The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Howard Shore)Posted: December 28, 2012
A decade ago, Peter Jackson’s phenomenal The Lord of the Rings trilogy secured its spot amongst the greatest of filmmaking achievements in cinema. Its epic scope, incredible attention to detail and many technical merits (not excluding Howard Shore’s stirring music of course) became the benchmark for not only the fantasy genre, but also great filmmaking in general. Satisfied with the success of his magnum opus, Jackson for some time has been avoiding the director’s chair for the inevitable adaptation of Tolkien’s other fantasy adventure, The Hobbit. But after years of production delays, and changes in management, fate made sure the project ended up in his hands regardless. It was a bold undertaking to say the least, and Jackson was certainly not leaving any stones unturned by experimenting with new 48 fps technology. Understandably, fans were a little nervous, and the decision to adapt such a small children’s tale into a trilogy sure wasn’t helping. Whether Jackson ultimately ended up extinguishing such fears however is up for debate.
The first film, entitled An Unexpected Journey, would present the beginning of modest Bilbo Baggins’ great adventure as he joins a company of 13 dwarves led by the vengeful Thorin Oakenshield to reclaim their homeland, Erebor, currently occupied by the vehement dragon Smaug. To say there were great expectations would be a massive understatement indeed, and considering the light-hearted nature of the source material, disappointment was inevitable. Despite success with audiences, critics were not so kind with this new trilogy, and perhaps with good reason. The film impresses visually, with its same high standard of acting, dazzling action sequences and impressive New Zealand vistas. But the final product is far from perfect. The bloated nature of the film owes itself to the poor pacing (the real adventure doesn’t get started till the second half), needless Tolkien fan-fiction and the strangely conflicting nature of the juxtaposition of both the comedy of the source material and the darker atmosphere of The Lord of the Rings. It’s an enjoyable feature, but a flawed one at that.
But this critique was written to discuss the music, not the film. Returning with the cast and crew is veteran composer Howard Shore. To think that at the time of his employment for The Lord of the Rings, the niche of film music admirers were appalled by the choice, refusing to believe that this artist (primarily known for his brooding work for the horror genre at the time) was capable of the musical diversity and thematic sustenance that such a project would demand. Ten years later, Shore has 3 Academy Awards under his belt and is currently one of the most well respected composers in the industry. The composer’s operatic and thematically complex approach to the colossal films has been unparalleled by his peers. His utilization of the technique of leitmotif continues to marvel, his work still being a fascinating source of study today.
With all that said, Shore seemed to have an easier time slipping back into the world of Middle-Earth. As expected, he approaches An Unexpected Journey with the same meticulous attention to detail, once again employing leitmotivic devices to great effect. It’s amazing to hear that after all these years; the composer is still able to recapture the same raw and powerful soundscape he created for Middle-Earth. In that sense, the first chapter of The Hobbit acts as a symphonic extension of The Lord of the Rings, but with a personality of its own. Like the film itself, the music lacks a bit of the density of its predecessors and the larger-than-life sense of impending doom. Instead, Shore provides rather jubilant undertones to the work with the themes having an attractive innocence to them. Some may find it a bit difficult to adjust to this slight tonal shift, but the music stays true to the musical roots that the world was stormed by a decade ago. Shore once again offers a very intelligently written score, one that certainly makes an intriguing product to study. Accordingly, a score of such magnitude can only be accompanied with a proportional dissertation of its own. The following analysis is based on the Special Edition release, aside from the noted exceptions. Feel free to close this page up and move on at any point in which you find yourself dying of boredom.
The prologue music immediately draws us into the primordial years of Middle-Earth, successfully re-introducing us to the powerful soundscape Shore established for Tolkien. The piece opens up with a congenial theme on strings, setting us up for the grand story that’s about to be told. This is followed by the familiar pitches of the Shire theme, introducing us again to good ol’ Bilbo Baggins. Only then, as the film takes us to the prosperous kingdom of Erebor, does Shore present his new major themes for the dwarves.
