Home > Film, Music, Reviews > A Good Omen: Howard Shore’s Score for ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

A Good Omen: Howard Shore’s Score for ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

I’m not sure which I’m anticipating more: the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, or the new score to that film by Howard Shore. While there is still a little over a week until the former opens across the civilized world, the latter can be heard in its entirety in an exclusive live stream on the Rolling Stone website.

Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings, for my money, was more than simply a film score. Beyond setting moods or striking tones or cueing audience emotional reactions, it became a dominant feature of the films, as vital a character as any member of the Fellowship itself. It did not merely provide an aural backdrop to key onscreen moments, it transformed them, transcended them. The flutes and fiddles of the Shire themes established the nostalgic country Englishness of the setting beyond doubt. How affecting would the Fellowship’s reactions to the fall of Gandalf have been without that exquisite single falsetto dragging Jackson’s slow-motion shots of crying hobbits into true pathos, or the gradual crescendo of “Journey in the Dark” rendering the wonder of the pillars of Moria’s dwarf halls in overwhelming terms? The battle music as well, percussive and relentless, ebbed and flowed with the harsher ambient sonics of war. It helps that it was applied with a masterful editing hand by Jackson, building it up with his initiating charges before cutting it off with the clash of colliding armies at its peak, a technique borrowed directly from Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s hugely influential battle scenes in Alexander Nevsky.

All this wordy praise for past achievements places Shore firmly in a shared boat with Jackson as far expectations for their work on The Hobbit is concerned. As is the case with the film itself, the score of The Hobbit has a tremendous act to follow, namely the modern model for the epic film score for the modern model for the epic film. If it seems doubtful that, for whatever new wonders Jackson unleashes, this prequel trilogy will not surpass his smashing earlier success, then the same is true for Shore’s music. There is some lovely stuff here, but much of the experience of listening to this score, especially in advance of viewing the film it accompanies, amounts to leitmotif-spotting. A jaunty Hobbiton waltz here, the uneasy strains of Gollum’s Ring theme there, Elven beauty in between, and dwarf singing everywhere.

This last feature is not as heavy an element on the soundtrack as might have been suggested by the first trailer, with the cast-sung take on the textual song “Misty Mountains”, which here brings the album’s proceedings to an a capella halt (and is rendered in memorably heroic instrumental overtones in “Over Hill”). But it is prominent enough in the background of the music of corporeal excitement that takes up the latter portions of the score album, as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves fight, run, blast, and squeeze their way out of the mountains ahead of hordes of goblins (or so we with knowledge of the literary source material must only assume).

The more intriguing musical cues relate to the material that is clearly being patched into the movie from other sources (mainly Tolkien’s appendixes to his famous trilogy, we are lead to expect). Tracks clearly meant to connect the seemingly light quest narrative to larger power developments in Middle Earth at the time (mainly revolving around the Necromancer, an alias for the Dark Lord Sauron who was ensconced in a fortress in the south of Mirkwood at the time of the events depicted) vibrate on a more powerful and stranger wavelength. “An Ancient Enemy” is replete with menacing brass and choirish fortitude, “The White Council” and “The Hill of Sorcery” suggest portentous magical acts, and “Radagast the Brown” is full of wavering melodies and unique touches (percussion like the feet of clambering rodents, a rootsy violin screeching woodily). For the theme music of a mostly carefree sylvan wizard, it carries a cartload of foreboding weight.

Although the score album concludes with New Zealand singer-songwriting Neil Finn’s folky but unremarkable “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (with orchestration layered a bit thick in apparent hopes of impressing the highly fickle Best Song Oscar voters), its true emotional end point is “A Good Omen”. The cut is likely to commemorate the last narrow escape of Bilbo and his travelling party to be made in this movie at least (more so even than the LOTR films, The Hobbit movies will have a hard time convincing us that their cut-off points are to be anything but arbitrary). But it strives for a note of emotional finality with a hint of unease for future perils that was carried by “The Breaking of the Fellowship”, the swelling climax of the Fellowship of the Ring score album. That it doesn’t quite achieve the earlier-established lofty level of indelible film score timelessness may be a microcosm for the full effect of the score and the film as well (though the latter remains to be seen, of course). Ultimately, it’s difficult not to hear Howard Shore’s score for The Hobbit in terms entirety yoked to the film it accompanies and (hopefully) uplifts. Even, and perhaps especially, if we’re yet to see the film itself.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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  1. December 17, 2012 at 6:29 am

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