Home > Reviews > THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG – Howard Shore


December 15, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

thehobbitdosOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The second film in Peter Jackson’s new Middle Earth trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is The Desolation of Smaug; it picks up immediately where the first film in the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, left off last year, with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) journeying to the ancient dwarf stronghold of Erebor in the company of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), dwarfish king-in-waiting Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and his band of adventurers, to take back their homeland from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Along way, however, the heroic company must traverse any number of dangers, including vicious orcs, unfriendly elves, a treacherous forest, and the inhabitants of an impoverished lake town in the shadow of the lonely mountain. Meanwhile, much to Gandalf’s consternation, the shadowy threat of a mysterious necromancer continues to grow, looming large over all of Middle Earth, and threatening its long-lasting peace. The film is a significant improvement over the first installment, eschewing some of its comic action material and embracing a more serious tone that befits a story that touches on much more adult themes involving obsession and corruption. It’s visually spectacular, of course (although the orc leader Azog still looks like a bad video game rendering), has a wonderful supporting cast that includes Stephen Fry, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans and a returning Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and – most importantly from this website’s point of view – sees Howard Shore returning to Middle Earth for the fifth time as composer.

Much was made prior to the score’s release of the fact that, for the first time in the series, Shore delegated some of his tasks to others, passing the conductor’s baton to Conrad Pope, and giving orchestration duties to Pope and his associate James Sizemore. The slightly hysterical fears some had that this would “ruin” the score are entirely unfounded. Conrad Pope is as capable a conductor and orchestrator as he is a superb composer in his own right, and The Desolation of Smaug fits seamlessly within Middle Earth’s universe with no change in quality in the slightest. Thankfully, the terrible re-tracking and leitmotivic inappropriateness of parts of the first Hobbit score also seem to have been fixed this time round; The Desolation of Smaug feels ‘complete’ in a way that An Unexpected Journey did not, with all the thematic correctness that implies.

The music in The Desolation of Smaug sits at an unusual juncture in the series’ timeline, in that it acts as a bridge, referencing and building upon themes established in the first Hobbit film, and foreshadowing themes which appear later, chronologically, in the Lord of the Rings scores, while introducing new themes for new characters and locations unique to this film. As a result, Shore’s score is massively dense, compositionally complicated, and thematically rich. As was the case with all his other entries, there is nary a moment where Shore is not making a thematic statement of one theme, motif or another, expanding his enormous musical tapestry even further, although it has to be said that the themes in The Desolation of Smaug are not as plainly obvious as they are in other scores. Understanding all the musical complexities of this score takes time, effort and intellect, but is massively rewarding when you do.

One thing listeners will notice immediately upon listening to The Desolation of Smaug is the complete disappearance of the Misty Mountains theme which dominated the score for An Unexpected Journey. Intellectually one could say that this is because the traveling company is no longer physically in the Misty Mountains in this film, but Shore tended to use this theme as a leitmotif for the heroic actions of the dwarves themselves rather than for the actual location, and as such its total disappearance in this score is a little disappointing. Also missing is the quirky, scatterbrained theme for Radagast the Brown, despite him playing a fairly important role here, as well as the Hugo-esque theme for “Gandalf’s mischievousness’.

However, long-time Lord of the Rings listeners will be delighted to note that several established themes do make guest appearances. The snaky, sinister One Ring theme is hinted at in the brooding, oppressive “Mirkwood” before revealing itself halfway through “Flies and Spiders”, and later during “Feast of Starlight”, in moments when Bilbo is playing with his newly-acquired golden trinket. The Shire theme gets an unexpected, tender outing in “The Courage of Hobbits”, while the brutal brass theme for the orc leader Azog and his band of Warg-Riders appears during both “Wilderland” and the aforementioned “Flies and Spiders”, which is one of the score’s standout action sequences. The Necromancer, whose ominous presence lurks over the entire film, sees his terrifying descending motif re-appear during “The High Fells”, while his nightmarish, revelatory appearance in “A Spell of Concealment” is underscored by savage performances of both his theme and Sauron’s theme from Lord of the Rings, playing in deafening counterpoint to each other, and is quite wonderful.

Probably the most important new themes in The Desolation of Smaug are the ones for Tauriel, the heroic she-elf from Mirkwood, and the related theme for The Woodland Realm, which acts as a leitmotif for the sylvan kingdom as a whole, and for Legolas specifically when he embarks on various acts of gravity-defying heroism as the score progresses. Tauriel’s theme first appears as a flashing five-note fanfare towards the end of “Flies and Spiders”, and appears in many cues thereafter. There’s a lovely, soft variation for oboes towards the end of “The Woodland Realm”, and a fuller and richer expansion in the subsequent “Feast of Starlight” to highlight her unexpected romantic attraction with the dwarf Kili which is really quite beautiful, especially when the beatific tones of a boy soprano enter the piece half way through.

