THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING – Howard Shore
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
And so, five years after his journey began, Howard Shore’s travels through the musical word of Middle Earth and the spectacular Lord of Rings trilogy comes to an end with The Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking adaptation of the classic fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkein. To say that Shore has come a long way is understatement indeed. Before Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore was “the David Cronenberg guy” who specialized in dark, tortured scores for dark tortured movies. Now, he is the undisputed king of the epic adventure, with the potential to become the benchmark by which all future sword-and-sorcery scores are measured. Before Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore was a well-respected, but largely unheralded member of the film music world. Now, he is a household name, with an Oscar on his mantle, who sells out concert halls worldwide. It’s been one massive ride for the quiet, unassuming Canadian – and with the strength of this final score, his stock can only rise.
The Return of the King, Tolkein’s third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, picks up where The Two Towers left off, with the newly-resurrected Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and his comrades Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) joining forces with the armies of Rohan and Gondor to protect the last vestiges of humanity from the advancing forces of the evil Sauron. Having destroyed Saruman and Isengard with the help of the Ents, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) rejoin their fellows in defending the city of Minas Tirith and the Field of Pelennor from the massed Orc armies. Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue their torturous journey into Mordor in the company of the treacherous Gollum, who wants to take the One Ring back for himself, and will stop at nothing to ensure that his “precious” is not destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom…
To be very blunt, Return of the King is basically more of the same – if you are familiar with, and like either The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, chances are you will feel the same way with this score. The density of the orchestrations, the intensity of the action, the lyricism of the instrumental solos, and the power of the choir is there in abundance once again, as are several themes which re-occur from earlier scores. The first two cues act as almost a reminder to the listener of musical elements from the previous scores – within the first four minutes we hear the theme for the One Ring, Sauron’s theme, the deathly Ringwraith theme, and an understated version of the Fellowship theme in quick succession. This leitmotivic structure is prevalent throughout the score, with these core themes, plus the motifs for the Riders of Rohan (“The Ride of the Rohirrim”), Isengard (“Minas Morgul”), the Shire, the Elven Rivendell and Evenstar themes (“Twilight and Shadow”, the spine-tingling ‘Anduril’), and many others working and weaving their way through the narrative tapestry.
Mixed in with all these familiar elements are a couple of new motifs, most importantly the new themes for Gondor and The Grey Havens. The Gondor theme, heard briefly in the Council of Elrond cue from Fellowship, and predominantly in the film’s trailers, is a powerful, ascending piece for brasses that lends dramatic weight and heroic nobility to the finales of both ‘Minas Tirith’ and ‘The White Tree’. The theme for the Grey Havens first appears, hinted at, in ‘The Black Gate Opens’, before receiving its final, most memorable performance in the conclusive ‘The Grey Havens’, where it develops from a haunting flute motif into a peaceful, warm, full orchestral hymn that segues beautifully into the final song.
As in the previous scores, choirs, vocal performances and featured instrumentalists take center stage at certain points: boy soprano Ben Del Maestro lends the same angelic tones to ‘Minas Tirith’ that he did to ‘A Knife in the Dark’ from the first film; virtuoso soprano Renee Fleming captures perfectly the ethereal beauty of Aragon’s love for Arwen in ‘Twilight and Shadow’; legendary flautist Sir James Galway adds his classical touch to several tracks in the finale, illustrating the important Hobbit role in the chain of events; and former Eurythmics star Annie Lennox follows in the footsteps of Enya and Emiliana Torrini by singing the end credits track, ‘Into the West’. Unusually, actors Billy Boyd and Viggo Mortensen also perform vocals in their respective roles as Pippin and Aragorn – the former in ‘The Steward of Gondor’, imparting an unaccompanied folk melody as he ponders his future, and the latter in ‘The Return of the King’, accompanying his own coronation as King of Gondor with a melody of his own composition.
