By Mikko Ojala
2014 will see the end of an era as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final instalment of the Hobbit trilogy and the last of the movies based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, hits theaters. The film is set to premiere on December 10th in select countries in Europe and on the 17th in the US. Directed by Peter Jackson who also brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen the journey of these films, that began in 2001 with The Fellowship of the Ring, has been a long one spanning now 6 films. These movies have over the years garnered numerous awards and accolades and featured some memorable performances from a strong ensemble cast and had such meticulous attention to detail lavished on every aspect of these films to bring Tolkien’s vision on-screen with highest integrity. The Hobbit films continued more or less the tradition and despite the smaller scope of the original story the scale of the production was no smaller than on The Lord of the Rings, eventually becoming a trilogy of films, nor was the care and passion put into every aspect of the production anything less. Howard Shore’s music is surely among those indelible elements that has followed every step of this epic tale full of hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, goblins and wizards and added its own magic to these movies. All the merits of his well loved and respected scores for The Lord of the Rings hardly need repeating here as they have taken the world by storm and have continued to attract new admirers through the years to this day, becoming modern classics of the genre in their own right.
And now we have finally come to The Battle of the Five Armies the final film and score where the story culminates. The Desolation of Smaug reached its nail biting cliff-hanger both story- and music-wise when after a surreal cat-and-mouse chase with the dwarves inside the cavernous mountain kingdom of Erebor the final ghostly strains of Smaug’s theme propelled the fire breathing dragon towards Lake-Town full of fiery fury and fuming with vengeance and left audiences and fans of film music with a year long wait for the final chapter of the trilogy. For a very ardent fan of Shore’s music for Middle Earth such as myself, two such distinct and strong scores as the more playful and accessible An Unexpected Journey and the moodier and more aggressive The Desolation of Smaug set expectations quite high for The Battle of the Five Armies as I thought about the myriad musical possibilities for a grand resolution not only to The Hobbit’s tale but also to Shore’s sojourn in Middle Earth. Musically the last score of the Hobbit series would have to provide a satisfying conclusion to the adventure of Bilbo Baggins and the 13 dwarven protagonists but also prepare us for The Lord of the Rings with its world shaking events that would later plunge Middle Earth into an even bigger conflict than this battle for the Lonely Mountain would be.
And I am happy to report this new and most likely final Middle Earth score contains all the careful craftsmanship, invention, artistry and attention to detail that were contained in the previous scores but Shore manages to improve on what has come before and writing perhaps the best work of the trilogy. The style and approach seem similar to The Return of the King as the established thematic material from the two other scores is now actively brought together, combined, transformed and developed and reaches a very satisfying musical conclusion. The score is notably bigger, bolder and more aggressive as all the themes literally go to war and Shore gives many of them bristling, furious and pulse-pounding variations. And while the score is big it never misses the smaller quiet and intimate moments that emphasize the characters and their personal journeys. On top of the old themes several new ideas are introduced in this score and they mingle quite naturally with the established leitmotifs in the musically dense storytelling. Another notable and welcome element, the extensive choral work that made The Lord of the Rings so special, makes a return to prominence in this score and the music is full of choral touches large and small.
In The Hobbit trilogy, while the themes are centered around cultures, there is a clear emphasis on individual characters like Thorin, Bard, Tauriel, Gandalf, Daín and of course Bilbo, who all have their personal themes driving the action. This seems to have risen instinctively from Shore’s writing as he assigned different major characters leitmotifs throughout the series. Another notable element in the new score is the extroverted feel to the writing that was already present in The Desolation of Smaug, especially in the action sequences, where the score is infused with style that slightly deviates from its predecessors steering it more toward traditional action and adventure scoring. This score is not afraid to employ everything at the composer’s disposal to heighten the storytelling on different levels now that the story reaches its zenith.
As there is such a wealth of detail and material to go through on the 100+ minutes of the Special Edition of the soundtrack album, it is difficult to know where to start but perhaps it is best to begin at the beginning. And the score really opens with a bang when we are musically plunged head first into Smaug’s attack on Lake-Town in ‘Fire and Water’. The hollow tones of gamelan, Smaug’s instrumental colour of choice, eases us back into Middle Earth and then his themes pulse forth and the composer weaves a brilliant blazing brass battle between these oppressive and ominous musical signatures and the themes for Bard, who comes to heroic prominence in this part of the story. You can hear a new more patently swashbuckling mode of writing that has right from the start becoming prevalent in the score as Bard/Girion and Bard’s own theme exemplify, best noted in the swirling harp and some active flute run figures amid the writing reminiscent of the likes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and John Williams. In the midst of the fire and blaze we hear a panicked version of the skulking Politicians of Lake-Town that followed the Master and Alfrid in the previous film. Shore also reintroduces Bard’s Family theme, heard only in a passing fragment on the The Desolation of Smaug soundtrack, that now soars poignantly in the choir before Smaug’s themes and Erebor theme bring the first track, grand enough to be a finale of a smaller score, to a close. Here however it is just a mere prelude.
