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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by Howard Shore

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Soundtrack) by Howard Shore
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Soundtrack) by Howard Shore
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Soundtrack) by Howard Shore

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Composed by Howard Shore
Water Tower Records (2013)

Rating: 10/10

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“THE HOBBIT is a fantastic achievement, a worthy chapter in the ongoing musical legendarium of Middle-earth and, for this reviewer, the finest film score of 2012.”

An Expectedly Exceptional Journey
Review by Edmund Meinerts

 

Normally I don’t break form and talk about my personal feelings, but here I’ll make an exception, because Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT is probably my most anticipated film, and score, of all time. I’m what you might call a Tolkien nut – I’ve read the books, watched the films and listened to the scores over and over again; in fact, the latter are in no small part responsible for kindling my interest in film music to begin with, and in my humble opinion, HOWARD SHORE’s music is a strong contender for the title of greatest film score of all time.

For THE HOBBIT’s score, therefore, any choice other than SHORE would have been unthinkable. His sound has engrained itself irreversibly into Middle-earth, and fortunately Jackson was able to put aside whatever KING KONG-related differences he may have still had with the composer. SHORE responded with a score that, in its idiosyncratic “ancient” sound and meticulous attention to thematic and motivic detail, picks up where RETURN OF THE KING left off. In truth, the score feels just a little bit smaller and is a little bit less complex, but that’s relative to the previous three (and, furthermore, appropriate for THE HOBBIT’s lighter tone – this is just a treasure hunt, after all, not a quest to destroy evil); compared to the average blockbuster score of 2012, it’s still a behemoth, boasting about a dozen new themes alongside a whole host of recurring ideas from the RINGS trilogy.

Most prominent among these, ironically, is a melody that did not actually originate from SHORE’s pen. Its first appearance comes in the form of a Dwarven source song, “Misty Mountains” (1-6). Though the melody itself was penned by the band PLAN 9 (who also contributed some source music to the RINGS trilogy), SHORE makes it his own in its three grand appearances on the album: “The World is Ahead” (1-8), “Roast Mutton” (1-12) and “Over Hill” (2-5). The theme serves to represent the Dwarven Company led by Thorin Oakenshield, and in “Over Hill” (2-5) especially, takes the place of the Fellowship theme to accompany those grand helicopter shots of people running through the New Zealand landscape that these films seem to love.

Thorin himself also receives a theme, a noble, rising affair (with a tinge of forgotten glory to it) introduced at 2:17 of the lengthy prologue sequence in “My Dear Frodo” (1-1) and given fairly frequent recapitulations throughout the score. Cleverly, the first four rising notes of the theme often form a trumpet counterpoint figure at the end of each phrase of the Company’s theme – it is, after all, Thorin’s Company! Also related to this theme, and rounding out the trio of Dwarf-related musical identities, is that for Erebor, the Lonely Mountain and the object of the quest. Its structure of three rising pairs, the first note of which is constant, both connects it to Thorin’s theme and keeps it literally “rooted” to show the mountain’s monolithic stature. Frequently, as in its introduction in “My Dear Frodo” (1-1) from 1:57 or in “Axe or Sword?” (1-5), the Erebor theme transitions into Thorin’s (or vice versa), to represent the Dwarf leader’s obsession with reclaiming his ancestral home and treasure. Of the latter, no part is more coveted than the Arkenstone jewel, which also receives a motif heard at 3:02 of “My Dear Frodo” (1-1) and 2:40 of “Axe or Sword?” (1-5), a simple but effectively “glowing” choral texture. No doubt we will be hearing more of this material once the Arkenstone becomes a significant plot device in the second and especially third film.

