‘The Hobbit’ score is a familiar, yet compelling, return to the musical landscape of Middle Earth

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Composed by Howard Shore
WaterTower Music
December 11, 2012

In 2001, Peter Jackson and his intrepid cast and crew transported audiences around the world to a land that, up until that point, only existed in novels and decades old animated films. That land was Middle Earth, and now, nearly ten years later, Jackson has reteamed with much of the same company, as well as some new faces, to bring us the beginning of his own prequel trilogy with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. A significant part of what made The Lord of the Rings such an enthralling trilogy came down to Howard Shore’s astounding and expansive score. The composer is one of the many to return and while his music here doesn’t quite take the series in entirely new directions, after all this is building up to a story we already know with music we’ve already heard, he does deliver a compelling score with the original films’ magic along with some fresh musical textures.

The score opens with “My Dear Frodo”, a massive track that immediately places you back within the musical realm of Middle Earth with those full, sweeping strings that are so quintessentially a part of this universe. The piece gradually builds in brightness towards the familiar and beautiful theme for the Shire. The track then shifts towards a more foreboding tone contrasting light, female Elvish vocals with deep, male ones, all accompanied with pounding, warlike timpani and the occasional flurry of horns. This type of mythical storytelling through music is what made Shore’s scores for The Lord of the Rings feel so grand, and it’s a thrill to hear him effortlessly slip back into this mode.

Shore continues the thematic familiarity with “Old Friends”, which restates and intertwines both the Shire and hobbit themes. The music is just as cheery now as it was then, complete with some new orchestral color, and it reminds the audience that all great journeys begin with a fresh sense of naiveté. Much of this happiness carries on in “An Unexpected Party”, a playful composition, and a sort of teatime farce, that recounts the dwarves’ crashing of Bilbo’s home. There’s a brief period of seriousness as the dwarves receive their official musical introduction in “Misty Mountains”, performed with hypnotic, Gregorian resolution by the cast of dwarves as they sing a tale of their long-forgotten gold and establish the stakes of their mission. “Axe or Sword” maintains the weight of the journey at hand, and in its closing notes introduces a variation on the hobbit theme, likely reflecting Bilbo’s nature.

After “The Adventure Begins”, a sort of last hurrah brimming with propulsive, unabashed excitement, the score becomes considerably darker and more treacherous. “An Ancient Enemy” is a predominantly vocal track that consists of formidable male voices and tumultuous percussion all heralding the reemergence of some evil force. However, there’s fun to be had in “Radagast the Brown”, arguably the score’s most sonically eclectic track, which boasts jaunty, rustic strings and some wonderfully off-kilter percussion, all bookended between a lively boys choir. The wizard’s eccentric theme carries on into “The Hill of Sorcery” but doesn’t last long as it eventually gives way to the rise of the Isengard theme. This gives the score an emotional context similar to hearing “The Imperial March” in the Star Wars prequels.

In the midst of combative tracks like “Warg-Scouts” and “A Thunder Battle”, a much needed peace can be found in “The Hidden Valley” and “The White Council”, both serene tracks that quote the Rivendell and Lorien themes, complete with haunting vocals and swelling ostinatos. “Over Hill” is a stunning piece that transitions from the tranquility heard in the previous tracks and begins with a pensive statement of the heroes’ theme, an instrumental version of the “Misty Mountains” melody, which grows brighter by recalling the Shire motif. It ultimately evolves into a triumphant rendition of the heroes’ theme with gallant horns and resounding percussion. This isn’t the first time this theme is heard on the score, but it’s undoubtedly the most resonant.

Shore continues to lay recognizable thematic foundations with the eerie “Riddles in the Dark” underscores Bilbo’s fateful match with Gollum and his acquisition of The One Ring. Naturally, Gollum’s slithering, “Dies Irae” motif comes into play here, as does the music signifying The Ring’s mysterious, unknown power. The score culminates with “Brass Buttons”, “Out of the Frying Pan score culminates in a “Brass Buttons” “Out of the Frying-Pan” and “A Good Omen”, a triptych of Shore’s dynamic action cues all whirring with thunderous timpani, uplifting brass, and exultant choirs, bringing the score to the emotionally fulfilling climax that many fans of this series have come to expect.

The score closes with “Dreaming of Bag End”, a nostalgic rendition of Bilbo’s theme with soft, assured percussion and the delicate interplay between a single woodwind and strings. It’s a gorgeous track that exemplifies the breadth of this fable and shows how far the protagonist has gone. As he’s shown with the previous trilogy, Howard Shore is as master of this kind of musical storytelling, and while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not be as monumental a score as say The Fellowship of the Ring’s, it’s still an undoubtedly rich achievement and a musical installment worthy of Middle Earth.

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