Music in film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

As The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey dominates the box office, Ivan has a listen to Howard Shore's superb score...

Like a pair of old jeans that you hope still fit, returning to Middle-Earth after nine years was always going to be a daunting prospect. Thanks to its strange new 48fps appearance and a padded script that tried to turn it into a Lord Of The Rings prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey didn’t fit quite as comfortably as everyone hoped.

Not so for composer Howard Shore. Howard slips into those trousers with all the silky charm of Ian McKellen’s eyebrows, recapturing the mood of his original scores while also developing new themes; the characters are all new, but the backdrop feels the same.

And backdrops don’t get much better than this. If Peter Jackson was bonkers to try and film Tolkien’s fantasy epic Lord Of The Rings in the first place, Howard Shore was equally mad. His ambitious approach treated the whole thing like an opera, creating leitmotifs for people, places, even things. It’s amazing that the chair legs didn’t have their own theme.

The idea produced three humongous soundtracks that, like the film itself, arguably set the bar for modern blockbusters. Like those well-tailored trousers, Shore’s music manages that rare feat of working both in a cinema and as the perfect accompaniment for mountain climbing holidays.

Ad – content continues below

But you don’t have to be halfway up a New Zealand hill to enjoy the music of Middle-Earth. Who doesn’t play The Bridge of Khazad Dum while crossing the road to make it more exciting? Or listen to Concerning Hobbits on Sunday mornings to keep things happy and sedate for as long as possible?

Even the vocal contributions from Annie Lennox, Enya and Emilíana Torrini blend in well with Shore’s orchestral work, with each album becoming more complex and menacing as the trilogy progresses. The Fellowship Of The Ring stands out, though, thanks to its subtle orchestration. Shore fills his world with Celtic instruments like penny whistles and bodhráns, throwing together a green landscape, which is then gradually consumed by darkness. That growing sense of brassy dread, mingled with hopeful flutes? That’s the sound of adventure.

It’s also the sound of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

A Very Respectable Hobbit takes the familiar Shire piece (Concerning Hobbits) at a brighter, more youthful pace, but something has changed: offbeat strings push it forward before taking over completely. Out springs a new 3/4 theme, which sounds timid but cheeky too. That energetic tune carries An Unexpected Party along, jumping back and forth between three beats and four beats as Shore wrong foots young Bilbo with the arrival of his dwarf guests. The lilting waltz shuffles between major and minor with a sense of humour, underlining the dwarf meeting’s tension and physical comedy – the same childlike tone found in the troll’s Roast Mutton.

Again, it’s that balance of light and dark, as An Unexpected Party’s mirth soon gives way to the brooding sounds of Misty Mountains.

Composed by David Donaldson, David Long, Steve Roche and Janet Roddick, it’s a gorgeous little song. Who knew Richard Armitage could sing so well? Thorin Oakenshield’s baritone sounds sturdy yet soft over the atmospheric humming of the dwarf cast, really bringing to life Tolkien’s words, which don’t always work when sung out loud (hello to Blunt the Knives).

Ad – content continues below

Neil Finn’s arrangement at the end (Song Of The Lonely Mountain), co-written with the others, is equally brilliant, continuing the franchise’s history of strong vocal finishes. He expands the captivating tune into a rousing number, complete with backing singers going “Yah-yah-yah-yah” and clapping. Then he drags a massive flipping anvil into the recording studio and starts walloping it with a hammer. You can’t not enjoy that.

In fact, the Misty Mountains theme is so good that it swiftly becomes the main theme for the whole film – there’s a reason why that first trailer got stuck in your head for days. The mark of its quality is that it sounds good both slow and sad and loud and bold. Its opening three notes recall the original Fellowship theme, which came to define the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, while that rising pitch gives them a stirring edge. Like our signature hobbit tune, which climbs to a cheerful fifth (and goes like the clappers in the enthusiastic Adventure Begins), Misty Mountains follows one of Middle-earth’s essential rules: good guys go up, bad guys go down.

And so it is that we meet Azog The Defiler, the pale orc antagonist of our adventure. His theme starts at that high fifth before dropping two grumpy thirds to an unpleasant finish – the exact inverse of the dwarves’ “We must away” in Misty Mountains. Azog’s ugliness later erupts into the Warg-Scouts, a solid action theme underpinned by tubas and trombones parping a descending riff. As our heroes fight against them, rising thirds build up over the falling notes to create a thrilling mix of the two. Things get even crazier on Under Hill, a blaring chromatic plummet that keeps the cave battle as chaotic as its time signature.

These set piece tracks may sound familiar, but that’s just the trick of Howard Shore’s uppy-downy laws and his consistent instrumentation. There are no electronic tools in Middle-earth, but Howard Shore scores action as well as Hans Zimmer on his best day. And he never relies solely on dissonance to provide shocks or scares; the Necromancer’s creepy music, for example, holds on a suspended semitone for 10 seconds before letting the notes resolve. Even the choirs are subtly chosen by the composer. Male voices underscore An Ancient Enemy, while a kids chorus add an innocent charm to Radagast The Brown (along with a cute, clockwork-esque rhythm).

It is no surprise, then, that the dwarf leader’s theme is as carefully constructed as the rest of the soundtrack. Opting for both woodwind and brass, Shore positions Thorin as the bridge between the dwarf company and Bilbo. Even his melody, a basic rising step that echoes the hobbit’s line, marks him out as a kind, determined hero, like Bilbo, with a simple motivation; the dwarves, on the other hand, jump upwards before returning back to the comfort of their first note.

Some of the other familiar noises are, of course, just music that we’ve heard before, from choral chanting on Weathertop to high-pitched sopranos serenading the eagles. Rivendell’s theme makes a grand reappearance too, accompanied by tolling chimes and those ominous arpeggios, while the ring’s theme mingles with Gollum’s without being allowed to develop in the claustrophobic Riddles In The Dark.

Ad – content continues below

But where the uneven, stuffed screenplay fails, Howard’s assured ear knits together these old favourites and new numbers seamlessly. His success climaxes in the magnificent Over Hill, a medley that condenses the whole film into one three-minute eargasm. It segues from a quiet, purposeful take on Thorin into Lothlórien’s old air before Bilbo sparks a rousing crescendo up to the colossal Misty Mountains we know from the trailers. No guesses what the characters are doing while all this is going on – if you’re going mountain climbing any time soon, this is the track to listen to.

Light and dark, woodwind and brass, instruments and choir, voices and percussion; like the whole of this fantastic composition, Over Hill balances the two extremes with a reassuringly familiar confidence. It’s the contrast of a tiny hobbit standing in the middle of a massive story. It’s the music of adventure.

After nine years, the trousers may not look like such a snug fit, but they sound as awesome as ever.

You can read Ivan’s previous Music in film piece here.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.