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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Special Edition) by Howard Shore

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Special Edition)

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Special Edition) (Soundtrack) by Howard Shore
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Special Edition) (Soundtrack) by Howard Shore
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Special Edition) (Soundtrack) by Howard Shore

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Special Edition)
Composed by Howard Shore
Water Tower Music (2013)

Rating: 9/10

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“The weakest score for Middle-earth it may be, but Middle-earth is blessed with an unusually high quality of music, and THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG for the most part manages to uphold that trend proudly.”

Buried Treasure
Review by Edmund Meinerts

 

After getting off to a somewhat uneven start with AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Peter Jackson’s tripartite adaptation/expansion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT seems to have found slightly more secure footing in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Although some of the issues that plagued the first entry continue – there really never was enough material in the source novel to justify three lengthy films, and the subsequent Jackson-inserted subplots, extra characters and protracted action sequences are hit-and-miss – at least the jarring tonal shifts between the brooding foreboding material and the more cartoonish episodes in the first entry have been smoothed out.

Also present, of course, is the score by Middle-earth court composer HOWARD SHORE. His music for AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, despite still being among the very best of its year, was treated poorly in the film. Plenty of fantastic new material made it onto the albums, but much of it was replaced in film by tracked-in or re-orchestrated music from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, occasionally to the point of apparently glaring thematic incongruence – particularly aggravating in a series that has been otherwise meticulous in its leitmotivic attribution. It is a relief to report, therefore, that these issues don’t seem to be present in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG; although some of what is heard on album has been dialed out in film – quite disconcertingly during the Forest River action scene – at least there is no tracked-in material, and certainly no thematic headscratchers. And neither is there any significant divergence between the standard and special editions this time (i.e. no “Roast Mutton” fiasco or the like, thankfully).

That aside, however, this is probably the weakest score in the series so far. Considering what a high bar that is, perhaps there need be no shame in that – and make no mistake about it, this is still a HOWARD SHORE Middle-earth score through and through, with all of the richness and depth of thematic attribution that entails, and it still stands head and shoulders above most of the competition of its year, just as its predecessors all do. Indeed, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG introduces us to over half a dozen new themes and motifs, as well as reprising and developing many other existing ones. But what this entry lacks is a core, a central theme that seems to hold the work together and make it unique, as well as fitting within the larger context of the series. The three LORD OF THE RINGS scores each had one: the Fellowship theme for FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, the Rohan theme for THE TWO TOWERS and the Gondor theme for RETURN OF THE KING.

AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, conversely, had the Thorin’s Company theme, more commonly known as “Misty Mountains,” easily its most memorable feature and which most assumed would become the central identity of the HOBBIT series as a whole. If anything, it was perhaps even overused in the film version of that score (due to more tracked-in music), and was even the basis of that film’s obligatory end-credits song. As if to redress the theme’s overuse, not once is it heard in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. A couple smaller themes from the first film seem to have fallen by the wayside as well; Gandalf the Grey’s motif is only heard once, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action variation at 1:45 in “A Spell of Concealment” (2-5), and Radagast’s quirky material is completely absent.

Most disappointingly of all, the only remnant of Bilbo’s identity is the sharp, prancing, HUGO-like “fussy” motif (e.g. “Barrels out of Bond” (1-9)). Neither his Shire-like theme proper (“Dreaming of Bag End”) nor his singular heroic fanfare (“Out of the Frying-Pan”, 3:43) are expanded upon. Bilbo’s character has a tendency to get lost in these films amongst the various dwarves, elves, dragons and such, and a more concrete musical identity would help him stand out a bit more. His new themes were already given the shaft in-film in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (thanks again to tracked-in music…), and perhaps it’s unsurprising that SHORE hasn’t even bothered here, but it is a true missed opportunity considering the strength of that material. The Shire theme (its pensive setting, for you Doug Adams readers) does make a few token appearances to try and fill that void, but is used quite sparingly.

But perhaps it’s best not to focus on what isn’t present and turn to what is. If this score can be said to have a central element, then it is Smaug’s theme, hinted at in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and the first half of this score (including a great statement over the film’s title at 1:11 of “Wilderland” (1-2)), before truly coming into its own at the climax. Its incessantly churning major-minor alterations continue to represent the dragon’s single-minded obsession with the treasure well, but this time around SHORE has added a new element to the equation: Indonesian gamelan. The various rattling, clanging, gonging and ringing of this percussion is again an effective representation of Smaug’s hoard, and the stretch between “The Courage of Hobbits” (2-7) and “My Armor is Iron” (2-13) is dominated by this intoxicatingly eerie material. Also returning from AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is the glowing choral cluster that represents the Arkenstone, at e.g. 7:07 of “On the Doorstep” (2-6).