The Woodland Realm theme could be seen as a variation of the sound Shore established for the elves from Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings; it re-uses the angelic, softly cooing vocal performances heard for the other elves, but combines it with a tinkling cimbalom and lightly tapped percussion in cues such as the aforementioned “The Woodland Realm” to give it a slightly more rustic feel.

thehobbitdos-specialThe fanfare version of Tauriel’s theme gets a thorough workout in the show-stopping “The Forest River”, a massive, thrusting action sequence which boils and churns with relentless string ostinati, fulsome brass triplets, and a flute line which flits in and out of the piece at a speed that is absolutely sensational. Similarly, the Legolas variation of the Woodland Realm theme re-occurs frequently during many of his action moments, notably during the aforementioned “The Forest River”, where his theme and Tauriel’s theme often play in majestic call-and-response counterpoint to each other, and in the adventurous, exciting “The Hunters”, where he almost single-handedly thwarts an attack on Laketown by a band of marauding orcs.

The city of Laketown has a sense of faded austerity, of something once grand that has now gone to seed, its glorious past and formerly noble citizens buried under the ash of dragon fire and stench of fish, and this is reflected in its music. The secretive ferryman Bard has his own theme that first appears in “Bard, A Man of Laketown”, a shadowy little motif that acknowledges his presence but reveals little of who he is. Both “Protector of the Common Folk” and “Thrice Welcome” feature a pompous little march augmented by a tinkling harpsichord, capturing the self-importance but terrible ineffectiveness of its crotchety Master, while “Durin’s Folk” features a subtler, slightly more introspective variation during its opening moments.

As the score reaches its conclusion, the noble themes for Thorin Oakenshield and the House of Durin begin to assert themselves much more prominently, as the proud heritage of the dwarves and their quest to regain their home becomes this film’s most pressing issue. Dignified, solemn performances of the themes feature strongly in “Durin’s Folk”, the subsequent “In the Shadow of the Mountain”, and the emotionally-charged “On the Doorstep”, during which Thorin’s theme gets the full choral treatment as he finally crosses the threshold into his ancestral home. This is counterbalanced by the re-emergence of the theme for Smaug himself, which was hinted at briefly in the first score and received hushed, hidden, insidious performances in several earlier cues here, but really comes into its own during the final quarter of the score. Gamelan gongs, soft chimes and cymbals, alien-sounding metallic percussion, and twisted, snake-like string phrasing heralds the first full appearance of the legendary lizard in “The Courage of Hobbits” and “Inside Information”, and continues on through the more orchestrally aggressive “A Liar and a Thief”, the boldly exciting “Smaug” and the apocalyptic “My Armor is Iron” as Bilbo and the dwarf company matches wits with their massive, scaly adversary. This last cue is especially impressive, as both Smaug’s theme and the most heroic statements of Thorin’s theme lock horns, back and forth, in a massive battle of fire and metal.

As was the case with the first Hobbit film and all the others in the series, there is an original song – “I See Fire”, written and performed by the popular British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, which plays over the first section of the film’s closing credits. I have to admit I really like the song: its lyrics are appropriate as they pertain to Smaug, the dwarves, and inhabitants of Laketown as they watch the developments on their nearby mountain from afar, and there is a certain poetic quality about its theme of remembrance and anticipation. The instrumental choices Sheeran makes, growing from solo guitar to a larger ensemble as it develops, are also very appealing, and I can see it picking up an Oscar nomination in the New Year. The score returns to conclude the album on a high note with an end credits piece, “Beyond the Forest”, which presents lovely, ethereal versions of both Tauriel’s theme and Tauriel and Kili’s love theme.

What Howard Shore is achieving through his Lord of the Rings music, and now through these Hobbit scores, is nothing short of remarkable – a truly immersive world of music which follows a strict leitmotivic design, but is fluid enough to introduce themes for new characters, places and concepts as each new film requires, without compromising the integrity of the work as a whole. While the music in The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t have the crowd-pleasing memorability of some of the other works in the series, while doesn’t have as much choral bombast as previous entries, and while the inherent darkness of many of the themes and performances may be off-putting to some who need more lightness in their music, its intellectual design is utterly flawless, and its orchestration is consistently interesting. This is one of the scores of the year.

Note: This review concentrates mainly on the ‘standard’ 2-CD set of the score, but mention should also be made of the special edition expanded version, which contains an additional 15 minutes of music, features extended and in some cases alternate versions of several cues, and includes one bonus track, “A Necromancer”.

