Music Appreciation: Symphony No. 1 “The Lord of the Rings” (V. Hobbits) by Johan de Meij
No discussion of The Lord of the Rings, musical or otherwise, would be complete without mentioning the Hobbits of the Shire. They seem inconsequential to man and other creatures, given that they’re only 3-4 feet tall and prefer to keep to themselves in the Shire, but Tolkien shows that they are able to do some truly remarkable things.
Now that we’ve made it through the dangers of Moria, let’s visit the Shire. To me, this movement is sort of a “slice of life” portrait of the Hobbits. De Meij captures well both their joviality and their reverence.
This movement does not start with flash or frill. It starts with the lower voices, soft and sustained. The brass enter quietly with a horn call (0:34), followed by layers of horns repeating the horn call motif, but still they remain quiet. At 0:43, we hear a fanfare – do you recognize it? It’s our introduction to this entire symphony – the opening of Gandalf’s movement. Notice, though, that it’s subdued at first. Respectful. Starting at 0:57 we hear echoes of the horn call from the trombones, with a crescendo into 1:03, where the trumpets emerge powerfully with the fanfare. It’s a restatement of the beginning of the first movement, but instead of leading us to Gandalf’s mysterious theme, we instead head into the Shire. At 1:21 you’ll hear more nods to the first movement as we transition into new material.
Here at 1:37 we truly step in to the Hobbits’ world. It’s a cheerful place, with dancing, singing, and laughing. The low voices set the tone with an open, uncomplicated (though effective) bass line (1:43) with offbeats supplied by the brass. The clarinets and percussion come in with an additional layer of accompaniment, giving this section an extra spring in its step. It feels lighthearted.
The scene set, the trumpets arrive with the theme at 1:57, which I’ll refer to as the dance theme. The first half of the theme consists of a four-measure phrase that immediately repeats almost note-for-note; the second half introduces a new phrase that lasts for eight measures (for a total of sixteen measures for the theme). For the first half, the accompaniment is bouncing along, continuing what was introduced at the beginning of this section. The second half, however, is more sustained and introduces some tension in the downward line of the middle voices. It’s not unpleasant, though. The theme repeats.
At 2:38, we move into another repetition of the theme, but notice how the voicing and accompaniment change. The horns, flutes, and oboes now have the melody, and the accompaniment falls on the off beats, accentuated by the snare drum. For the second half of the theme (2:48), we shift just a bit. The clarinets have taken over the melody with a nice counter-melody in the euphonium.
Now we get to the fun part! The basses get to put on their dancing shoes and show the world that we can also play a melody, not just the “ooms.” (I first played this piece shortly after purchasing my new pro-level bass clarinet. I completely geeked out at this part. I’m not ashamed.) Anyway, the basses do their thing for the first half under the bounciness of the accompaniment, then let the trumpets take over for the second half of the theme. Notice there’s still some bouncing this time from the clarinets. They’re a happy bunch.
We repeat this iteration of the theme (because, well, why wouldn’t you?). But notice that when the trumpets come back in for the second half (3:27), the horns also come in with one of those great descending lines that they like to do.
At 3:37, we gather everyone around for one last dance through this theme. It’s big and full, and you can imagine the Hobbits are having a grand old time. Listen closely to the second half of the theme (3:47), as you can hear not only the descending horn line, but also the euphonium counter-melody from before.
The party doesn’t last forever, though; we move away from the dance theme and into a turbulent transition. In the bass voices, we hear a steady, pounding beat reminiscent of the “Journey in the Dark” movement. On top of that we hear short, jarring chords from the brass and woodwinds that remind us of Gandalf’s movement. Fortunately, the discord doesn’t last long. We decrescendo into the next section, the pounding beat and jarring chords fading away and beauty rising out of the chaos.
A Hobbit Hymn
For the next section, here’s how the composer describes it: “[T]he hymn that follows emanates the determination and noblesse of the hobbit folk.” The tempo marking that he uses in the printed music is “nobilmente” (nobly). We start the theme with a beautiful, full clarinet choir sound (4:33), followed by a flugelhorn solo. Listen closely to the melody and you can hear how closely related it is to the dance theme. There are some differences (most notably the change from 2/2 time to 3/4 time), but they’re built on the same foundation.
The theme repeats, this time a bit fuller due to a few more instruments joining in. I love how at 5:19 he changes the melody just slightly to take it higher before coming back down. It’s a subtle change, but quite effective. The second half of the theme gains some additional harmonies, then builds up toward the next iteration.
At 5:37, we get a sense of the Hobbits’ strength. It’s not an obnoxious show of power – that’s not the Hobbit way. But we feel that these small creatures are capable of great things. The first half of the theme is straightforward, using the trumpets to proudly carry the melody with the timpani providing steady support below. The second half brings in another euphonium counter-melody. This iteration of the theme repeats with the addition of a horn counter-melody for the first half (6:11).
The hymn draws to a close, and we revisit more material from the first movement: both the heroic (6:52) and more subdued (7:04) of Gandalf’s theme, then moving on to the fanfare (7:15). But instead of coming to a mighty end like the first movement, this time we taper off, hearing echoes of horn calls as the volume dies down.
At 7:56 we hear a bit of the mysterious Gandalf theme, though here it ends on a satisfying major chord (8:05). There are echoes of the closing cadence from the upper winds and the middle voices. The timpani supplies a subtle beat underneath, and we hear a lovely callback to the Lothlórien movement. The movement trails off, the timpani carrying on, lovely chords fading into the distance.
I’ll refer to the composer’s own words to describe the ending:
The symphony does not end on an exuberant note, but is concluded peacefully and resigned, in keeping with the symbolic mood of the last chapter “The Grey Havens” in which Frodo and Gandalf sail away in a white ship and disappear slowly beyond the horizon.
Mixing Gandalf’s themes into the Hobbits’ movement is significant in two ways: 1) it brings us full circle to music we heard a (relatively) long time ago, and 2) it illustrates the special relationship Gandalf has with the Hobbits, especially Bilbo and Frodo.
I’ve spent several posts delving into Middle-Earth. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.