‘Shores of the Long Lake’ tackles musically both elves and humans as it brings back the pure lyrical tones of the love theme for Tauriel the wood elf and Kili the dwarf, performed in bitter-sweet settings for woodwinds and cello and finally the beatific chorus intones the crystal clear main melody, a moment of respite before the war is kindled in earnest. A noble yet sombre new theme for Bard and his role as a leader for the bedraggled people of Lake-Town is presented fully formed by the strings and woodwinds that rise with valiant intent until it faces the surprisingly menacing brass version of the music of the Master and Politicians of Lake-Town in opposition to his new forged authority.
Dwarves receive their proper musical entrance in ‘Beyond Sorrow and Grief’ where the once faded grandeur of The House of Durin theme soars in proud male chorus and are joined by the proud Erebor theme. Darker musical elements take soon hold however, Shore continuing here development of another story thread, Thorin’s growing madness and lust for treasure and especially the Arkenstone. Here it is given additional nervous colour by metallic pinprick sharp tread of percussion and keening strings. The growth of this “dragon-sickness”, which is all the more disturbing when the composer illustrates this by using Smaug’s thematic material, is slowly taking more and more hold of the proud dwarf prince, pulsing with insidious obsessiveness through many of the later tracks like ‘Mithril’ and ‘The Clouds Burst’, where it reaches psychotic proportions and its final chilling strains are sung by soprano soloist in ‘To the Death’. It is an inventive transposition of the theme that also allows for Smaug’s music to remain in the palette of the score but also gives a very audible reminder of the draconian origins of Thorin’s madness.
For the culmination of the Dol Guldur plotline the film contains brief appearances to Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman as the three set out to save Gandalf from the dark fortress and face its even darker master (‘Guardians of the Three’). They are again illustrated by the themes of their cultures, Lothlorien and Rivendell themes appearing, the former ethereal as ever and the latter in a new darker more militaristic guise as they do battle with the various iterations of the Necromancer/Sauron material reaching a fierce crescendo in an apocalyptic chant for female chorus and brass forces, recalling Galadriel’s One Ring induced reverie in The Fellowship of the Ring as she reveals her power. Gandalf’s theme is rekindled, woven first into the underscore in weary and strained variations before resurrecting fully in a brief yet beautiful choral moment. Shore even brings back the wicked see-sawing string line that was first introduced for Witch-King’s appearance at Minas Morgul in The Return of the King and turns this into another thematic idea in the Dark Lord’s arsenal. The interplay of the material is dense and fluid, the Wagnerian interpolation of themes and their fragments a joy to hear for a fan of the music of The Lord of the Rings. The cameo of the elven themes is also a noteworthy highlight and I am glad the film allowed Shore to reference them again even though they don’t play a larger role in the rest of the score.
‘The Ruins of Dale’ presents the Lake-Town theme in forlorn rustic violin ending in a new emotional coda on strings presaging the tragedies and brave deeds to come until a wonderful galloping martial reading of the Erebor theme strides to the fore illustrating how the before quite static thematic nucleus of the fanfare is given an active new spin continuing its development from The Desolation of Smaug. The hobbit protagonist Bilbo is again presented by the Shire theme variations and here we hear of him for the first time on solo clarinet, its pensive air lending the situation momentary calm, before the heavy percussive brass march of the Erebor theme continues concluding in a quick setting of Gandalf’s theme bringing wisdom and aid.
Even though Bilbo is the hero of the story, in this film our small protagonist is stranded out of his depth amidst a huge battle. Apart from the above mentioned clarinet version of the Shire theme Shore refrains from using this material in most of the score and it is not until the end we get to hear the full variations on the themes as he returns home to his verdant homeland, a little older but much wiser. Few hints of the gentle music of the Hobbits is sprinkled throughout but they are fleeting instrumental or melodic nods. Bilbo receives also a new “burglar motif” which is actually reworked musical idea hearkening back to the scene in The Desolation of Smaug where Bilbo sneaks the dwarves out of the halls of the elven king through the wine cellars. This suspensefully rhythmic hobbity idea now turns out to represent his invisibility aided burglarious activities and appears prominently in ‘The Thief in the Night’ and ‘There and Back Again’.
