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*

 

And at last I’ve seen the Leit…motif

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Let’s start things off with something fun: Wagnerian thematic musical technique!

I know, that doesn’t sound fun at all. Which is why we’ll give it its shorter and catchier name, Leitmotif (lite-mo-teef).

I swear, I’m not lying. Leitmotif is very cool. Leitmotif is a technique in music where the composer assigns a particular tune or melody to a character, object or concept in the story. That tune or sound is now associated with that particular subject for the entirety of the drama and will play whenever that subject needs to be brought up. Think the Imperial March and Darth Vader. When ever you hear that sinister and martial tune, you know that the Big Bad is somewhere nearby.

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Dah nah nah na NANAH na NANAH

Leitmotif is one of the most exciting and moving innovations in orchestral music. It can foreshadow, reveal, and explain a moment of drama without a character in the opera, play or movie ever having to say a word.

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Hear the power…

This idea has been used for a long time, but its real development is almost always attributed to Richard Wagner, the prodigious and famously bombastic German operatic composer. He used this technique a lot in his famous operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. You can listen here for a tune you will probably recognize. It is the motif for the Valkyries, the divine battle maidens. Or listen here for the theme which is associated with Siegmund’s magic sword, Nothung. The tunes are short, but powerful and memorable, just as a leitmotif ought to be.

Now, that’s all very well, you’re saying, but I don’t know if I want to listen to 14 hours of Wagner to understand leitmotif. That’s fine. I’m not much of a Wagner fan myself (for the time being). There are far more easily digested ways of understanding and appreciating leitmotif. It is a staple of the epic film genre, and is used magnificently in very popular films such as Star Wars and especially The Lord of the Rings. These are far too complex to address here, but I will talk about them in future posts…

Now you know what leitmotif is. Next time your friends decide to have a Star Wars Marathon, pause the movie, push up your glasses as pompously as possible and listen to them groan while you expatiate on Wagnerian thematic musical techniques.