Of the many new themes, two were hinted at in the previous score, but with such subtlety that it only now becomes apparent that they were themes in the first place (and gives new appreciation for the careful planning that goes into these scores). One of these is the theme for the Woodland Realm and, in its action variants, for Legolas. After its cameo appearance at 3:23 of the previous score’s “My Dear Frodo,” it is fully introduced in the cue of its name at 0:36. With an eerie, vaguely exotic, Middle Eastern nature to it, it is not dissimilar to the Lòrien theme from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The fast-paced Legolas variant is peppered throughout “The Forest River” (1-10) and “The Hunters” (2-11).

Peter Jackson’s newly-invented Tauriel character is given not one, but two themes, both highlights of the new material. Her theme proper is built around lithe, rapid five-note phrases and is reminiscent of SHORE’s own THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; introduced at 7:50 of “Flies and Spiders” (6), a variant of it is heard on a lyrical solo oboe in “Feast of Starlight” (1-8) before alternating with the Legolas/Woodland Realm theme in the action cues “The Forest River” (1-10) and “The Hunters” (2-11). Her other musical identity is a gorgeous love theme for the somewhat ill-advised romance subplot between Tauriel and Kili, introduced at 1:25 in “Feast of Starlight.” Its use of choral and vocal elements hearkens back to the Aragorn and Arwen material from THE LORD OF THE RINGS (quite explicitly in “Kingsfoil” (2-9)), but don’t be surprised if the melody reminds you of THE LION KING, of all things! All three new Elf-related themes, especially Tauriel’s, are summarized beautifully in the suite-like “Beyond the Forest” (2-15).

New themes are also afforded for the realms of Men explored in this film – indeed, one thing this score definitely has going for it compared to its predecessor are the multiple new location themes, since the previous film only covered previously-visited locations. Esgaroth, a.k.a. Lake-town, is given a pompous-but-careworn little shanty introduced at 1:44 of “Protector of the Common Folk” (1-16) that wouldn’t sound out of place in CONAN THE BARBARIAN. In “Thrice Welcome” (2-1), this is followed by a sly harpsichord motif for the Master (played by a rather miscast Stephen Fry). Bard the Bowman gets a theme too, a quietly urgent and propulsive (but not particularly memorable) one introduced in “Bard, a Man of Lake-town” (1-13). And Girion, Lord of Dale, receives a motif at the outset of the cue of that name (2-2), its opening notes reminiscent of the Erebor theme to reinforce Dale’s geographic proximity to the Lonely Mountain.

To round up the new material, Mirkwood and Beorn both receive new themes, though these are so subtle and infrequent that they take multiple listens to fully discern. Mirkwood’s theme is an eerie little six-note twist (at 0:36 of the cue of that name (1-5)), the first two notes of which coincide with Smaug’s theme. And Beorn receives a slowly climbing line over pulsing chords at 2:22 of “Wilderland” (2-2). The final new theme is another highlight, and is the second of the themes that was foreshadowed in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. It is a nobly rising and falling identity, represents the Dwarven royal family, the Line of Durin, and is introduced with humming choral accompaniment at 3:06 of “Girion, Lord of Dale” (2-2). Its action treatment in “My Armor is Iron” (2-13) is utterly spectacular. But even more fascinating is how the very beginning of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, the first few seconds of “My Dear Frodo” (and recurring in “A Good Omen” at 0:36), is in fact an extremely well-masked statement of this theme, with far more uncertain harmonies than in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Once again, these little connections and the gradual revelation of a long-term thematic plan are what make SHORE’s music outstrip the competition.

And yet there are still more themes to document! A few familiar friends from the RINGS trilogy appear too, most notably the History of the Ring theme in “Flies and Spiders” (1-6) and elsewhere. It is astonishing how readily SHORE can hint at that theme by only playing the first two notes, and yet it is always instantly recognizable. As the shadowy forces around the Necromancer begin to take form, more familiar music of evil is heard; Azog’s snarling low-brass theme continues to remind of the descending-third ostinato, the Wargs’ own descending low-brass ostinato gets a few airings, and by the full-fledged reprise of a cue from RETURN OF THE KING in the last minute of “A Spell of Concealment” (2-5), the Necromancer’s identity is no longer a secret. Some of the spider-related action music in “Flies and Spiders” (1-6) has a definite whiff of Shelob to it, as well. The first cue even finds time to slip in a reprise of the Bree music from FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, of all the obscure things!

