauron and his machinery of war which will come to represent the Orc armies and the Eye of Sauron;  the battle motif that will define the group of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli once they are separated from the Fellowship; the motif that will define the sword Narsil, and it’s ultimate wielder Aragorn; the motif that will define the people of Gondor; the motif that will define the corrupted and pitiable entity of Gollum; the motif that will define the pastoral peace of The Shire; and finally the motif that will define the nine companions of The Fellowship of the Ring.   The themes that Shore so deftly introduces in this opening scene are the foundational pieces upon which he will build the score for each of the three Lord of the Rings films.  What Williams did across the Star Wars series by repurposing themes and statements from his 1977 work across six later films, Shore does in The Lord of the Rings as a thematic piece that fluctuates with the narrative and reinterprets itself again and again as the story progresses by constructing the themes all at once, even introducing brief snatches in Fellowship of the leitmotifs that won’t be fully stated until Return of the King.  Shore benefitted of course from the fact that Peter Jackson shot all three Lord of the Rings films simultaneously which enabled him to look at shooting scripts for all three films when constructing his themes for Fellowship.  Additionally, of course, Shore benefitted from the existence of Tolkien’s source material which was often written in a poetic and lyrical meter

Some very scholarly works have broken the Rings scores down into 32 distinct leitmotifs, and obviously we don’t have the kind of time in this column to devote to all of them so we will focus on a handful of the themes used in the first film of the trilogy.   

The first theme we’ll look at, and the one we will encounter the most often in the film, is the pastoral and simple “Shire theme” which is used to signify the simple and hopeful world of the Hobbits in general, and the much more abstract hope of a world worth fighting for that carries Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee all the way to their ultimate destination at trilogies end (and similarly carries Bilbo Baggins across three films of his very own.)  The movement is first introduced in full as a swiftly lilting piece comprised of simple strings, flutes and pennywhistles – it is very much the song of a secluded and innocent countryside.  As Frodo and Sam set out from the Shire on their journey the more rustic elements are stripped out and it becomes a string piece that paces the Hobbits on their journey to Rivendell, a sort of “on the road” piece that fully carries the little band of adventurers to what they think is their final destination.  The full version of this piece is stated again very briefly with strings and a single woodwind when Frodo wakes up in Rivendell, before the orchestral and choral wonder of the Elves theme overtakes it and introduces the Hobbits and the audience to the wonder of the council of Elrond – “the Shire theme” is then reintroduced using the same full orchestra elements as the Elves theme and becomes a slower and more wistful piece.  It will remain this sort of lament for a faraway home constructed almost entirely of strings until the end of Fellowship.  At the end of the film as Frodo is standing on the shore alone, looking across the water at the Emyn Muil and the journey he must take alone to Mordor the slow and slightly bittersweet piece from Rivendell is reiterated in full and the piece wanders darkly around itself as Frodo begins to row out into the water.  A defiant string melody interrupt that dark meandering to state a heroic version of the Shire theme as Sam wades into the water after Frodo.  As Samwise sinks into the water the dark brooding meandering returns, and the heroic elements don’t resurge until Frodo has pulled Sam into the boat.  Sam tells Frodo that he made a promise to Gandalf “Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.” As Frodo pulls his friend into a hug and we cement that these two members of the Fellowship are the only ones that will continue the quest toward Mordor the flute version of “the Shire theme” restates itself one last time.  “The Shire theme” is now completely “Frodo and Sam’s theme” and more melancholy variations of it will appear in The Two Towers and beyond. Important to note is that the full “Shire theme” will not be restated again in this trilogy of films, the version of it we are introduced to at the beginning of Fellowship and the version we hear again at the end of Return of the King are slightly different – indicating to the audience that our heroes were changed on their journey and are not as comfortable living in the isolated Shire as they once were.

The second most used theme in the film, and indeed in the entire trilogy, is the theme for the ring itself.  It’s a piece that I personally refer to as “the weakness of men” theme, this is the eerie piece that appears at the beginning of each of the films as the logo appears – unmistakably it is the off putting string motif that appears any time someone is tempted by the ring, or otherwise trapped in its influence.  Unlike almost every other motif in the trilogy, this one is rarely stated in different arrangements – it is incorruptible because it is always attempting to corrupt.  We are first introduced to it in Galadriel’s opening narration and it is stated again and again throughout the film as the ring tempts Bilbo to keep it, tempts Gandalf to take it, tempts Frodo to wear it, tempts the entire Council of Elrond to use its power, tempts Boromir in the snow near Caradhras to not return it to Frodo, and so on and so forth.  There are however three places where its appearance is slightly altered, the first is when it makes a brief appearance as a broken string statement in the Mines of Moria when Frodo notices for the first time that they are being followed in the dark of Moria by Gollum – this brief restatement quickly introduces the thematic statement for Gollum before introducing us to the piece of music that will accompany both times Gandalf delivers the line “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”  The musical statement that carries this important piece of dialogue will appear in Moria directly after “the weakness of men theme” gives way to “Gollum’s theme;” it will appear again in the previously discussed scene where Frodo is standing on the shore about to row across to his fate.  If the ring theme is an incorruptible piece, this twice used statement is its exact opposite – an unalterable call to hope that free will can topple the machinations of great evil.  This piece is so intrinsically tied with Gandalf the Grey’s views on fate and courage that it is used in its entirety in the excellent sequence in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Gandalf is explaining to Galadriel why he chose Bilbo Baggins to join the company of Thorin Oakenshield.