Like their material in the original trilogy, the majority of the music for the dwarven culture is written in Aeolian mode, which presents a solemnity appropriate for the proud and stubborn race. The first of their themes to appear is the Erebor theme, which debuts at 1:58. It’s written as three noble calls, firmly affixed to root of A. Thorin’s theme follows this at 2:17. This theme constantly makes leaps around the key intervals and pitches of the Erebor theme, representing his attachments to his heritage. And yet the theme has a sense of tenacity, a stubborn refusal to push past its roots, as if burdened with the troubles of a lost legacy. To go on, the Arkenstone also receives a leitmotif of its own. First heard at 3:03, it’s constructed with intriguing choral clusters, effectively portraying the shimmering enchantment of the prized jewel.
As Bilbo warns the viewers of the foreboding signs of doom, Shore graces the listeners with his bewitching choral material. Through several passages, the music shifts between the deep male choral chanting, reminiscent of the parallel fifths of the music of Moria, and alluring female voices. Painting an intoxicating balance between light and darkness, the music builds toward to the misfortune ahead. But the real danger has yet to come. There is a dragon to deal with.
As Smaug the Terrible begins to burn and pillage, his theme makes its appearance at 4:17. Smaug’s theme is a fierce descending melody played atop the major and minor pulsations of the same root chord. There is sense of brutality and malice to this simple figure as it accompanies the devastating damage caused by the beast. The theme does appear later in the score, notably its inverted variation in “Axe or Sword” at 1:34, but never as ferocious as the battle iterations heard in the prologue. The remainder of the sequence has the theme weave in and out of the dramatic choral music, which in itself is constantly having the upper and lower vocal registers battle underneath the heraldic statements of the dwarven themes as the dwarves attempt to defend themselves. But the music tells us that it’s too late, the plight of the dwarves has already descended for the worst, their home was lost. And as Durin’s folk become a wandering race, Bilbo takes us back to more familiar territory, to distant hills and greener pastures…
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…
We are brought to the Shire, where we see Bilbo Baggins as he was at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. It seems to be the very same day upon which the original film begins! The film then crosses back 60 years after the title card, only to see a younger Bilbo beginning his own tale.
Now Shore’s music for the Shire is one the most popular portions of The Lord of the Rings. Its warm tonal passages are always a pleasure to hear. So it’s nice to be brought back to the green hills of Hobbiton. But we are dealing with two different time periods here, and as small as 60 years is amidst the many ages of Middle-Earth, Shore is keen on making a stylistic distinction between the two timelines.
Those familiar with the Shire music from The Lord of the Rings will recall that Shore has written several leitmotifs for the realm, altered accordingly of course. “Old Friends” is how Shore conveniently re-familiarizes the audience to the Shire as it was in The Fellowship of the Ring. Fans will likely be amused and very pleased with pointing out references to the familiar long lined themes like Rural Setting at 1:02, to the briefest leitmotifs like the memorable uilleann pipes for the smoke rings at 2:26. At this moment, the chord change underscores the time shift to younger Bilbo. Here, we hear variations of other familiar leitmotifs, pointing to nostalgic moments from the first film like that for the fireworks at 3:41 or that for the sight of Bilbo’s map at 4:18. In the following cues, Shore begins to let the new Shire music shine. Stylistically, it’s more buoyant and exuberant than the pleasant, comfortable nature of the music in the original trilogy. In fact, some of it bears resemblance to Shore’s work on Hugo. To go on, Shore plays with the familiar Hobbit structural accompaniments and past themes. One notable example being how Shore plays with Rural Setting in retrogrades at 2:22 in “An Unexpected Party”. There are also some great fun variations of the Shire music in cues like “The Adventure Begins”.
It’s impressive to hear how the composer deals with the familiar Shire material, but he certainly makes room for the new. Starting with the titular character, Bilbo’s main theme appears in full at 4:41 in “Axe or Sword”. The melody is built from the foundations of the Shire. It begins safely tied down to the opening pitches the Shire theme, only to be let loose to explore new regions of its own, referring to Bilbo’s own unique personality. It really is a wonderful heartfelt theme, although it’s appearances are regrettably far and few. Bilbo’s second theme is a more playful idea that we first hear expanded in “An Unexpected Party” at 1:39. Finally the character’s third idea, full of leaping intervals, goes to represent Bilbo’s Adventure. This enthusiastically bold idea is first hinted at in “The World is Ahead” and then receives a robust rendition for brass and bagpipes in the bonus cue “Erebor”. It’s appearances in film are regrettably limited, but its promises are most savory.