Also restricted to a few cameo appearances but absolutely guaranteed to become a major player in the second film is the theme for Smaug, the dragon who drove Thorin from Erebor and jealously guards the treasure. “My Dear Frodo” (1-1) introduces the theme’s snarling brass and incessant major-minor-major-minor progressions at 4:17, before it is relegated to a conversational hint at 1:35 in “Axe or Sword?” (1-5) and a dramatic stinger at the end of “A Good Omen” (2-11). The actual antagonist of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is Azog, a Jackson invention (or rather, reappropriation of a Tolkien character who should have died decades before the events of THE HOBBIT). His theme, often belted out on the absolute lowest of brass (e.g. 0:59 of “An Ancient Enemy” (1-9)) but also more ominously on low woodwinds in “Radagast the Brown” (1-10) at 5:11, is an offshoot of a frequent descending-third “ostinato of evil” used throughout the RINGS trilogy. Similar connections are subtly (well, not actually all that subtly) implied at the very end of “Radagast the Brown” (1-10), where a theme ostensibly for the secondary antagonist, the shadowy Necromancer, “debuts” – it will sound very familiar indeed to even casual listeners of the RINGS trilogy. Tolkien scholars privy to the Necromancer’s true identity, of course, will smile and nod knowingly. No doubt these connections will become more apparent as the trilogy runs its course.

Countering all these evil motifs, of course, is the new theme for Bilbo – yes, we’re finally going to talk about the title character! Debuting on clarinet at the end of “Axe or Sword?” (1-5), its peaceful demeanor (not to mention the ubiquitous rising three notes at its outset) allow it to fit snugly into the existing mould of Shire and Hobbit-related music. The conclusive “Dreaming of Bag End” (2-13) contains perhaps the most appealing rendition of this theme on the ever-gorgeous penny whistle. A more playful motif for Bilbo (which Doug Adams would no doubt dub Bilbo’s Antics) is perhaps the least successful new theme on display here, introducing itself in and occupying much of the cue “An Unexpected Party” (1-3). For one thing, it has a tendency to take you straight out of Middle-earth and into a Parisian train station, because it’s not much more than an accordeon short of HUGO (though it’s only fair to point out that the same material from HUGO was also inspired by portions of the RINGS trilogy!). For another, its sharply prancing motions have a nasty tendency to stop the flow of the music dead; the most notable example of this is when it tragically cuts off the action music in “Brass Buttons” (2-9) at 3:44. More engaging is the outburst of a singular heroic Bilbo theme that appears at 3:43 of “Out of the Frying Pan” (2-10); as the hobbit’s courage increases over the course of the quest, we’re sure to hear more of this material as well.

Rounding out all this new music is a pair of themes for the two Wizards. Gandalf the Grey, of course, is a familiar face from the RINGS trilogy, but there, he was only afforded a theme once he became Gandalf the White. Now, SHORE has finally offered a musical representation of the Grey, a mysterious little five-note wisp of a motif introduced in “An Unexpected Party” (1-3) at 2:14. One wonders whether (and how) SHORE will gradually transform this unassuming little motif into something hinting at the theme for Gandalf the White as the story progresses. The other wizard is Radagast the Brown (again, an existing Tolkien character Jackson decided to insert here – and yet still no Tom Bombadil!!), whose theme heard in the cue by that name and “The Hill of Sorcery” (1-14) is a true highlight of the score, probably its freshest and most different-sounding motif. Its frantically ticking percussion and fiddle over ever-rising bass string lines capture the outward dottiness of the character, but also hint at his true strength and the underlying urgency of his discoveries about the Necromancer.

And despite all this new material, SHORE still finds plenty of time to pay tribute to the vast wealth of pre-existing themes he wrote for the RINGS trilogy. The balance between old and new is remarkably well-achieved on album (unlike in the film – but more on that later), resurrecting familiar old music whenever needed but never threatening to become a simple retread. Pushing the nostalgia button hard, of course, are the various identities and themes associated with the Shire, primarily their “pensive setting” melody (as Doug Adams calls it), which makes an appearance in “My Dear Frodo” (1-1) at 0:52. Running the gamut of various Shire music is the aptly-named “Old Friends” (1-2) which follows, a cue that wouldn’t sound at all out of place in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. But the most interesting appearance of this material is in a new guise in the second half of “The Adventure Begins” (1-7), a remarkably upbeat and appealing new rendition of the theme.

When the Company reaches the Elven village of Rivendell, that location’s familiar ethereal choral material and string arpeggios make their expected appearance (at 0:59 of “The Hidden Valley” (2-1)). But “The White Council” (2-3) easily takes the prize for largest number of thematic statements both old and new. As well as the Rivendell arpeggios, some hints of evil and a statement of Bilbo’s new theme, Galadriel’s appearance invites a statement of the exotic and mysterious Lothlorien theme at 3:52. Not only that, but Isengard’s theme even pops in ominously at 4:40 to accompany Saruman’s cameo – nobody in the film knows what he will eventually become, but the audience does, and so does the music.

