Music Magic: Concerning Hobbits

fantasy__038816_Life without music is like a book with no adjectives. Sure, all the basics are still there, but what of the beauty? The passion? The meaning? In my Music Magic serial, I’ll be talking about all the little bits of music in operas, films and other works and how they make a big difference. There will be lots of leitmotif here. The first piece I’ll be talking about is from The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Concerning Hobbits. Please, listen as you read!

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Howard Shore

Even from the most unbiased standpoint I can muster, Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings is a truly epic masterpiece. One of the greatest film scores in history and even a work of art in orchestral music as a whole. What is it, though, that makes this score so great? Well, one thing surely was Mr. Shore’s attention to the details of the story. I don’t know how carefully he read the books, but he clearly did. For many of the themes in the books which were not prominently featured in the films themselves are heard within the music. You see this particularly in the pieces he chose to represent the main protagonists of the films, the Hobbits.

The piece in question today is Concerning Hobbits, which contains the Shire Theme: one of the most important leitmotifs in the film (you can read what a leitmotif is in this previous article of mine). It’s the bit you hear from 0:05 to 0:27. This tune and its variations are heard throughout the films, and so skilfully did Howard Shore weave it into our minds from its first sounding that it’s impossible to hear it and not think of the Hobbits and their homeland.

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Tolkien’s very own illustration of Bag End

One of the literary themes which features heavily in most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is that of Wholesome Rusticity or, Connection to Nature. This theme is seen particularly in the peoples of the Shire and Rohan, where the cultures are unsophisticated and yet not uncivilized. They use no machines or other industrial tools. The Rohirrim do not even have an alphabet. The Hobbits are nearly catastrophically unaware of world events. And yet, there is something noble and idyllic in their provincial cultures. Having grown up at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time where the black smokes and fumes of factories were choking the once beautiful English countrysides, the themes of Rusticity and Return to Nature were very important to Tolkien. Howard Shore paid close attention to what tunes and sounds were associated with what people in the trilogy, and I believe he understood Tolkien’s vision of the Shire very well and kept it before his mind’s eye when he composed Concerning Hobbits.

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Surely, a Hobbit dance if ever I saw one.

There is something about this music which cannot help but bring to mind the countryside and ‘good old times’, if you will. Even if you had no idea what the piece was from or about, you would probably imagine something like a country market, a farm or a picnic. But why? Listen carefully to the instruments, for they all have something in common. A tin whistle. A fiddle and violins. A drum. A guitar… They are all folk instruments. In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says “[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” When he wrote this music, surely Howard Shore had this line in mind. No trumpets, no fancy oboes and clarinets. Not for the Shire. Here are sounds you might find playing in a country pub (The Green Dragon, perhaps?). They are simple instruments for simple living. Country life and people are so well painted with this piece that, even if we didn’t hear the description given by Bilbo and didn’t see the hobbits on the screen, somehow, we would know who they were and what they were like.

Not content with it merely being skillfully composed, however, Howard Shore made sure it was skillfully placed as well. While in the Shire, the music is charming and quaint. It is cozy and makes you think of only the best and simplest things the world. Warm fires, green hills, fresh baked bread, flowers, and good friends. All the things that we might take for granted.

But when we are no longer in the Shire, the music fills the heart with melancholy, almost nostalgia. With only a twenty second tune on a tiny flute, we the audience become homesick for a place where we have never been. Memory of life’s simple joys flood the mind, and the heart glows with the the strength and courage to continue. And as Frodo and Sam trek onward in the final frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s easy to forget that it is the Hobbits who are making the journey, not you!

 

Music, folks. It’s magic. I’m telling you.

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Sam, I’m glad you’re with me. *sound of sobbing to tin whistle*

 

Thanksgiving Music: Beethoven’s Pastorale

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Happy Thanksgiving! Hosting the holiday at your home this year? The stress can be a bit much. Perhaps you’re not ready for Christmas music yet, but wouldn’t you rather be able to listen to background music than listen to Aunt Mabel’s background gossip about how your sister isn’t married yet? Or how your stage actor cousin doesn’t have a real job? Well, allow me to present a piece for your dinner, and not only because it is so beautiful, but also because it is about Thankfulness: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastorale). Here is a link to a lovely recording to play:

“Beethoven’s Symphony Number Six in F Major” may sound pretty fancy and get a few raised eyebrows from less musically knowledgeable acquaintances,  but it’s really not as impressive as they think. Just follow up its proper name and say “It’s the one that plays in Fantasia with the Cherubs and Pegasuses (Pegasi?)”. Ah yes, they know which one you’re talking about, and wasn’t that movie just the best thing. Grandpa remembers when it came out, back in his day when movies were quality, not like today…

blog-picsPerhaps now, your family will speak a little more quietly and try to hear the mellifluous sound of Beethoven. But wait! Your irritating Music Hipster Cousin, Eddie, isn’t impressed. Why would you bother playing such a dull, ‘mainstream’ symphony? He prefers Symphony No. 7, if he listens to Beethoven at all. He likes Rachmaninov and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Well, enjoy the pleasure of one-upping Hipster Cousin Eddie by giving out interesting facts about the symphony. Inform him that this piece was specifically chosen by you to convey proper feelings for Thanksgiving. It was inspired by Beethoven’s own visits to the idyllic Black Forest of Southern Germany, and each movement is meant to represent a part of going there that he loved most.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Peasant Dance

The First Movement, energetic and hopeful, represents the joy of arriving in the country. The Second conveys the calm serenity of sitting by a babbling brook and listening to the bird songs in the forest. The Third Movement is a jolly country dance. Fourth Movement, a frightening thunder storm! The Fifth and final Movement meanwhile, is a moving and jubilant song of thanks meant to be played by shepherds.

But that’s not all! There is other interesting information. For instance, that the symphony was composed just as Beethoven’s hearing loss was really setting in, and that some speculate that its serene beauty was meant to symbolize his final acceptance of this terrible burden. You can also inform them that this version is being conducted by Herbert von Karajan, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. If you really want to lay it on thick, you can say something like “The tempo of the first movement is a little quick for my taste, but Karajan’s direction of Beethoven is too lush and rich to sacrifice for such a quibble.”

Of course, this is all a pleasant little fiction: As though the family is going to take a single breath from the moment someone mentions the Presidential Election to the time when they leave, possibly dragged away with new permanent rifts in the family. But, never mind that. You can still listen to Beethoven’s grand musical painting of his love for the countryside. And maybe, even if everyone else is getting bothered by political opinion, you can just sit on the couch, daydreaming about the Black Forest and all of the simple things that make life beautiful. So, forget about the politics and gossip. Instead, you can listen to the Shepherd’s Song and surely remember the real reason everyone is there today: Thanksgiving.

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Der schöne Schwarzwald (The beautiful Black Forest)