Of course few are as fond of the Shire folk as dear Gandalf the Grey. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf is seen as more of a great mover of things, thus only warranting him a significant theme when he appears as Gandalf the White. This new film makes an effort to portray the vulnerability of the character and make him seem more relatable, thus finally deserve of a rightful theme of his own. Gandalf’s Theme makes its debut in “Old Friends” at 3:32. The theme’s subtlety really does a fine job of reflecting the more sensitive old wizard that the film hopes to portray. Keen listeners may notice that this new theme actually sounds similar to that of Gandalf the White. It is known that the theme for Gandalf the White is shaped by the Fellowship Theme (in its opening pitches) due to his prominent role in the company. One could argue that since Bilbo is claimed to give the wizard courage in this film, Gandalf the Grey’s theme is shaped by the contours of Bilbo’s thematic material. His secondary theme is a more long-lined rising/falling structure that shares pitches with his primary theme. This idea only appears once in a choral rendition in the opening of “Radagast the Brown”, while it has a few more orchestral arrangements in film.
The Adventure Begins
Once the adventure gets started, Bilbo and the company face wizards, trolls and the great vistas of Middle-Earth on their fantastical journey. Of course such a troop cannot go on without a theme of their own. Much like the Fellowship theme in the original trilogy, the Misty Mountains theme accompanies the adventurers and their journey. It is introduced first as a diegetic piece in “Misty Mountains” before its mighty orchestral statements in “The World is Ahead” or “Over Hill”. Surprisingly, this theme was not composed by Shore but rather by the members of the New Zealand musicians group, Plan 9 that consists of David Donaldson, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick and David Long. People will find it curious that Shore was not given the opportunity (or he himself refrained from) creating his own main theme for the company. It could be due to the massive popularity the theme received after it’s appearance in the first teaser last year. Regardless, it’s impressive to hear how Shore makes the great melody his own with rowdy statements in cues like “Roast Mutton” (on the standard edition).
As the dwarves settle in Bilbo’s home, mention is made of Thorin’s council with the dwarves of the Blue Mountains. This is where Shore introduces his leitmotif for the Dwarf Lords. Specifically at 3:43 in “An Unexpected Party”, this descending figure receives a fleeting appearance just as the Minas Tirith and Gondor themes popped in The Fellowship of the Ring. The theme appears again in the bonus cue, “The Dwarf Lords”, teasing again at the potential it holds, perhaps in the battles to come.
On the company’s first night on the journey, one of the dwarves, Dwalin tells the tale of the Battle of Azanulbizar, giving us greater insight on the leader of the company, Thorin. The massive male chorus brings us back to the Moria material. With interspersed statements of Thorin’s theme, the music once again captures the scope and the might of Shore’s music for the dwarves.
Of course, Gandalf brings us back with talk of Mirkwood. There, we realize that there is something wrong. An unsettling shadow has taken residence, setting life in the woods awry. As we come to learn this, the score plays out an ominous choral motif at 0:37 in “Radagast the Brown” to warn us of the Shadow Over Mirkwood. A variation of the theme appears again at 6:40 in the “White Council” as Galadriel makes note of these ill tidings. Something is clearly not right, and only time will tell what these omens hold for the future.
This also happens to be when we get to meet yet another wizard, one that’s more eccentric by the name of Radagast the Brown. His music is one of the most creative and unique additions to Shore’s tapestry for Middle-Earth. The off-kilter violin work, along with the percussive elements are all welcomed musical colours to the franchise. Shore’s creativity shines through the use of the children’s choir in the climax of “Radagast the Brown” and he’s even gone as far as reportedly employing spoons as rhythmic devices in this music. “Radagast the Brown” is certainly one of the most enjoyable parts of the score, if only for the sheer fun one has with the music.
