Nope, not the movie music. Thought I’d clarify that right away 🙂 However, even if you are looking for the movie music, why not stick around?
I’d like to introduce everyone to an epic piece of music, befitting an epic story. Written by Dutch composer Johan de Meij between 1984 and 1987 and premiered in 1988, Symphony No. 1 (aka “Lord of the Rings”) has been enthralling performers and audiences alike for over 25 years. Two things make this symphony a bit different: 1) it is for wind ensemble, as in a band, not an orchestra with strings, and 2) this is one of de Meij’s first compositions (his website refers to it as Op. 1, but Wikipedia lists another composition before this symphony). I don’t think many composers decide to tackle a symphony so soon in their writing careers.
Consisting of five movements that relate to characters, places, or events from the trilogy, we’ll explore each movement in a separate post. The first movement is “Gandalf (the Wizard)”. If you need a refresher on your Tolkien’s work, here’s the Wikipedia entry.
We open with a stately, powerful fanfare from the brass, followed by some whirling around in the upper woodwinds. It’s a short fanfare, but it certainly gets our attention, doesn’t it? The low voices come in with additional melodic material at 0:25 and we fade down toward the first main section of the piece.
We first hear what I’ll call the “Gandalf” theme at 0:39 in the low voices. It’s a slow, austere melody; one that’s a bit mysterious as well. Notice that this theme continually gets higher in pitch. Some common composing advice is to start a melody on the tonic of they key you’re working in (i.e. middle C in the key of C) and form a nice arch with your melody, coming back down to end the melody back on the tonic. Sometimes it’s good to ignore advice.
De Meij infuses this theme with tasty suspensions and dissonances. Listen to all that happens from 0:50-0:56 – there’s some gorgeous smushing around by the horn and oboe. That serves as nice tension that leads us into the next half of the theme. The theme continues to build, with a gooey accompaniment underneath. De Meij never takes us back down to the tonic; he ends the theme up high.
A trumpet solo takes over for the next statement of the Gandalf theme, this time with more pronounced (though not harsh) statements from the lower voices. We still get some of the gooey middle (1:22-1:28), though, before the high woodwinds take over the second half of the theme. Everything is more sustained with them – no accented statements from the low instruments as when the trumpet was playing. We build even more, adding more smushiness and tension, until we reach sort of a catharsis at 1:44.
With catharsis comes a change in mood. What was a mysterious melody at first is now bold and heroic, with woodwinds showering notes down like confetti and trumpets proudly playing fanfares. We get a slight shift in instrumentation for the second half of the theme along with a nice countermelody in the horns (1:57). This time we do come back down in pitch as we start to transition into the next section of the piece. The melody comes down with some final thoughts, then the horns give us some sustained tones to guide us into the next part. I think that’s the horn’s second most common job (the first is playing offbeats in marches). The horns get quieter and quieter…
Thwack! We’re off! The program notes on the composer’s website describes this section as such:
The sudden opening of the Allegro vivace is indicative of the unpredictability of the grey wizard, followed by a wild ride on his beautiful horse “Shadowfax”.
This is a huge contrast to the first section of the piece. The Gandalf theme is stately, with mostly sustained notes underneath the melody. There isn’t much movement; the pulse is slower and de Meij uses longer note durations (e.g. quarter notes). But once we hear that thwack, everything changes. The pulse quickens, and the woodwinds are racing around playing sixteenth notes (there are four sixteenth notes per quarter note).
So we hear the thwack (2:24), and immediately it’s quiet again. But it’s a different type of quiet – this one has rumbling, restless energy in it. We hear some drums, then some punctuation by the low reeds and piano (sometimes pianos like to come play with the band, even though they’re not wind instruments). The clarinets speed in at 2:40 with a brief motif, which they repeat among interjections from around the band. The clarinet motif keeps buzzing in the background, eventually building up with everyone else toward the Shadowfax theme at 2:52. There’s a great example of hemiola from 2:50-2:52. We’ve been holding steady in 3/4 time – 1-2-3 1-2-3 etc. With hemiola, we stay in 3/4 time but accent notes so they sound like it’s really in 2/4 time: 1-2-3 1-2-3.
With the Shadowfax theme, de Meij does a great job painting a musical picture. Listen for the rhythm of the theme here, which starts in the middle voices. It sounds like a galloping horse. For those who read music, it’s an eighth plus two sixteenths, repeated over and over. If you don’t read music, think of the word “goose-berry” and you’ll get the gist of the rhythm (thanks to the Blue Jello rhythm learning system for what word to use!) We hear a repeat of the theme at 3:04.
At 3:17, we move into a new motif. There are sharp, syncopated accents from the high brass and winds over steady undulations in the middle voices. We get another pair of accents at 3:19, then a slight slowdown into a recap of the clarinet motif at 3:23. Listen for the hemiola again at 3:36-3:38.
We take another run at the Shadowfax theme at 3:39. But this time on the repeat (3:51), de Meij has the trumpet sustain and crescendo its note, adding tension. Then he gives the low voices a powerful descending line at 3:55, which leads to a final thwack from the group as a whole. But Shadowfax still some energy to burn, so we hear his thundering hooves in the percussion along with some accented notes from other sections of the band.
The tempo slows down in preparation for Gandalf’s return as “Gandalf the White” (4:04). That moment is my absolute favorite part of this piece. It never fails to give me chills. The buildup from the horse hooves into this huge, powerful chord is glorious. We hear this beautiful chorale, followed by a hint of the Shadowfax theme plus a horn countermelody at 4:10. Then we get to hear the chorale again (yay!) at 4:19.
The second time through gives us some tension, beginning with some suspensions in the middle voices and a flute/piccolo riff (4:32-3). We hear some more transitional material from the middle voices then work our way down, back into the mysterious-sounding tonalities we heard near the beginning of the piece. At 4:48, we get a recap of the Gandalf theme, which starts in the lowest reeds and brasses. There’s a lovely little echoing line by the oboe and horn at 4:59. There’s a slight shift in tone color for the next bit of the theme (5:05), bringing in the sax and bass clarinet voices, but the oboe also has an interesting line here all by itself.
We continue to get higher in pitch as the horn and soprano sax (or English horn? It’s a sign of a good group when two very different instruments can blend so perfectly well together) take over the theme at 5:18. Notice the “raindrops” in the flutes and percussion. That countermelody is also played smoothly (legato) and an octave lower in the clarinet, but that’s harder to hear until around 5:30. The melody continues to climb, then there’s a buildup from the entire group starting at 5:38 to usher in the last part of the piece.
At 5:32, we are treated again to the heroic depiction of Gandalf’s theme, although with a few changes. The trumpets take over the melody, with a running line in the horns and fanfares from the trombones. But we don’t stay there too long, coming back down into a more subdued bit with the woodwinds (5:54). Listen for the triplets in the upper winds – this part may be subdued but it’s not staying still.
The opening fanfare returns at 6:06, with all the appropriate whirling around in the upper winds and bold statements from the low brass. From there we get one last push into the final, powerful statement of this movement. What an amazing piece of music!
I hope you’ll join me next time as we go visit the Elves in Lothlórien.
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