Finally, there’s the obligatory end-credits song, “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran (2-14). The last film’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain” was not particularly well-received, but despite its awkward folk-rock vibe, at least it was strongly tied to the score thanks to its use of the Misty Mountains melody. This entry isn’t tied to the score at all, and manages to sound even more awkward, for all the world like something from a Christian album except with lyrics about a dragon instead. It’s not a terrible song per se, but doesn’t seem to fit into this universe whatsoever. Songwise, at least, the HOBBIT series continues to lag far behind the RINGS trilogy.

General consensus so far seems to be that THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is an improvement over AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. That is understandable given e.g. the lack of hair-tearing discrepancies between the film and album versions of the score, the arguably greater variety, and the undeniable charms of an individual highlight like “The Forest River” (1-10). That latter cue contains five of the most fast-paced and swashbuckling minutes of music that SHORE has ever produced, perfectly capturing the lighthearted adventure feel of the novel much better than Jackson seems to be able to. But for some reason, this score feels slightly less action-packed as a whole (odd, considering the film seems much more so). There are lengthy stretches without obvious highlights that, while still intriguing and entertaining for their complex thematic interplay alone, seem to drag on more than its equivalents in this series’ history of notoriously long album presentations (although, once again, it’s great to be able to hear so much of it immediately…if any scores deserve two-disc treatment, then it’s these). For example, the first five cues and the stretch between “The Forest River” (1-10) and “A Spell of Concealment” (2-5) are periods that do cover a lot of thematic ground, but don’t exactly reach out and grab you by the collar. Furthermore, there is the perplexing disappearance of the previous score’s two strongest themes (Bilbo’s and Misty Mountains) and, most critically of all, the lack of a central defining element, a new theme that really manages to stand out and be instantly memorable. Yes, there’s Smaug’s theme, but that doesn’t really dominate the score until the final quarter or so. The strongest new theme here is probably that for Tauriel, and that is a) essentially from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and b) not even for an original Tolkien character, and that says something…I’m not quite sure what, exactly, but something for sure!

And yet…and yet…what a technical marvel this score is. What a vast, sprawling, detailed, complex, varied, masterful tapestry SHORE has woven, and continues to weave. Scores like this just don’t come along every day – now or ever – and whatever criticisms I might have for this music are outweighed by the simple fact that it continues to set a benchmark for film scoring everywhere. The weakest score for Middle-earth it may be, but Middle-earth is blessed with an unusually high quality of music, and THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG for the most part manages to uphold that trend proudly.

 

Rating: 9/10


Track

Track Title Track Time  Rating
  Disc 1    
1 The Quest for Erebor 3:24  ***
2 Wilderland 4:56  ****
3 A Necromancer 2:49  ****
4 The House of Beorn 4:47  ***
5 Mirkwood 5:31  ***
6 Flies and Spiders 9:36  *****
7 The Woodland Realm 5:11  ***
8 Feast of Starlight 2:48  *****
9 Barrels out of Bond 1:50  ****
10 The Forest River 5:11  *****
11 Bard, a Man of Lake-Town 3:18  ***
12 The High Fells 3:39  ****
13 The Nature of Evil 3:17  ****
14 Protector of the Common Folk 3:37  ****
       
  Disc 2    
1 Thrice Welcome 3:30  ****
2 Girion, Lord of Dale 3:05  ****
3 Durin's Folk 3:05  ****
4 In the Shadow of the Mountain 2:16  ****
5 A Spell of Concealment 3:23  *****
6 On the Doorstep 7:44  ****
7 The Courage of Hobbits 3:00  ***
8 Inside Information 3:48  *****
9 Kingsfoil 2:26  ****
10 A Liar and a Thief 3:41  *****
11 The Hunters 9:52  *****
12 Smaug 6:30  ****
13 My Armor is Iron 5:10  *****
14 I See Fire (Ed Sheeran) 5:00  **
15 Beyond the Forest 5:28  *****
       
  Total Running Time (approx) 159 minutes  

 

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