Finally, the iconic trolls of Tolkien’s novel receive a slightly comical triple meter motif. This debuts at 0:34 in “The Trollshaws”. It first starts off as a twisted waltz, slowly becoming more sickly and gruesome as the dwarves are prepared to be cooked. A great statement of the Misty Mountains theme can be heard in the standard edition version of “Roast Mutton” whereas the theme is taken to a less interesting direction in the special edition. Luckily Gandalf’s theme greets the wizard’s convenient arrival to save the day just in the nick of time.
Wargs, Orcs and Dark Magic
Peter Jackson has always had a keen eye for the monsters of Middle-Earth, and that means more themes on the music front. One such example is the wargs. The wargs’ theme is a blunt, sharp descending figure in E minor as heard in “Warg Scouts” and “Out of the Frying Pan”. It acts as a strong melodic core in which Shore’s strong action material is written around.
In the film, a shadow seems to be slowly covering the woods of Middle-Earth, a force that poses a great threat. It’s Sauron, the Dark Lord himself, but we don’t quite know it yet. Accordingly, Shore chooses to address the dark force with variations of the Mordor material from The Lord of the Rings. But the composer makes an effort to make only subtle references to the Necromancer’s true identity; hence he barely hints at Sauron’s Theme. Instead, we hear variations of the Mordor accompaniment motifs. There are 2 motifs that represent the Necromancer. The first is a variation of the Mordor Descending Third. In the original trilogy, this motif consisted of major and minor descending thirds and often accompanied the long-lined Mordor themes at large. In The Hobbit, we primarily get descending major thirds and often placed at the melodic forefront of the music, creating a subtle musical reference to a mysterious figure that sounds strangely familiar. The music for the orcs is also crafted from this descending third motif, thus establishing a connection between the two forces. Likewise, the Necromancer’s second motif is an extended variation of the Mordor Skip-Beat. Its duration is prolonged and played in a more menacing melodic fashion unlike its accompanying nature in the action sequences of The Lord of the Rings. It’s fascinating to hear how Shore chooses to extrapolate these past leitmotifs to befit the changed stature of the same dark power.
The Hobbit brings back many familiar places and faces. As exemplified by the Necromancer material, admirers of Shore’s past music for the franchise will really appreciate his intelligent treatment of past themes. For instance, in the end of “Warg Scouts” the Lothlorien theme is heard as another action variant akin to its portrayal in The Two Towers. Similarly, a sense of nostalgia is to be felt when hearing the ethereal choirs singing the Rivendell theme (accompanied by its appregios of course) in “The Hidden Valley”. On that note, “The White Council” (as heard in the special edition), despite all its subtleties, it is a rather complex cue. Here Shore really displays his ability to manipulate his leitmotifs. With extended Rivendell material, cameos of both the Lothlorien theme and the Isengard theme, and variations of the Mordor material, it’s a real treat to hear this intelligent treatment of past material.
Race to the Finish
One of the strongest aspects of this new score is the action material. Shore brings back the near-primitive raw sound he employed for the action sequences in The Lord of the Rings. But here, there seems to be an even stronger melodic center to Shore’s action music, with the various locations and scenes receiving distinct stylistic choices.
Another highly entertaining facet of the action music is Shore’s use of brass clusters. Their frenetic presence in cues like “Brass Buttons” and “Under Hill” really make for an incredibly engaging experience. The sheer malice “Under Hill” is to be praised. It’s also nice to hear Shore utilize and manipulate the rhythmic structures he devised for the orcs in The Lord of the Rings in the final action cues.
The second CD is essentially a real winner, making up of some of the best action material of the year. “Riddles in the Dark” is entertaining for its intriguing variations of the History of the Ring theme and Gollum’s material. “Brass Buttons”, “Out of the Frying-Pan” and “A Good Omen” are three stunning finale cues. The first cue featuring powerful male choral chanting in an action setting, the second presenting all of Shore’s best action into one brilliant highlight and the third featuring a wonderful choral opening with a menacing appearance of Smaug’s Theme. The final 20 minutes of this score (excluding the bonus cues and the song) is a must-have in any collection.
