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More a symphony in 3 movements than a soundtrack
on 24 December 2003
So, you've more than likely seen all 3 Lord of the Rings films by now, and although it's difficult to put aside all the top-notch visuals and acting in what are certainly the best fantasy films ever made, let's just do that and consider the music on its own, insofar as that's possible. I don't think it was just me who spent whole days absently humming the Fellowship theme, or listening to Gollum's Song when feeling down. Howard Shore's music has somehow managed to cross the boundary between classical music and what I think of as "modern" hooks... okay, that's not very clear at all, but what I mean is that unlike a lot of classical music, Shore's gets lodged in the hindbrain of people who wouldn't dream of admitting they liked classical music ordinarily. And Classic FM listeners voted Lord of the Rings as the best soundtrack ever made; the allure of this music works both ways, it seems.
From the aforementioned Fellowship theme to the Celtic-infused Rohan music, to the 5-4 time of Isengard's war-like signature, Shore has reimagined Middle-Earth in musical form even as Peter Jackson did so on celluloid. The breadth of his composition allows for as much variety of tone and atmosphere as you find in the films themselves, and of course goes a long way to creating and anchoring those atmospheres when you watch the movies. From the dark pounding rhythms of Isengard and Mordor, there are the beautiful choral pieces; Gandalf and Boromirs' deaths have music which makes me want to cry every time I hear them (perhaps partly a consequence of connecting the music with the events in the film, but this is gorgeous, evocative music in its own right).
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these three soundtracks is the development of themes or simple phrases as you progress onwards. The Fellowship theme is never complete again after the fall of Gandalf until the reunion in Frodo's room in the Houses of Healing in Gondor. The Shire theme gradually becomes sadder and sadder as the hobbits are exposed to the harsh realities of war across Middle-Earth. This evolution of the music transforms it from a mere accompaniment to a film into a living, emotional entity of its own, and is in a large part responsible for making this collection of all 3 so wonderful to listen to. When each is separated from the others it's "only" really good music, but when you have the full picture, the context, of all 3 together and can thus fully appreciate Shore's work as a whole, does it become astonishingly beautiful.