Finally, of course, we have the famed riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum (the film’s undisputed highlight – such a shame we won’t be seeing more of Gollum) and the finding of a certain ring which you might say becomes rather important later on. The thematically complicated “Riddles in the Dark” (2-8) cue contains statements of the History of the Ring theme in new harmonic guises at 0:16, 0:48 and 2:35, as well as hints of the menacing Gollum dulcimer theme at 1:44 and the lonelier Smeagol theme at 4:24.

But from the perspective of pure album-based visceral entertainment alone, the best thing about this score is clearly the action music, easily the best written in 2012. In the second half of “My Dear Frodo” (1-1) and in “Brass Buttons” (2-9), SHORE takes a wonderfully effective idea used in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING’s Moria sequence – propulsive, rhythmic low male chanting – and has apparently expanded it to a sort of general device for any Dwarf-related action scene taking place underground. An oddly specific motif, but there you go! Also of note in the climactic pair of action cues, “Brass Buttons” (2-9) and especially “Out of the Frying Pan” (2-10) is the sheer ruckus emanating from the brass section as it trills and throbs and clusters like an angry nest of oversized hornets – at times, especially combined with the choral writing, you’ll swear you’re listening to THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS! Even a standalone cue like “A Thunder Battle” (2-6) holds its own, despite the lack of thematic references, simply due to the sheer weight and depth of its mighty rhythms.

Finally, for those who forked out for the Special Edition, there are a number of rather odd bonus cues tacked on to the end of the second disc. They seem to be previews of themes that may become more prominent in the next two films; for example, “A Very Respectable Hobbit” (2-14) seems to introduce a new Bilbo-related motif; perhaps for Ian Holm’s old Bilbo in the framing narrative? “Erebor” (2-15) is even more of a departure, quite suddenly tossing bagpipes (!) into the mix, and again, the quite grand theme is totally new (and don’t we already have a theme for Erebor? Perhaps this is an unused alternate? Or something for Dain and the Iron Hills? Idle speculation). “The Dwarf Lords” (2-16) is yet another stately new theme, and finally “The Edge of the Wild” (2-17), after a short statement of the Thorin’s Company theme, contains some skittery suspense music that could hint at the eight-legged terrors that await in the second film (not something I’m hotly anticipating – the Shelob scene from RETURN OF THE KING already gives me nightmares). Oh, yes, and there’s also a song – Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (2-12). Reactions to it have been very mixed, and though it’s not terrible (helped by using the excellent Thorin’s Company melody), its awkward folk-rock vibe doesn’t seem at all a natural fit in Middle-earth. A more Dwarvish-sounding extension of “Misty Mountains” (1-6) would have been a far more appropriate choice.

All in all, as heard on the albums, SHORE’s score is an absolute winner. Though none of the new themes are obvious crowdpleasers with the exception of the Thorin’s Company theme, they are all highly appropriate for their concepts and create exactly the right reaction whenever they are played. Several people have complained about the extremely generous length of the album, and to these people I say they lack the patience to truly immerse themselves in the enormously detailed world of these scores. They deserve to be heard in their complete form; even if you don’t enjoy every second of the music (I doubt anybody does), it is by far the best option to have as much music as possible available and allow more impatient listeners to create their own truncated playlists. Cues like “Axe or Sword?” (1-5), “The White Council” (2-4) and “Riddles in the Dark” (2-8) – likely candidates for exclusion had this been a one-CD release – might not be among the most flat-out entertaining on the album, but the masterful way in which SHORE intertwines his themes, the ominous hints and tips of the hat, all of it keeps the score engaging even in its most low-key moments.

And now we come to the Oliphaunt in the room – the way the score is used in film. According to a recent post on Doug Adams’ blog, every single note heard in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is there exactly the way SHORE intended it to be. However, it is pretty difficult to reconcile that statement with the large differences between the film and album versions of the score. For one thing, the Thorin’s Company theme is far more prominent in the film, with a certain action variant cropping up several times. That action variant can be heard at 2:23 of the cue “Roast Mutton” (1-12) – but, for some reason, only on the standard edition! The special edition replaces it with a much less straightforward and less enjoyable version. Other than the advertised differences, there are a few other minor inconsistencies between the two not really worth mentioning, but the “Roast Mutton” issue is truly baffling.

