"I feel as if I was inside a song"The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

There have been a number of stage productions setting out to bring Tolkien’s most well-known work to life, one of those being Bernd Stromberger’s The Lord of the Rings in 1998, which, however, actually was a stage version of The Hobbit and was a commercial and artistic failure. Originally a part of the creative team of this production, writer Shaun McKenna then found his way to the big theatrical production of The Lord of the Rings (this time indeed based on the actual book), which premiered in 2006 in Toronto and, after mixed success, was shortened and with parts re-written reopened in London in 2007. It only had a short run until July 2008, supposedly due to unsatisfying spectator numbers.

The music for the production was written by Indian composer A. R. Rahman in collaboration with Finnish world music group Värttinä. According to the producers, orchestrator Christopher Nightingale had a significant part in shaping the score (Russell, 77), so we shall give him credit as a composer, too, since arguably his influence can easily be discerned. He is said to have been the force bringing the different styles of Rahman and Värttinä together, which suggests that his work went far beyond the realm of regular orchestration.

Even though only very few direct quotes from Tolkien’s poems were used for the lyrics of the musical, the producers nevertheless maintain their desire to be true to Tolkien:
“Was I ever tempted to use Tolkien’s lyrics?” asks Shaun McKenna [Co-Writer]. “No, it wouldn’t have been appropriate here [. . .]
Russell, 75
According to Christopher Nightingale [Orchestrator], it was the very essence of Tolkien’s worldscape that he wanted to capture in the music and themes. (Russell, 70). The composers of the musical approached the task of setting Tolkien’s world to music from the angle of capturing the feeling and the underlying drama and culture, not by following the letters to the word. The songs were intended not as regular musical songs, progressing the story, but as the songs of the cultures itself:
…with this notion that the songs wouldn’t do what songs do in musical theatre; instead they would be the old songs of Middle-earth; that people were singing them because they were singing the old songs.
Russell, 49
As a stage production intended for a large audience and with a running time of just short of three hours, we need to make amendments to the show in terms of completeness of the text; nevertheless the fact that the show arguably managed to bring such a complicated story to the stage at all – and successfully, at least from a musical point of view – is no small feat.