The second variation of the “weakness of men” theme comes when the Fellowship passes the great stone carved statues “The Argonath.” As they pass “the weakness theme” is stated almost elegiacally in a narrative choice that shows just how much thought Howard Shore put into constructing the score for these films.  A logical choice in that moment would be to use “the Fellowship theme,” or even “Aragorn’s theme,” but Shore chooses to use the theme that exemplifies human frailty at the moment that Aragorn – the heir of Numenor and rightful King of Gondor – passes the statue of the ages dead King of Gondor who was unable to destroy ring at the fires of Mount Doom at the beginning of the film.  Shore’s score contends that the ring is almost relishing the fact that it is mere feet away from Aragorn and the statue of the man it corrupted more thoroughly than anyone save for Gollum.

The third slight variation to the “weakness theme” is when it actively taunts Aragorn at the end of the film.  In all instances in all three films the “weakness motif” appears alone, replacing any other musical element completely.  The moment when the ring attempts to corrupt Aragorn is the only place in the entire legendarium where the Ring motif appears alongside the choral statement of the elves motif and a brief statement of the motif for the swords Narsil and Anduril which is built to complete “Aragorn’s theme.  Aragorn’s destiny is the only piece of music that is allowed to compete directly with the ring – and Aragorn closes Frodo’s fingers around the ring cutting the competition off before we can ever learn which is stronger in men: their valor or their corruptibility.

The final motif we’ll examine is the one that is most specifically tied to the first movie, and that is “the Fellowship theme” which uses a process similar to the one John Williams used to construct “the Superman theme” way back in article number one.  Different variations and components of the theme for the Fellowship itself play against each other and build throughout the film itself until they finally join together as one Fellowship of the Rings, united to bear Frodo and The One Ring to Mordor.  Our first hint of this theme is a short French horn version that plays as Frodo and Sam leave the Shire in earnest on their journey, as the traveling party grows on the road from Bree to Rivendell the horn section grows to include a broader tonal range that reflects the additions of Merry and Pippen, and a single drum adds a driving urgency to reflect Aragorn pushing the Hobbits faster and faster to reach Rivendell in time for the council of Elrond.  Elsewhere along the way, Gandalf’s arrival at Orthanc to meet with Saruman adds a crashing cymbal to the motif.  At the council of Elrond, we watch as the future fellowship squabble amongst themselves before throwing their support behind Frodo and his quest to destroy the ring. First Gandalf rises to join Frodo and the first strings of the theme swell, Aragorn rises next and the drums come with him.  Legolas and Gimli join and bring to the theme a chorus of voices, Boromir rises and the thematic statement seems to lose its way – the chorus struggling to maintain the momentum it mere seconds ago had; before the theme can fall apart completely Samwise runs into the fray and brings with him the pennywhistle statement of “the Shire theme.”  Merry and Pippen join as well, bringing into “the Shire theme” statement the strings and horns that stood with Gandalf and Frodo at the beginning of the building of “the Fellowship theme.”  As the four Hobbits join together with the others, the overconfidence of Pippen signifies the shift from the last appearance of the old “Shire theme” into the first full orchestra statement of “the Fellowship theme.”

The elegiac Fellowship motif appears in this complete form only three more times.  First it appears as the nine ready themselves to depart Rivendell, but like before with the introduction of Boromir the theme falters and has to be bolstered by a version of “the Shire theme.”  Shore is letting us know well in advance that the Fellowship itself is fragile and that Boromir will collapse the Fellowship, but “the Shire theme” will carry forward without it.  The full statement of the motif appears next as the nine stride across the snow covered mountains that Gandalf hopes will allow them to avoid the deep dark of Moria.  The final full statement of “the Fellowship motif” happens in Moria, and it is the last time that the motif is heard in full until the coronation sequence in The Return of the King.  Once Gandalf sacrifices himself combatting the Balrog, the Fellowship is already beginning to break, and without him holding it together – the thematic statement within the score unwinds itself until finally all that remain are fragments.  Just as Shore hinted, Boromir is the downfall of the Fellowship – his failure to avoid the lure of the ring sending Frodo off on his own in fear of destroying anyone else.  In the end the remaining fragments of “the Fellowship theme” morph to become a percussive theme the signifies the trio of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli throughout the next two films, while “The Shire motif” becomes the theme that signifies Sam and Frodo.

These are just three motifs in a score that expertly weaves dozens of motifs together and presages motifs that will be introduced in the second and third films, and there are very few film scores more densely or artfully composed that Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring.  Whether you are a fan of these films or not, if you love film scores there is no more immersive an experience than sitting down to listen to the three hour long The Complete Recordings album of The Fellowship of the Ring.  The score is sublime and beautiful, powerful and incredibly well constructed.   Much has been written about what the score for this film was able to achieve and we barely scratched the surface here.

Thank you for joining me this month for our look at this incredible score.  Next month in honor of the upcoming release of Justice League we’ll look at Hans Zimmer’s score for Man of Steel.