"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 large number of songs listed in The Lord of the Rings can be roughly divided into two groups:

  1. Songs invented and sung by characters from the narrative during the course of the book or not a very long time before. The content and execution of these songs is personal and representative more of their composer than of a more general faction. To phrase it differently: A song from this group stands for its singer/composer, not necessarily for the race or culture he or she belongs to. One example is the Old Walking Song, composed by Bilbo Baggins, which not necessarily is representative of all Hobbit travel songs.
  2. Traditional songs, whose origins very much predate the timeframe of the book (the end of the Third Age). These songs now are much more representative of the culture they originated from, by the fact of gradual textual selection: Most of the songs and poems composed over time would have been forgotten, with only the most important and most valued ones remaining in cultural memory. These songs mostly deal with legends and past events or describe a certain state of the culture in a former time. Musically speaking, these songs also would be most representative of the accepted general style of that particular culture, since they would be passed on from one generation to another as a cultural heritage and therefore are unlikely to be changing much, if at all.

The renditions of some of the many songs from The Lord of the Rings will form the basis of this section. Sometimes when there are several versions of the same song, due to the song being mentioned several times in the book, mostly with some lyrics changes, those different versions will be taken into account, too. We will then compare the findings to other uses of the song.

There is one general feature of all the songs presented here that needs to be taken into account: All the renditions are accompanied, even though in the book some clearly are not. The creators of the recordings clearly wanted to picture the common performance situation, not the special circumstances of the book. Therefore this intention is taken for granted and a composition will not be judged on the basis of whether or not the performance is realistically in such a way of being possible in the situation where it is mentioned in the book. It is obvious that Gimli will not have had an 80 piece symphony orchestra at his disposal when singing the Song of Durin. But if we let such a performance stand as a representation of how such a song would usually be performed, we can and should analyse it as to the way this performance might be true to the book. Caspar Reiff, the founder of the Tolkien Ensemble confirms this:
Well if you want to do a version that represents "the actual performance in the book" our version obviously does not achieve that goal. Almost all songs would have to be single voice only. It was never the intension [sic!], though, to do so. Our version is an artistic interpretation based (but never consequently) on using music styles to represent the various peoples of Middle-earth. Thus the Hobbits music is based on traditional English/Irish folk music, The humans go in a more traditional Classical music style, the Elves, well, something in between.
Reiff, e-mail 1
So we will look at the general musical stylistics of the pieces and determine whether or not they fit with the previous findings as concerning harmony, melody, use of counterpoint and instrumentation.

The instrumentation of pieces is a quite different topic, however, and will be treated somewhat more strictly. It is easily possible that in Rivendell there may have been an ensemble with musicians from different races or even cultures within the same race, providing the accompaniment to the songs. This would sufficiently explain the presence of some instruments in songs by cultures usually not likely to play these instruments. Nevertheless, there is no reason why any song should be accompanied by a “wrong” instrument at a retelling of the War of the Ring – just like in a modern ensemble these players could just have stayed silent for the song. Or, in other words: At Rivendell, there might have been drums in use played by dwarves; but they most likely would not be used in traditional Elvish music, simply because Elves did not seem to use drums at all.