Even more puzzling is the way a lot of SHORE’s new thematic material has been sadly excised from the film and replaced with re-recorded themes from the RINGS trilogy. Bilbo’s theme suffers particularly from this; more often than not, his “moments” in the film are simply afforded generic Shire material. Radagast’s theme is almost completely absent from the film, a shame considering how different and fresh it sounds. A theme meant to represent Gondor in the Fourth Age at the end of RETURN OF THE KING makes a hugely inappropriate appearance a few minutes before the end. Broad statements of the Nature’s Reclamation theme (quite impressive new variations, actually) have seemingly replaced most of “A Good Omen” (2-11), and the Smaug theme stinger at the end of that cue is cut entirely – the scene it is supposed to accompany is silent. And finally, and most blatantly, an extremely climactic moment in the final action scene in which Thorin charges Azog is prominently underscored with the choral theme previously associated with the Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths – who, needless to say, have nothing whatsoever to do with that scene! Doug Adams, again, has claimed that there is a reason for it, but it’s hard to think of what that could be (if the intention was to keep the audience guessing, mission accomplished!). You can even hear what seems to be the music originally written for that scene at 4:24 of “Out of the Frying Pan” (2-10). Curiouser and curiouser. Perhaps the film’s inevitable Extended Edition will answer these questions…only time will tell.

So, does SHORE match his achievement for LORD OF THE RINGS? Well, to be honest…no. As mentioned earlier, there’s a slight step down in both complexity and scope which prevents it from scaling those asphyxiating heights again. But he comes damn close, and after all, one step down from LORD OF THE RINGS is still in the 98th percentile of film scoring! Taking all the in-film issues and the weak song into consideration, an argument could be made to deny this product the highest rating. But if you look at the music as presented on album, at the stunning variety of themes and moods, the ferocious voracity of the action music, the seamless way that SHORE slipped back into the sonic world of his magnum opus – it isn’t every day that a score like this rolls around, nor even every year. THE HOBBIT is a fantastic achievement, a worthy chapter in the ongoing musical legendarium of Middle-earth and, for this reviewer, the finest film score of 2012. And the best part? We get two more of these in the next two years!


 

Rating: 10/10


Track

Track Title Track Time  Rating
DISC 1 Disc 1    
1 My Dear Frodo 8:03  *****
2 Old Friends 5:00  ****
3 An Unexpected Party 4:10  ***
4 Blunt the Knives (Cast Song) 1:01  ***
5 Axe of Sword? 5:59  ****
6 Misty Mountains (Cast Song) 1:42  *****
7 The Adventure Begins 2:06  *****
8 The World is Ahead 2:22  ****
9 An Ancient Enemy 4:59  *****
10 Radagast the Brown 6:39  *****
11 The Trollshaws 2:09  ****
12 Roast Mutton 4:58  ***** / **** sp ed.
13 A Troll-Hoard 2:39  ***
14 The Hill of Sorcery 3:51  ****
15 War-Scouts 3:06  *****
  Disc Running Time (approx) 59 minutes  
       

Track

Track Title Track Time  Rating
DISC 2      
1 The Hidden Valley 3:49  ****
2 Moon Runes 3:39  ***
3 The Defiler 1:15  ****
4 The White Council 9:42  ****
5 Over Hill 3:43  *****
6 A Thunder Battle 3:56  *****
7 Under Hill 1:55  *****
8 Riddles in the Dark 5:23  ****
9 Brass Buttons 7:39  *****
10 Out of the Frying Pan 5:55  *****
11 A Good Omen 5:47  *****
12 Song of the Lonely Mountain (Neil Finn) 1:50  **
13 Dreaming of Bag End 1:50  *****
14 A Very Respectable Hobbit (special edition only) 1:21  ****
15 Erebor (special edition only) 1:19  *****
16 The Dwarf Lords (special edition only) 2:01  ****
17 The Edge of the Wild (special edition only) 3:38  ****
  Disc Running Time (approx) 69 minutes  
  Total Running Time (approx) 2 hours 7 minutes  

 

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