The elven king Thranduil and his host march to the Lonely Mountain in ‘The Gathering of the Clouds’ where the lyrical elven theme is transformed into an exotic march, the eastern tinged harmonies and tread of the music full of grim determination. It quickly allies itself with a soaring optimistic reading of Bard’s Family theme and a fantastic bold new fanfare setting of the Lake-Town theme, the composer with seeming ease fashioning yet another confrontation of the darker musical elements for the Woodland Realm from The Desolation of the Smaug and grim but proud Erebor and the House of Durin themes for their first encounter and Thorin’s theme builds tense and unrelenting in the brass as hostilities ensue between the representatives of the two races.
The Hobbit scores contain several call backs to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and ‘Mithril’ contains one of the most beautiful as a luminous and lyrical oboe line is heard, recalling Bilbo bequeathing his mithril shirt to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring just as Thorin makes a gift of the same armour to our small hobbit hero before the music descends into uncomfortable discordant depths with Smaug’s themes again further denoting the growth of dragon-sickness in Thorin’s mind. This is dispelled by an assault of another heroic brass variation of Lake-Town theme propelled by wonderful flurries of notes from flutes that is repelled by a fiery and exciting blast of the House of Durin theme complete with grunting male chorus as the dwarves defend the mountain, conjuring memories of the music of Moria.
The true foe of the men, elves and dwarves is however still marching on the mountain. ‘Bred for War’ these creatures under the command of Necromancer’s lieutenant Azog gather from far and wide to assault Erebor and the Free Peoples. The strident threatening march rhythms supported by a new ominous 4-note brass motif awakens in the orchestra’s depths to denote this danger, the forces of orc stronghold Gundabad. Shore employs very old fashioned writing to depict the villains here, leaving no uncertainty of their presence, continuing along the lines of the previous scores but here the music for Necromancer’s minions, Azog, orcs and countless other horrors is lugubriously heavy, full of metallic blaring voices, pounding unrelenting percussion, screaming brass and sizzling strings and the track encapsulates the musical aesthetic of the villains perfectly. The brief quotes of the soft Woodland Realm theme on chorus are literally drowned in a sea of these cruel musical sounds. Shore adds another specialty instrument to the already extensive collection employed in these scores as the strange hollow drone of didgeridoo burbles underneath these dark musical signatures. These are the themes and sounds Shore pits against the themes of the various races of Free Peoples of Middle Earth on rest of the soundtrack.
New dwarven theme is introduced in ‘The Clouds Burst’ where after Thorin’s maniacal bouts of greed illustrated by Smaug’s themes a hopeful bright horn melody calls out followed by heroically marching strings and percussion as Daín Ironfoot, kinsman of Thorin, arrives with his dwarf army. The main musical battle commences at the end of disc 1 with ‘The Battle for the Mountain’ where Erebor theme charges the musical forces of Dol Guldur ere the long lined and rousing Daín’s theme makes its brilliantly heroic charge galloping in on the brass, strident strings and crashing cymbals and Bard’s themes are explored explosively towards the end of the piece. It is a big standout moment on the soundtrack. But more are on the way.
After Gandalf’s theme thunderously warns of danger blasting out full force in the brass section ‘The Darkest Hour’ sees the dwarven themes beaten into submission as Erebor, The House of Durin and Thorin’s themes all receive readings full of weary tragedy and defeat and soon the track grows from dark string harmonies into a sorrowful piece for full chorus softly chanting ethereal stanzas for the darkest hour of the dwarves and the composer presents a truly affecting, hauntingly beautiful setting of the Lake-Town theme that laments the brave fallen men under Bard’s command.
But ‘Sons of Durin’, the major action highlight of the score, simply resounds with dwarven pride and courage as Shore unleashes a brass supported full male chorus reading of House of Durin and Thorin’s themes followed by the brilliantly aggressive Erebor theme that simply soars above the sizzling cyclical string figures. Erebor theme leads the way and Thorin’s theme becomes a rallying call and builds into a bold brass assault of the dwarven themes before encountering the hammering music of Gundabad orcs and the predatory presto figures of the Warg theme. Simply spectacular!
