"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 is a special cultural trait that sets Dwarves apart from other races: Because of their activities in trading with other races, Dwarves on the one hand were more open to outsiders, but on the other hand guarded their personal culture very actively. From the earliest times they have had extensive contact to Elves and men alike, which, in the course of business negotiations, certainly also involved attending social events as well as hosting such events themselves. They therefore very likely developed a kind of representative music that would be very "Dwarvish" in its style to present them as a rightfully proud and well-cultured people, but at the same time accessible to as many prospective clients as possible.

Tolkien also tells us that wide areas of Dwarven culture were kept from outsiders, including their language, Khuzdûl. Few people spoke it, therefore, with Gandalf probably being the only one of the main characters during the War of the Ring. When in company, Dwarves used the language of their hosts, usually Westron. They even kept their real names secret, so of all the Dwarves mentioned by name, not a single one actually is called by his real Khuzdûl name. Undoubtedly very traditional songs as well as the most intimate legends and epics would be similarly known only to Dwarves and are lost to us.

This basically leaves us with two distinct types of Dwarvish music: Firstly, the music commonly heard performed by Dwarves in public. This would include the performance of Thorin and Co. at Bilbo's place, as well as Gimli's Song of Durin. The Dwarves performed these songs in Westron, which they spoke very well, albeit in a very formal and slightly archaic mode of speaking; probably on purpose, to set them apart from other cultures. Secondly, we have the traditional music, played only among Dwarves when no outsiders were around. About this music we know nothing substantial, apart from the fact that it is sung in Khuzdûl. Any endeavour to use our knowledge of other languages spoken in Middle-earth to draw any conclusions about which kind of music the language may have brought forth is futile, as the Dwarves were given their language by the Valar Aulë. Therefore it does not have any connections to any other language. The Dwarves taught the language only to very few selected people (Gandalf again presumably being one of them), so external influences were minimized. From the few words we know in this language, with only one single real sentence (“Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!”, “Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!”, LotR, 534) with no pronunciation given, we cannot say anything about how the language actually sounds.9

Furthermore, all the songs of Dwarvish origin mentioned in either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (in The Hobbit there is not even a mention of Khuzdûl) certainly belong to the first category detailed above, so they are intended for outsiders to hear. For lack of songs from the second category, we can only make guesses about the sound of those representative songs, which presumably incorporate stylistic elements from other musical styles, or at least somewhat tone down the supposedly very harsh and percussive style of the Dwarves.

As Koolen notes in his article about the Song of Durin, which we will analyse in greater detail later, of the five songs of Dwarvish origin, four are from The Hobbit (the fifth being said Song of Durin from The Lord of the Rings). Koolen leaves out Farewell we call to hearth and hall (see 4.1.14), which is based on a Dwarven melody, but uses words by Hobbits. Those four songs, for various reasons, are not very reliable sources for Dwarven music. The Hobbit being a children's book, we have to give everything contained therein a fair bit of leeway in its language, but even then we may doubt the origin of at least some of those songs. To understand the significance of the Song of Durin, we need to follow Koolen's thoughts and have a brief look at the four songs from The Hobbit (Koolen, 75):

  1. The Dwarves, according to Bilbo, sang a not very nice song about destroying his possessions with the memorable line "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!" (H, 16). They did not do such thing, but instead carefully cleaned everything. As Koolen notes, it is unlikely that the Dwarves really sang this song - Bilbo probably just made it up because he was angry with them disturbing him. Frankly, a dwarf of royal lineage like Thorin is very unlikely to sing such songs.
  2. Far over the misty mountains cold is a song about their destination, the Erebor. The song, speaking about the lost treasure the Dwarves want to win back, seems genuine, but likely is an invention of Thorin and company, and not truly fit to be seen as typically traditional Dwarvish music. Nevertheless it certainly has some features of Dwarven music, an assumption on which we will analyse a different song to the same melody later (see 4.1.14).
  3. At Beorn's house, the Dwarves sing a song called The wind was on the withered heath. This sounds like a genuine Dwarvish song fit for campfires. Unfortunately we have no information whatsoever about the music that accompanied this song (if there was any, because no instruments are mentioned) or about the melody.
  4. The fourth song, Under the mountain, dark and tall, is a counterpart to Far over the misty mountains cold, as Koolen quotes Rateliff (Koolen, 75). This song clearly is a recent invention as it refers to the events that happened just before.

So as we can see, only the second song is somehow reliable as a source because we are at least given some information about the instruments used. This leaves us with only Gimli's rendition of the Song of Durin as the only song performed by Dwarves we can say anything about with some certainty by deducing some information from the circumstances of its performance. But before going into this analysis, let us consider some general features of Dwarvish music:

Now as to how the vocal style of the Dwarves could sound, we can get a few clues from the way the Dwarves are living as well as by deducing from what we know about Khuzdûl. Because Dwarves spend most of their time in large halls, a style using the inevitable echo present in rooms of this kind is likely to be employed. We would find long notes, with adjacent notes being notes belonging to the same chord, or at least to a chord closely related, for quite some time, with little polyphony, so as to not create a muddy sound in a big reverberated room. For the same reason the harmonic rhythm of pieces will be rather slow, so melodies will remain on notes of the current triad for some time. Pieces in general should be rather slow than fast to further comprehensibility of the text. On the other hand, the spacious reverb of the room could be used to create layers of sounds - singing an arpeggiated chord would result in the complete chord sounding, allowing very few people to make very impressive music.

As for the tonal system, Dwarven music most likely would not use too many dissonances, again for reverberation reasons, but also because of the sound of the language itself. Khuzdûl is described as “cumbrous and unlovely” (S, ch. 10) by the Elves. While it certainly did not sound as bad as this to its speakers, it certainly had a certain harshness to it, making it difficult to control in song. We can assume that melodies were retained if possible when songs were translated into Westron, so all in all what we can assume about Dwarvish music makes it very much reminiscent of today’s sacred choral music – a matter that we will investigate on the example of the Song of Durin.