“Song of the Lonely Mountain” is the end credits song and is unfortunately the only major hindrance to the album. It sounds awfully out of place in the Middle-Earth setting. The song is by Neil Finn and it takes the Misty Mountains theme and puts into an incredibly alienating pop setting with bizarre vocal parts and sound effects. One the special edition, this song is followed by wonderful but brief bonus cues. Their purpose is not yet known, but one could guess they are thematic suites or demos. “Dreaming of Bag End” presents Bilbo’s Theme. Both “Erebor” and “A Very Respectable Hobbit” feature variations of Bilbo’s Adventure that was heard in the opening of “The World is Ahead”. “The Dwarf Lords” presents more of the heroic material for The Dwarf Lords that was also briefly in the extended version of “An Unexpected Party”. Finally, “The Edge of the Wild” sounds like a demo cue underscoring a possible scene that was deleted. What was most interesting about this track was the brief statement of the Witch-King motif from “Return of the King”. Take from that what you will.
Now as wonderfully crafted as this score is, in context, it becomes more problematic. Several passages from the album were entirely cut from the film, such as the choral material from “Radagast the Brown”, the brilliant fanfare from “Out of the Frying-Pan” or the choral melody from “A Good Omen”. It’s also incredibly frustrating to see that many of the new themes on album are missing from the album as of consequence. These missing portions seemed to have been replaced by many re-recordings of past material from The Lord of the Rings. Despite this, the score still works rather well in context, but not without its problems. The Nazgul theme and the Gondor Reborn theme are two themes that make rather jarring appearances with scenes that don’t necessarily reflect their leitmotivic purposes. The former could entail connections that we are not aware of yet while the latter could have been emotionally repurposed to fit the scene and yet these still seem like rather far-fetched explanations. Unfortunately the problems don’t stop there.
On album, A Hobbit’s Understanding is quoted once in the beginning of “The Hill of Sorcery” to draw emotional parallels to the original trilogy. This is an emotionally powerful and effective theme, but it is strangely quoted far too many times in the film, along with brief passages from “Breaking of the Fellowship”. To go on, past cues from The Lord of the Rings like “Lost in Emyn Muil” were directly tracked onto key moments of the film. All this old material could have been put in due to last minute editing or the sudden decision to make this project into a trilogy. But strangely enough, many of these scenes had original material composed for it, as can be heard on the album, which begs the question of how involved the producers or Jackson were in this re-editing process.
Regardless of who was behind it, the over-reliance on past material adds to the atmosphere of the film’s own over-reliance on nostalgia for the well-beloved trilogy. To hear A Hobbit’s Understanding quoted for the tenth time in film felt incredibly cheap. It was as if both the score and the film were trying to feed the audience the same powerful emotions that many had with the original films instead of creating new ones for this new adventure. Perhaps Jackson either did not have the time or trust in Shore to recreate such emotions. And the strange misplacements of past themes are a real shame considering how meticulously the composer addressed the previous trilogy. With all this wonderful original material was composed, it’s heartbreaking to hear it all butchered for regurgitations of past material, whatever the reason maybe, whoever was responsible for it. A prime exemplar would be the loss of the numerous fascinating variations of the History of the Ring theme on album, which got replaced for previous statements of the History of the Ring theme from The Lord of the Rings.
Having said that, there is a lot of new material missing on album. Several more statements of the Misty Mountains theme can be heard on film, sometimes becoming grating in its endless repetition, as if producers wanted more of the popular melody. And yet despite these issues, there are some great moments that fans can potentially hope for in a potential Complete Recordings release, such as the grand choral statements of the Nature’s Reclamation theme or the beautiful choral material for the final scene with the Eagles.
Ultimately, regardless of its treatment in film, this is truly a fantastic score. After a rather bland year in film music, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear such an intelligent score, so rich in themes. And fans should count their stars for the blissful expansive 2CD treatment of the score. In the end, it doesn’t sit there with The Lord of the Rings scores, which is to be expected considering the different demands of the film. But to think, this is just the beginning! Just the thought of where Shore will take Thorin’s theme as he descends into his inevitable madness, or how all the themes shall come together for the Battle of the Five Armies will surely make any fan of film music salivate. You don’t get scores like this often, and when you do, it’s hard to deny it full marks. As the trilogy gets grander in scale, as it surely will, Shore’s new music could reach heights beyond the wildest of our imaginations. Until then, An Unexpected Journey will be playing for a long time!
Rating: * * * * *