In addition, there are a couple of individual set pieces worth mentioning. ‘Minas Morgul’ opens with a spellbinding performance of the rhaita – a Moroccan oboe – by soloist Jan Hendrikse, which for all the world sounds like one of the pieces performed by the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Shore’s 1999 score for The Cell. Similarly, the wonderful ‘Shelob’s Lair’ sounds like something from Shore’s dark and distant past, skittering and crawling and generally unsettling the listener with a series of viciously dissonant chords and fast, vibrant, scary action music. The entire finale, from ‘Ash and Smoke’ through to ‘The End of All Things’, is simply awe-inspiring, cross-cutting the massive battles between humans and orcs with Frodo and Sam’s final, desperate attempts to destroy the Ring. War drums pound incessantly, choirs sing to the heavens, the brass thunders, the strings soar, and the Ring desperately tries to save itself with Fleming’s heartbreaking soprano performance – an epic denouement to an epic adventure. The majestic ten-minute ‘The Return of the King’ brings everything to a close – almost every major motif from the entire trilogy is recapitulated here, giving a sense of finality, of hope, of looking to the future with strength and purpose.
Before I heard Return of the King, and considering how excellent both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Towers were, I wondered how Shore was going to top it – and the conclusion is that he hasn’t. He has written their equal – which, looking at the bigger scheme of things, was the right thing to do. Although the “ooh, aah” factor that went with the sense of new discovery in Shore’s first two scores has now gone, the standard of writing has been maintained throughout the series. Tolkein’s vision was split over three movies, but it is still in essence one story, and Shore has scored it as such: one nine hour movie, with a score that utilises themes and motifs across the spectrum, but never seeks to outdo itself or be more than it is. Of course, the finale is grand and reaches operatic, near-religious proportions at times – after all, we are talking about the musical depiction of salvation of life as we know it here – but, ultimately, the conclusion is small and personal. With the final, tender recapitulation of the Celtic Shire theme in ‘The Return of the King’, Shore’s music finally completes its full circle. In the words of Bilbo Baggins’s book, it has gone there, and back again.
It’s interesting to ponder where Howard Shore’s career will go next. He is linked with Peter Jackson’s next movie, ‘King Kong’ and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming biography of Howard Hughes, ‘The Aviator’ – but beyond that, and for the first time in years – he has nothing else on the horizon. No more battles in Gondor. No more treks into Mordor. No more hobbits, or elves, or dwarves. I have a feeling that, no matter what Shore does in the rest of his working life, it will be measured against these scores, and that his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy will be remembered defining musical moment of his career. Whether that will be an inspiration or a millstone remains to be seen: in the meantime, The Return of the King remains a truly remarkable instalment in what has proved to be the first great cinema success story of the 21st Century.
- A Storm Is Coming (2:52)
- Hope and Memory (1:45)
- Minas Tirith (3:37)
- The White Tree (3:25)
- The Steward of Gondor (3:53)
- Minas Morgul (1:58)
- The Ride of the Rohirrin (2:08)
- Twilight and Shadow (3:30)
- Cirith Ungol (1:44)
- Anduril (2:35)
- Shelob’s Lair (4:07)
- Ash and Smoke (3:25)
- The Fields of the Pelennor (3:26)
- Hope Fails (2:20)
- The Black Gate Opens (4:01)
- The End of All Things (5:12)
- The Return of the King (10:14)
- The Grey Havens (5:59)
- Into the West (written by Howard Shore, Fran Walsh and Annie Lennox, performed by Annie Lennox) (5:49)
Running Time: 72 minutes 00 seconds
Reprise/WMG 9362-48609-2 (2003)
Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Voices and The London Oratory School Schola. Orchestrations by Howard Shore. Featured musical soloists Sir James Galway, Dermot Crehan, Ulrich Herkenhoff, Jan Hendrickse, John Parricelli and Edward Cervenka. Special vocal performances by Ben Del Maestro, Renee Fleming, Billy Boyd and Viggo Mortensen. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Jonathan Schultz, Tim Starnes, John Wriggle, Michael Price, Andrew Dudman, Steve Price, Becca Gatrell, Malcolm Fife, Marie Ebbing and Nigel Scott. Mastered by Peter Mew. Album produced by Howard Shore.