‘Ravenhill’ reprises briefly the music from An Unexpected Journey for ‘An Ancient Enemy’ when the old enemies, Thorin and Azog, dwarves and orcs, meet in combat, but after facing the harsh and crushing brass of the Gundabad motif develops into a new dwarven choral chant complemented again by the dwarven grunters to add a rougher accent to the music. Tauriel’s and Woodland Realm’s theme’s appear in tense action variants for the elven heroics when they engage in their own combat against Bolg who is depicted by aggressive and abrasive descending thirds figures, the same orcish blaring brass dissonant clusters and savage percussion used also for Azog. Shore treats these enemies as part of a larger whole in his music connecting them both to the orc music and the Necromancer. Tauriel’s own theme struggled in the middle the brutal assault but manages to rise to a yearning lyrical reading before Bolg’s abrasive colours drown her theme. Here the score unexpectedly quiets into an almost mournful reading of the opening woodwind strains of Tauriel’s and Kili’s theme before chthonic growling brass of Dol Guldur takes over the soundscape promising death. As the score draws to a close the music adds the sense of peril and intensifies as the musical fracas becomes more brutal and the stakes grow ever higher.
As Legolas battles Bolg, Thorin and Azog are locked in a fight ‘To the Death’ where pulsating woodwinds and strings propel the two against each other while huge raging brass chords erupt from the NZSO illustrating sheer savagery of the encounter. Percussion, sharp strings and muscular brass charge each other and Thorin’s theme in strained readings meets Azog’s fierce descending thirds motif and the music captures a palpable sense of intense struggle. The score also recalls moments from Desolation of Smaug when Legolas and Bolg fought each other in Lake-Town mirroring their present duel with ever intensifying harsh staccato bursts.
Just as things are turning darker and Azog’s music leers victorious the moment is interrupted at its fierce thunderous apex by a welcome musical ally as Shore brings forth Nature’s Reclamation in all its glory, adding militaristic percussion and string writing underneath the ascending chorus, the tone triumphant and pure. Also reprised is the gorgeous lyrical choral piece for the eagle rescue from An Unexpected Journey where it carried our heroes to safety, here arriving in time to bring aid to the beleaguered armies of the Free Peoples.
As mentioned before the finale of the piece is eerily serene as solo soprano supported by chorus intones what sounds to my ears like a ghostly remnant of Smaug’s theme ere the fateful rising chords so prevalent in Shore’s writing spell an end to the struggle of the deadly enemies when pained statement of Thorin’s theme in the strings erupts into a huge exclamation from the percussion and brass bringing the piece to an earth-shattering conclusion.
In the aftermath of the battle the music mourns the heroes who have fallen. ‘Courage and Wisdom’ opens with what sounds like a familiar ever pervading small motif from The Lord of the Rings, Evil Times, that also there denoted the sorrows that befell the fellowship, and is here developed into a tender and sad lament. But the serene tone of the female choir and bright strings tell us that Thorin the king meets his fate with dignity having redeemed himself on the field of battle as his own theme rises slowly in noble strings full of peace. The elves mourn for the fallen as well and Tauriel’s various thematic ideas mingle with the rueful tones of Thranduil’s and Woodland Realm’s music, the beautifully done development of Tauriel’s theme around the orchestra of particular note here and even a familiar theme from The Lord of the Rings making a very surprising but none the less welcome cameo.
And so Bilbo turns to ‘The Return Journey’ after his adventure. He is not the same hobbit as he was before and Shore illustrates this with new mature tones that bedeck the hints of the Shire theme that melt into a proud reading of the Erebor’s musical material as the kingdom has been hard won but restored, Thorin’s theme honouring the leader of the quest for one last time passing from solo horn to warm strings and choir. Solo horn also takes up Shire theme’s tones again the music swelling slowly in contemplation but never reaches the pluckiness of the older variations as Bilbo is a changed hobbit. And optimistic variation on Gandalf’s theme on mischievous oboe peeks through the orchestra as the pair travels west and final strains of Smaug’s theme, reminder of The House of Durin and hints of History of the Ring theme weave through the calm string writing drawing the piece to a somewhat ominous end, as if recalling all that has happened on the hobbit’s journey.