Buy the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Quest for Erebor (3:23)
  • Wilderland (4:56)
  • The House of Beorn (3:42)
  • Mirkwood (4:28)
  • Flies and Spiders (7:51)
  • The Woodland Realm (4:27)
  • Feast of Starlight (2:49)
  • Barrels Out of Bond (1:50)
  • The Forest River (4:54)
  • Bard, A Man of Laketown (2:30)
  • The High Fells (2:37)
  • The Nature of Evil (3:20)
  • Protector of the Common Folk (3:35)
  • Thrice Welcome (3:33)
  • Girion, Lord of Dale (3:33)
  • Durin’s Folk (2:28)
  • In the Shadow of the Mountain (2:15)
  • A Spell of Concealment (2:51)
  • On the Doorstep (7:46)
  • The Courage of Hobbits (3:00)
  • Inside Information (3:48)
  • Kingsfoil (2:25)
  • A Liar and a Thief (3:41)
  • The Hunters (9:04)
  • Smaug (5:24)
  • My Armor Is Iron (5:16)
  • I See Fire (written and performed by Ed Sheeran) (5:00)
  • Beyond the Forest (5:25)
  • The Quest for Erebor (3:22)
  • Wilderland (4:56)
  • A Necromancer (2:54)
  • The House of Beorn (4:52)
  • Mirkwood (5:31)
  • Flies and Spiders (9:35)
  • The Woodland Realm (5:14)
  • Feast of Starlight (2:48)
  • Barrels Out of Bond (1:50)
  • The Forest River (5:10)
  • Bard, A Man of Laketown (3:18)
  • The High Fells (3:38)
  • The Nature of Evil (3:20)
  • Protector of the Common Folk (3:35)
  • Thrice Welcome (3:33)
  • Girion, Lord of Dale (4:15)
  • Durin’s Folk (3:04)
  • In the Shadow of the Mountain (2:15)
  • A Spell of Concealment (3:22)
  • On the Doorstep (7:46)
  • The Courage of Hobbits (3:00)
  • Inside Information (3:48)
  • Kingsfoil (2:25)
  • A Liar and a Thief (3:41)
  • The Hunters (9:55)
  • Smaug (6:29)
  • My Armor Is Iron (5:16)
  • I See Fire (written and performed by Ed Sheeran) (5:00)
  • Beyond the Forest (5:25)

Running Time: 111 minutes 13 seconds – Regular Release
Running Time: 129 minutes 48 seconds – Expanded Release

Watertower Music WTM-39488 (2013) – Regular Release
Watertower Music WTM-39489 (2013) – Expanded Release

Music composed by Howard Shore. Conducted by Conrad Pope. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and James Sizemore. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Steve Gallagher and Jonathan Schulz. Album produced by Howard Shore.

  1. December 16, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Great review! Agree entirely about it being less flashy than the previous four scores but no less rewarding.

    I’d love to find out which cues are ‘alternate’ on the standard album, as I’ve only got the expanded version. I remember being shocked last year just how different the Roast Mutton cue was, and made sure to buy that track separate to add to the collection.

    I actually think the standard version MIGHT be the preferred version here if there aren’t any major thematic beats missing, as this album suffers just a bit from being long and a touch over-stuffed.

  2. December 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Great and detailed review Jon. I agree with you on this one. I think it is an improvement over the previous score. It feels like it flows better as a listen, and I love the variety of styles (and Shore’s ability to keep it all in his LOTR sound). The Smaug music in the second half blew me away when I first heard it. Those Gamelan gongs are something else. i had the tracks playing on my home theater sound system and it was very impressive. While I’ve seen some folks commenting on how there were fewer highlights in this score, I don’t agree. They are just a different type of highlight, not the typical action music or beauty pieces that we got in the previous scores. Makes this one a feel kind of refreshing. As for the song, well it’s not a bad pop song. Lyrics fit the story well enough, but the music doesn’t feel like a fit for the world. In some ways it reminds me of the J-pop songs in anime end credits. Most of them are catchy enough, but don’t really fit with the rest of the score. It doesn’t fill me with hatred (like some folks), but it’s not something I feel the need to revisit as often as the rest of the score.

  3. December 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    I friggin love this! A great review by a highly intelligent individual.

    Personally, I thought Tauriel’s theme was a little too dramatic, the suddenness of the fast notes I found somewhat off putting, but I still love her character nonetheless.

    With the amazing soundtrack for Moria established in The Fellowship of the Ring, I absolutely love what Shore has done with the dwarves. However, I can not believe I didn’t pick up on the absence of the Misty Mountains theme! You’re so right, I felt like something was missing. I hope to see it return in the next installment.

    But hands down my favourite theme in The Desolation of Smaug has to be the reveal of Sauron. Terrifying, deafening and intense, it was wonderfully reminiscent of the Rings trilogy and a frightening reminder of The Necromancer’s power.

    The only thing I wish Shore would have done was give us a memorable tune, as you stated. I spent the past year humming the Misty Mountains theme, and singing the Man in the Moon drinking song under my breath on a night out. But Ed Sheeran’s song surely satisfies my want of a good tune.

    Excellent review!

  4. Haravikk
    January 10, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    While I agree almost unreservedly about the scoring of the film, I cannot agree at all about “I See Fire” at the end of the film; the song was unbelievably jarring and inappropriate given the final scene of the film, and it’s just awful.

    So yeah, love the scoring of the film, and I didn’t mind Song of the Lonely Mountain at the end of the first Hobbit film, but “I See Fire” just wasn’t as good. I’ve heard a few better covers of it since, such as one by Anaria, though none that would have been any more appropriate. The end of the film really begged either credits starting to roll to silence, or something really brooding, not what we got. It actually spoiled the final scene for me.

  5. muggle
    January 28, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Hats off to you, sir! You have summed up my opinion entirely; especially on Tauriel’s theme and few tracks with it 🙂

  6. Cassie
    January 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    There is a flute motif in Tauriel and Kili’s theme that I swear also appears in LOTR but I can’t quite place it, any suggestions?

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