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An Expected Journey
on December 11, 2012
I don't know if there ever was film music, save for the sequels to the original 1977 Star Wars, that had as much anticipation attached to it as The Hobbit. Howard Shore created a milestone with Lord of the Rings, and despite the events surrounding Jackson's King Kong, there was no question he would be on board for these films. It is quite possible, and very likely, given his passion for Tolkien, that he was playing with ideas for a possible Hobbit movie ever since he wrapped up The Return of the King.
Should you have asked yourself the question if themes from The Lord of the Rings would appear in The Hobbit, Howard Shore puts it to rest one minute into the album, when a plain string arrangement of the Shire theme appears in "My Dear Frodo", leading into the prologue music after the opening titles. Here, much like in Fellowship of the Ring, several main thematic threads are introduced; the most prominent being the themes for Smaug and the dwarves.
Given the story of the films, it should be no surprise that Shore heavily expands upon the dwarven music from Lord of the Rings. "My Dear Frodo" and "An Ancient Enemy" are the most prominent examples, when the deep male chorus sings out earthshattering expansions of the dwarven harmonies, together with a new, noble theme on french horns for the great dwarf culture. While their theme in Lord of the Rings ("A Journey In The Dark") was ever downward reaching, this theme moves upward in a proud, yet already slightly resigning way. This is a major thematic thread in this score, but of course not the only one. There are themes and motifs abound.
The centre of the score is twofold. One is the theme "Misty Mountains", as already heard in the trailer. Written by Plan 9, it sets J.R.R. Tolkien's poem to music, and is used in a great number of variations by Howard Shore, who often applies, appropriately, dwarvish orchestrations to it. "Over Hill" would be the most complete statement of that theme, and is a true powerhouse of movie music.
The other main identity is Bilbo's theme(s), which can be heard in full form in "Dreaming of Bag-End" and "A Very Respectable Hobbit". "Dreaming Of Bag-End" takes the idyllic, beautifully simple, tonal harmonies of the Shire music, and adds a simply sublime melody that achieves exactly what it should: it feels warmly familiar and is yet different, depicts Bilbo's longing for his home perfectly, and sits comfortably amongst the classic Shire music from Lord of the Rings. It won't take long until you feel like you always knew that theme. "A Very Respectable Hobbit" is sort of a variation on that, and is used to great effect for example in "The World Is Ahead".
These two themes would be enough to warrant the waiting time for the score, but there is more. The opening music in "My Dear Frodo" reappears at the end of "A Good Omen", acting as a wonderfully lyrical musical bookmark, to open and end the film.
There is a short but poignant motif for Gandalf, opening "Radagast the Brown", followed by haunting boys' choir, and a swirling theme for Radagast. The orcs of the Misty Mountains get a sound similar in tone to the orcs in Return of the King, but more mischievous, with lots of fluttertongue brass, and a short 3/6 notes motif. The 5/4 rhythm is back, constantly changing with 3/4 to create an absolutely exhilarating pace for "Under Hill" and "Brass Buttons", the latter complete with deep male grunting, not unsimilar in style to "The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum". There is also a characteristic short motif for the wargs. And quite a few themes are introduced here that would later become important in Lord of the Rings: Concerning Hobbits, Rivendell, Gollum's themes, Sauron's theme, some Mordor motifs, Nature's theme for the eagles and also the History of the Ring theme, which gets some fantastic variations in "Riddles In The Dark".
The special edition soundtrack also adds "A Very Respectable Hobbit", "Erebor" and "The Dwarf Lords", which are thematic presentations of those themes. These are certainly major highlights on the album, even if they are short. "Erebor" is as adventurous as adventure music gets, spine chilling. In general, the tone of An Unexpected Journey is thoroughly more lighthearted and spirited than any of the Lord of the Rings films, since The Hobbit is a more lighthearted movie, so don't expect highly dramatic music like "The Breaking of the Fellowship". Don't be afraid, the music doesn't skimp with emotional highlights in all its splendour, but it puts a smile on your face instead of leaving you an emotional wreck. Howard Shore adresses the lighter nature of the film. The Hobbit music is more bouncy, the chorus airier and there is an overall more "active" quality about the music, adding more flourishes.
The album includes "The Song Of The Lonely Mountain", written and performed by Neill Finn, member of Plan 9. As brilliant as the score is, so dissapointing is this song. It is, to me, wholly absurd that Howard Shore, who won no less than 3 Academy Awards for Lord of the Rings (amongst them Best Original Song) was not put in charge of writing the movie's closing song. While for Fellowship of the Ring, Shore was at least Enya's orchestrator, he had no hand in this song. The end result is a jarring juxtaposition that doesn't mesh at all with the rest of the album. Middle-Earth is defined by Howard Shore, it doesn't fit a song chanting "ayayayaaaah".
From the very first second, An Unexpected Journey softly draws you into Middle-Earth by tones both familiar, yet unfamiliar, and it is simply wonderful, comforting and breathtaking at the same time to hear how Howard Shore continues to write his Middle-Earth opera, completely unimpressed and unhindered by changes and developments that took place in film music in the last 10 years, not caring about possibly being ineligible for Awards because of use of established material, seemingly driven exclusively by his own inspiration and his own ideals. For many, this music should define the term "swimming against the current". If there was a suspicion that the expansion of the films would result in a slower or less interesting score, Howard Shore puts them to rest.
Special mention must be made of the presentation of the score. For maybe the first time in history, a film score gets this kind of treatment upon initial release, with two discs full of music on both versions. It is, however, contrary to the Amazon description, NOT the full score from the film. Recording sessions continued after the soundtrack was finished. I would say 85 % is presented here. Included are also liner notes by Doug Adams, who already did incredible work on the LotR Complete Recordings and the book "The Music of The Lord of the Rings", describing the musical thoughts in the score, and revealing passages from the choir lyrics. The packaging of the special edition is a catastrophe though. It's a cardboard foldout with sleeves for both discs. It is damn near impossible to pull them out without leaving fingerprints.
The special edition of this score includes expanded tracks, most notably "Radagst The Brown" and "The White Council", including more Necromancer and Rivendell variations. "Roast Mutton" is not only expanded on the special edition, it is also an alternate to the regular OST version. Because of these expansions, the bonus tracks and the liner notes, it is a good idea to buy the deluxe version.
It is important to realise that Howard Shore did not reinvent the music of Lord of the Rings, he expanded it. And that was exactly his task from the beginning. You don't hear a new theme for Rivendell, you'll hear the one from Lord of the Rings. You aren't going to hear new music for Gollum, you'll hear Lord of the Rings. And that is logical because chronologically, The Hobbit sets up the themes for Lord of the Rings. Howard Shore is writing backwards, forwards. And that is fantastic. Because this is a unique opportunity to create the most coherent, thematically complex and enticing film music work of all time. And considering the quality of An Unexpected Journey, I have little doubt that when the third one is released in 2014, it will be exactly that.