Shore closes the score both with nostalgia and foreshadowing in ‘There and Back Again’ as he reprises important material pertaining to Bilbo and the most important element tying the two trilogies together, the One Ring. As Bilbo again sees his homeland the warm colour of the old Shire theme returns and the rural reading on solo tin whistle welcomes him back along with the familiar rhythms of the accompaniment figures but Shore reintroduces the Bilbo’s burglar motif referenced in ‘Thief in the Night’, here slightly concerned in style but much more humorous, the tone lighter, perhaps a reference to the auction going on at Bag End. As Bilbo recounts his story in his memoirs the same thoughtful nostalgic strains of the Shire themes but also subtle references of ‘Bilbo’s Song’ from The Return of the King give the music pensive air before the whistle returns trying to catch the pluckier feel of the Shire theme but ever winding down in rumination until it finds a sudden darkness of The History of the Ring appearing in its most traditional guise full of ominous promise before a gentle statement of the pensive setting of the Shire theme brings a hobbit’s tale to a close. The final three pieces of the soundtrack give the trilogy a satisfying and thoughtful ending, never overplaying the finale of this midpoint in the six film story yet giving it emotional resonance, connecting it to what is to come and most of all giving a promise that the story continues, the music bridging the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
‘The Last Goodbye’, an end credits song written by Billy Boyd in collaboration with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh gives a warm send-off to the whole six film endeavour in nostalgic colours that to my ears are somewhat reminiscent of the style of Into the West. Film makers discovered that Boyd who played Pippin in The Lord of the Rings was actually a talented singer when he surprised them during The Return of the King with his performance of ‘The Edge of Night’ on-screen and now the film makers asked him back to write the last closing credits song for the final film in the series. It has a charming folk styled performance with subtle orchestral backing and despite its at times somewhat cloying tones manages better than the previous two songs in the Hobbit trilogy in capturing the emotion and tone of the world of Tolkien and giving the album a warm heartfelt finale.
Yet Shore still has his final word (or note) with ‘Ironfoot’ which really saves the best for the last. The piece presents one final time the new themes of the score in a thematic suite, Daín’s own galloping heroic theme receiving its grandest reading from full orchestra bolstered by Highland pipes, giving the theme a very Scottish colour that adds to the already impressive piece followed by reprise of new dwarven choral battle music. Bard’s yearning and noble leadership theme that was heard especially in the opening half of the score sings passionately on the strings before a surprising appearance of Bilbo’s music where another new variation of the Shire theme is presented in warm yet sombre hues. From there the suite quickly marches into a development of the valiant fanfare of the Lake-Town theme with its new emotionally rising coda and ending in a touching choral elegy of the same theme making this a fitting thoughtful way to round off the score itself.
Personally I have to say Howard Shore’s score for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies delivers on nearly every possible level. It is complex, colourful, emotional and the composer brings all his major themes a full circle and gives almost all of them a proper musical send-off. The way Shore juggles his 30 or more leitmotifs with such ease and assuredness is still a marvel to behold and he has managed to keep the integrity of his writing intact for the most part preserving the sound and feel of his previous scores. I have merely offered a quick overview of some of the thematic intricacies here and personally look forward to delving even deeper into the musical tapestry of this and the other Hobbit scores in the months and years to come as beyond obvious highlights this music truly rewards repeated listens. The fans of the composer, his style and the music of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings will most likely be thrilled by this score which feels familiar yet fresh at the same time. The soundtrack album with its 100+ minute length (90 minutes on the Regular edition) will probably be too long for many casual fans of film music who are not real aficionados of Shore’s work for Middle Earth but I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this to any fan of epic fantasy music as this is it at its best. I found that the musical programme offered enough variety and changes of dynamics to be thoroughly engaging and despite there being an increased amount of intense and big battle music in this score, it never overpowers the listener as the smaller intimate moments offer counterbalance to the often unrelenting action. The performance of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Conrad Pope and the London Voices is as strong as in the last score although I felt the mixing seemed to favour bass regions and unnecessary wetness to the detriment of some of the details in the densely layered music.
In my opinion the score won’t top any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy nor it is meant to but works brilliantly on its own and as a bridging chapter between the two trilogies and provides a satisfying finale to The Hobbit with its mix of grandeur and intimate. The music of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is truly worth celebrating as an individual achievement and especially as part of a grand 6-part music tapestry, which will surely be Shore’s greatest musical legacy. This score is an undoubted winner from maestro Shore, one of the best scores of the year and comes most heartily recommended.
The soundtrack album again comes out in two editions, The Regular and the Special Edition. The latter offers extended tracks with additional music and two bonus tracks ‘The Dragon-Sickness’ from The Battle of the Five Armies and ‘Thrain’, which was written for the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug. For a fan of Shore’s work on these films these are welcome additions but to casual fans certainly not as essential as the music in the main programme of the soundtrack.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is out now from Decca Records (Europe) and Watertower Music (United States)