"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

The clues about in which way the music of Man developed and how it sounded are scarce. Most songs sung by humans in the books are either of Elvish origin or are very learned songs, which would not have been sung by common folk. Linden speculates that the humans came into contact with music first from the Avari with their music very quickly dominated by Elvish music. (Linden, 84). This will have continued when the Edain moved to Númenor, but, as Linden points out, from there on there probably was a lot of development in the music, possibly leading (as per the notion of reverse development) from a very chordal style practiced by the Elves to a more interval-based accompaniment. (Linden 87). We may imagine Gondorian art music to sound quite similar, a bit like medieval music with a touch of plainsong. So when Aragorn sings a song, this is what it may sound like.

As for the Rohirrim, whose ancestors, the Éothéod (Old English for “horse people”), had contact with the people of Númenor, Linden suggests that their music might be influenced by Elvish music (as all music ultimately seems to derive from the Elves), as well as by Dwarvish music. He notes that all of the Rohan songs are written in alliterative verse (Linden, 88), which we can attribute to the fact of their language being translated as Old English by Tolkien. With Rohirric7 being closely related to the old Númenorian tongue as a derivation from the language of the Éothéod, its relationship to Westron, the Common Speech, is roughly the same as between Old English and Modern English. Since we can assume some development of the language over time with influences from other language families – the word “westfold” comes to mind, which is of Scandinavic origin – we could say that Rohirric is based on archaic Westron, which would be rendered with pure Old English, but adds a number of unique features. While not strictly important for the topic of discussing Rohan music, one clue that might somehow prove that Rohirric has developed quite a bit from just being an Ancient Form of Westron is that Legolas does not seem to be able to understand a single word of Rohirric, even though he, through his education as son of the Elvenking Thranduil, should have been taught Ancient Westron, because his father certainly spoke it.

While we do not find many details about Rohan music in The Lord of the Rings, the fact that Tolkien chose Old English for representing Rohirric and explicitly states that their songs were in alliterative verse suggests a strong similarity of the historical Old English music and Rohan music. If we take Tolkien’s familiarity with Old English literature into account, we can actually be quite specific about Rohan songs and imagine them to be performed in the same way as epics like Beowulf, which can tell us a great deal about possible instrumentation. We will have a more detailed look at how these songs might be accompanied later, but for purely vocal performances we can assume that they were monophonic, probably only sung by one person at a time. The power of alliterative verse only really comes to pass on soloist performances. As Rohirric poetry of all Middle-earth poetry relies the most on alliterative verse, the musicians of Rohan may very well be the only culture in Middle-earth that has more or less stopped, or never even started in the first place, to use polyphony, even for its more learned songs. This does of course not exclude the possibility of Rohan minstrels singing Elvish or Gondorian music, which is polyphonic!

We do not know much about Gondorian vocal music, with no Gondorian character actually singing – contrary to the Rohirrim, who have a large number of songs mentioned. Only two rhymes from Gondor are mentioned: The herbmaster of the Houses of Healing recalls a rhyme about athelas and Aragorn sings one when looking at the White Mountains. (Smith, 201). Gondor, as one of the two big kingdoms of the Dúnedain in gradual decline (the other being Arnor, which was reinstated by King Elessar after the War of the Ring), Gondorian songs are certainly very much focused on the past, celebrating the glory days and remembering the kings of old. The most of vocal music that is mentioned is the “singing of clear voices” at the crowning of King Elessar (LotR, 968). While most songs sung at the court of the stewards would have been old songs, probably again about former times, it is not clear what those “voices” sang at the coronation. If it was some sort of choir, they could have rehearsed a number of pieces. If the common people of Minas Tirith sang, the songs in question most likely were victory songs or other songs suited for celebrations. While possible, it is doubtful that the people either remembered special songs intended for the crowning or learned them from sheet music. This was the first coronation of a king since nearly a thousand years, so chances are slim that people still knew the songs sung at such an occasion.

Smith notes that the Gondorian society had a strong sense of nationalism; he quotes Boromir that “alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West” (Smith, 199). He also notes that Denethor’s interest in Hobbit music may actually be genuine: Faramir himself is said to have been a lover of music, so Denethor might be as well (Smith, 200). Music seems to still have a high standing in Gondor, even though the kingdom at the time of the War of the Ring is waning: After the battle at the Field of Cormallen, a Gondorian minstrel sings. This means that there are still professional minstrels employed, which suggests that the musical culture of the past is preserved and actively supported.

As for other human races, we have no clear indications of their music and since no songs or poems are available, they will not concern us here.