"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

So now how did the First Music sound like? Tolkien writes in The Silmarillion:
[. . .] Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme [. . .] Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. [. . .] Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, [. . .] But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar [. . .] and straightway discord arose about him, [. . .] but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. [. . .] Then Ilúvatar arose, [. . .] and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before [. . .] Then again Ilúvatar arose, [. . .] and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. [. . .] In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.
S, ch. 1
There are two things to gather from this: Firstly, Tolkien expressly states that there were "themes", not just "tunes" or "motifs", which suggests some form of symphonic music with the themes being changed and used as a nucleus of musical development. We also learn that there were several layers of music going on at the same time, with “interchanging melodies”, so we clearly have polyphony here. It is likely that the Ainur both knew true polyphony with all voices being of equal importance, as well as forms of accompanying the theme(s). How exactly this polyphonic accompaniment of the original theme, or of its alterations, may have sounded like we will see.

Secondly, even though the Ainur did not take any part in Ilúvatar's third theme – he ended the music before they could vary the theme – they were able to accompany him and vary the first two themes without difficulties. This suggests some kind of theoretical framework known to the Ainur, otherwise they would not have been able to keep playing or singing – or if they did it would hardly have sounded as good as it is described here. The third theme held in it the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men). We may assume that it had to be noticeably different from the previous themes, so possibly Ilúvatar brought the music to an end because this third theme was so different from the first two that the Ainur would not have been able to take part in its alteration.

Now that we have established that the music most likely was polyphonic and built upon a certain theoretical framework, so it was not just anyone singing notes at libitum, we shall enlist the help of Reuven Naveh, who asks the question What Kind of Music Do the Ainur Sing? (Naveh, 30).

Naveh maintains, that the music of the Ainur, as a celestial music, does not resemble any earthly music. This fits with the radio waves-theory detailed earlier. Like many of his texts, Tolkien wrote more than one account of how the music of the Ainur came to pass. While the first version speaks of a genuine orchestra, the published version is more cautious, but still speaks of "trumpets" and other sounds. (Naveh, 31). We can rule out a real orchestra, because there was no matter yet created at the time of the First Music, but we can see the mention of these instruments as a description of the overall sound. It is also notable that Tolkien uses terms from western music theory ("chords", "themes", "harmony") to describe the music. Naveh on this builds an elaborate analysis about the form of the music, in which he compellingly proves that the music of the Ainur is set in the sonata form (Naveh, 35). What we can gather with certainty from Tolkien's description of the music is its general orientation towards tonality. Judging from the description, we might even imagine it to sound a bit like late romanticist music with a truly magnificent ensemble, both in size and timbre.

Naveh forms a theory that Melkor, who brought dissonance to the music, which up to this point seems to not have had any big dissonances in it, represents atonality clashing with traditional tonal music. He compares Melkor to the composers, who in the early 20th century "abandoned tonality in favour of its diametric opposite, atonality", the Second Viennese School (Naveh, 40). While the general direction of this theory certainly is right, it is debatable whether or not this original dissonance of Melkor can be compared to the works of the Second Viennese school. While it is correct that Schönberg, Berg and Webern have written a great number of works using dissonances in ways previously literally unheard of, the term itself describes their musical style after completely abandoning any form of tonality with no links to tonal music left. Melkor's part of the music, however, while being dissonant, clearly is dissonant towards the tonal centre of the Ainur's music. Tolkien clearly states that Ilúvatar manages to make his music work with Melkor's dissonance, to adapt his music. This simply is not possible with truly atonal music as composed by the Second Viennese School. Furthermore, Ilúvatar tells Melkor that whatever he may try to do, it will still ultimately come from Ilúvatar himself, for Melkor, as the other Ainur, is an offspring of his thought. As such, we may perhaps see Melkor in the lines of composers like Stravinsky, who used dissonance in completely new ways, indeed clashing with conventional musical language up to this point.

For the purpose of this paper, this is what we can say about the First Music with some certainty: It was tonal, employing themes and motifs in a symphonic sense; it in its palette of tonal colours resembled the sound of an orchestra and choir and was highly polyphonic. They style seems comparable to large orchestral works, possibly sounding a bit like late-romantic tone poems, using recognizable, but highly complex chord progressions, but by the doings of Melkor, was imbued with heavy dissonances at odds with the tonal centre of the music. These dissonances, however were still part of the tonal language and by this made it possible to incorporate them into the music without placing them out of context.

We could continue this investigation, but shall instead leave it at that, with our goal of getting an idea of the possible sound of the First Music fulfilled.

There is one last element that is of interest to our analysis of Tolkien’s music: Naveh quotes an earlier version of the creation of Arda, where the physical world was created while the Ainur were playing their music, published in the Book of Lost Tales 1. The version from the Silmarillion however has Ilúvatar create Arda after the music has finished.
As Christopher Tolkien says in his notes to this chapter, this is the most important difference between the first and the last versions of the Ainulindalë (LT1, 62). The fact that in the scenario ultimately chosen the world is not created when the music is played, but rather the Valar have to create it themselves, supports the assumption that the events that follow the descent to Arda are not necessarily as foreseen in the music of the Ainur.
Naveh, 42
This holds in it two possibilities: Firstly, that events happening on Arda can develop independently from the music they were initially envisioned in. Secondly, that these events may bring forth other events that were not present in the First Music at all. This also serves as an explanation for the presence of pure evil in Arda, even though Ilúvatar had originally said that everything Melkor added to the music was part of His plan. This of course is correct, but after the creation of Arda, the free will of Melkor allowed him to indeed perform actions that were not foreseen by Ilúvatar.

In the same train of thought we can apply this to musical references in the works: While the music of Middle-earth is based on the music of the Ainur, because in a way it was envisioned in it, it still has the possibility to move away, at least in portions, from its originally envisioned state. Just as the actual, physical manifestation of Arda, and the whole of Eä at that, can be described as a “performance” of an original work - in this case of the First Music - newly composed music representing and following Tolkien’s descriptions of music in Arda can as well constitute a performance of an original thought from the music of the Ainur. As such renditions of songs and poems from The Lord of the Rings like those we are dealing with in this paper, are valid extensions of Tolkien’s work.