Saturday, January 26, 2013

Music of Middle Earth: The March of the Ents

If the success of a romance like The Lord of the Rings in the postmodern 20th century is not surprising enough, consider the love of Tolkien's songs and poems therein. Beloved by Tolkien and Middle Earth aficionados, the songs showcase not only the author's wordsmith craft but also his affection for words. Yet they're no artist's conceit because they add veracity and authenticity to the larger narrative, enshrining the deeds of Middle Earth not just in history but in lore.

Many of Tolkien's songs have been set to music and in this series I would like to compare some interpretations. So to start, The March of the Ents, from The Two Towers.

We come, we come with roll of drum: ta-runda runda runda rom!
We come, we come with horn and drum: ta-runa runa runa rom!
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be stong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars - we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
The Two Towers. Ch. Treebeard

The March of the Ents. Stephen Olivier. 1981.

Here we have the whole of Tolkien's Entish war song thrummed out by a chorus of basses over a walking bass line. Probably the most faithful to the simple spirit of the story, this version itself derives its considerable effect from simple means.  The deep, earthy basses are a natural fit for the Ents and the bass line, aside from mirroring the march of the Ents, provides a sense of motion under the strophic, hymn-like phrases of the text. The syllabic and almost staccato treatment of the words brings out the hard-hitting consonants of Tolkien's thumping battle hymn. Lastly, the dynamics give a terrible urgency to the fury of the Ents:
For bole and bough are burning now,
the furnace roars - we go to war!
The Ents' Marching Song. The Tolkien Ensemble. 2006.

Here, the drums with their wild rhythms create a scene of primeval danger. The ensemble here remains quite faithful to the text, deriving the rhythms from Tolkien's words. They do, however, insert a dramatic scene voiced by beloved Tolkien enthusiast and performer Christopher Lee in which Sir Christopher, presumably as Treebeard, shouts rousing commands to the marching Ents. This trick opens up the music from a simple song to a scene of action. The following brassy fanfares play up the martial theme until the bass voices return with the text. The opening and Sir Christopher's monologue are the highlights.

Isengard Unleashed. Howard Shore. 2002.

Consistent with the Wagnerian dimensions of Shore's score, the war song of the Ents is nested within the Battle of Helms Deep. Like Olivier's piece, Shore begins with bass rumblings, however he quickly builds to a small rhythmic figure which, in contrast to a simple walking bass, creates a more specifically martial theme. Next, however, Shore makes a radical departure from Tolkien and Olivier and, with both text and music, paints the scene from a third person perspective. No longer do we hear the Ents themselves sing of their tale in the making, no longer a muscular war song, rather we hear high soft voices narrate in the Elvish tongue. Shore paints the image of a people rising from an ancient slumber with a long, melismatic, conjunct line culminating in a crescendo and the entry of a solo boy soprano high above, fulfilling and releasing the musical tension and completing the narrative of the Ents' attack.

Lastly, let us hear from The Professor himself.

Shore's interpretation stands out certain for complexity and for its departure from the text, but I would argue it is quite successful. The version from Olivier and The Tolkien Ensemble are admirably faithful but still vivid and engaging interpretations. Are there any other noteworthy versions or performances we overlooked?

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