Music Appreciation: Symphony No. 1 “The Lord of the Rings” (III. Gollum) by Johan de Meij
Originally a Hobbit from the Gladden Fields known as Sméagol, Gollum fell prey to the power of the One Ring. This lead to an extended lifetime of wretchedness that affected both his mind and body. Gollum is a dichotomy of love and hate, expressing both emotions toward himself and the Ring.
Gollum appears in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins finds the Ring and Gollum in The Hobbit and inadvertently discovers the Ring’s power of invisibility while trying to escape the goblin’s tunnels and Gollum’s lair. In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum follows the Fellowship and eventually insinuates himself into Frodo and Sam’s company in order to try to reclaim his “precious.”
Just as the first two movements of de Meij’s symphony are very different from each other, so is the third. One thing I admire most about this symphony is how effectively de Meij depicts different characters and scenes. There is no mistaking Gollum for Gandalf.
The composer’s website has a great description:
It mumbles and talks to itself, hisses and lisps, whines and snickers, is alternately pitiful and malicious, is continually fleeing and looking for his cherished treasure, the Ring.
While we open with a strong statement, it is far removed from the stately fanfare of Gandalf’s movement. We are immediately struck by its harshness. It’s very brassy and doesn’t sound all that happy. There’s a brief respite at 0:32, but the brass just comes right back to assault us some more. After the second assault, though, we get our first glimpse of the strange creature – Gollum.
Gollum peeks out at 0:43 with sustained tones, almost as if he’s testing the waters before making a move. He has a few quick movements here and there – a bit of jumpiness that underscores his erratic behavior. This part reminds me of the beginning of “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” from the musical Cats, especially at 1:10. The strange creature of Gollum is played here by the strange creature of the soprano sax.
Gollum skitters around his lair, and while the solo line has a melodic aspect to it, it’s neither pretty nor overly structured. But it’s exactly right for Gollum. I would not expect the beauty of the lilting theme of Lothlórien in a piece that depicts such a bizarre character. He meanders around on his own, finally ending his soliloquy with what sounds rather like wailing (0:39-0:46).
At this point, we get some structure to the piece with firm oom-pahs from the low brass. This section is mostly in 6/8, which gives the oom-pahs a bit of a lopsided feel. Listen how the accompaniment stops in a few spots – it feels like we’re about to take a step but stop in mid-air. At 2:03 there’s a tumbling quadruplet figure, where the melody line plays a run of four notes in the time normally occupied by just three (in this case, four sixteenth notes in the space of three eighth notes). Then at 2:07 he slips in a 5/8 measure, a sort of hiccup, further taking away any sense of stability we had. Instead of the 1-2-3-4-5-6 we just got used to, we have 1-2-3-4-5; he stole an eighth note!
The theme finishes up with a callback to the wailing motif we’d heard as a transition into this section. There’s a pause, then a quiet “blip” by a handful of woodwinds at 2:16. Then we head back to the beginning of the lopsided theme to give it another go. This time de Meij adds in a couple more instruments to the accompaniment, most notably a vibraslap.
From there, we think we’re going to take yet another crack at the lopsided theme, adding in the piccolo and others to the melody and the horns blaring some notes. We don’t linger, however, and at 2:56 the low brass take over in order to lead us into the next section of the piece. We start the transition in 5/8, then move into one measure of 4/8 at 3:00 (another eighth note gone!).
This next section has a certain relentlessness to it in the oom-pah accompaniment. It’s contained to middle voices, and if you listen closely, at one point there’s a very subtle shift from which group plays the “ooms” and which plays the “pahs.” Various instruments enter here and there with echoes of previous motifs. There’s a bang at 3:22, followed by a small shake-up of the accompaniment, but we continue on with the bits and pieces of the various motifs. Around 3:46 the intensity starts to grow, pushing and pushing until we’re swept into the next section.
At 3:58 we hear the Great Brass Double Tonguing Extravaganza™. Double tonguing is an important technique for brass (and some woodwind) players. Usually, each note gets articulated with the tip of the tongue (ta ta ta ta). But when double tonguing, players use “ta ka ta ka” instead, which allows for greater speeds.
Anyway, the double tonguing section is very intense, with lots of accents. There are interjections from other instruments, notably the woodwinds at 4:38. We keep up the relentless hammering until 4:57, where everything swirls down into a deep, dark pool of sound, and things are still.
A strange creature
But then, out creeps a familiar figure. That strange creature who was once a Hobbit, but is no longer recognizable as one. Gollum returns to what we heard at the beginning of the piece, though this time the melody is not always a solo (maybe to reflect the dual nature of his personality?) He slinks around for a while, a little calmer than at the beginning, but still wailing. We also have that low, sustained bass voice on a single note that adds a sense of foreboding.
Gollum get back to “normal” at 7:07 with the lopsided theme. This time we have the oom-pahs in the lower voices, with the middle voices making some sea-sickening waves. The upper voices join in with the melody. The whole section repeats, then goes into an eerie sounding transition (8:07). We actually heard a bit of that at the beginning, during the “bit of calm” before our first glimpse of Gollum. De Meij expands this theme for a while, adding some other melodic material starting around 8:26.
We hear one last chunk of the lopsided theme (9:05), adding yet more chaos to the out of control merry-go-round that is Gollum’s mind. Things finally spiral down into the clatter of the vibraslap. But Gollum’s not quite finished – there’s a last bit of craziness and a callback to the first theme before the final four forceful notes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip down insanity lane. After this, we’ll head on an adventure!