I promised everyone that I would talk a little more Hobbit after the film was in theaters. It's now out in the world breaking records and setting tongues wagging both here and elsewhere, so maybe it's a good time to chime in. In dramatic fashion, then, let's begin back in 2001 ...
In the first act of Fellowship Gandalf and Bilbo sit on a grassy hill in the Shire, enjoying a bit of pipe-weed. After the whistle plays a lovely bit of the Shire theme, violins ascend and, over a C-major chord, resolve a mild Lydian dissonance: F#-G -- and presto, we're off to Bilbo's birthday party.
In the first Hobbit film we also see Bilbo with his pipe, and once again he blows a smoke ring that drifts across the screen. This time however, the ring holds in the center of the shot right. Now the orchestra is in D-major and the whistle rises along with the strings on the same figure we heard in Fellowship: D-G-B; E-A-C#-E; C#-E ... and as the title come up the same mild Lydian dissonance emerges: G#-A.
The dissonance in The Hobbit is more pronounced than it was in Fellowship. It's in a higher key; it begins with a subito piano; the resolution is delayed by a few extra beats. But most importantly, it means something different this time. Bilbo's prophetic line ("... and nothing unexpected ever happened") coupled with the ring imagery has redefined the G#-A. In Fellowship it was a bucolic cadence. In The Hobbit, it's an unmistakable movement from the sharp fourth of the chord to the fifth. It is a veiled reference to The History of the Ring theme.
That's the funny thing with film music -- there's always a film to consider. In this case, the film allowed Howard Shore to slightly reshape a musical phrase, yet impart something completely different. Lydian harmonies are traditionally used to represent something wondrous and almost supernaturally beautiful. It's in E.T.'s theme. It's the Christ theme from Ben-Hur. Heck, Beethoven used it in his fifteenth string quartet, in a movement he began with the words: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" ("A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity"). But here in The Hobbit, it's chilling. It's a harbinger -- a reminder that this "simple" little story is headed down a dark path. Shore uses a subtle combination of modulation, orchestration, phrasing, and imagery to redefine a musical phrase that is over a decade old. Does that now mean that we go back to Fellowship and hear that phrase differently? No, the F#-G in Fellowship still means the same thing it always did -- but then that's part of the whole game, too. It that weren't such a pure, lovely phrase, then the chill it acquires in The Hobbit wouldn't be quite as effective.
And of course, there's the whole issue of the timeline. Technically, the Hobbit's use of this theme would occur just slightly before Fellowship's, right? This is, of course, speaking strictly as part of Tolkien's timeline of events. But as a piece of storytelling, where does it fit? If you imagine a massive six-score listening marathon a few years from now (wow!), what order do you approach it in? The Hobbit is sort of nestled inside Fellowship -- it's neither strictly before or after. I think that's a brilliant choice because it doesn't bind the creators to either working backward or forward. Rather, The Hobbit exists in its own little narrative bubble.
This requires some nonlinear thinking from listeners because musical material is going to be developed in a very different way. Sometimes familiar themes and phrases are treated as call-backs, sometimes as introductions. And sometimes they mean something new. The Hobbit is just as narratively/motivically driven as Rings was, but the narrator is not meant to be quite so invisible this time out. Sometimes he simply tells the tale, sometimes he tips his hat in acknowledgement because he knows that we understand the deeper meaning of something. Sound familiar? This was Tolkien's own approach to writing The Hobbit. His narrator didn't fall back on an understanding on The Lord of the Rings, of course; it didn't yet exist. But he could, at times, address the reader directly and give them credit for comprehending things beyond the borders of the page. When Shore quotes A Hobbit's Understanding in this new score, part of this theme speaks directly to the moment, while another part of it speaks to a listening audience that understands how this resonants against what we have already heard.
That said, there are a couple of themes in The Hobbit: AUJ that have people scratching their heads. Well ok, some people are scratching their heads, some are crying bloody murder and calling for the reinstatement of the Spanish Inquisition. This puts me in a tricky spot because I inevitably feel compelled to explain these things, however I'm not always going to be allowed to tell you everything right away. I started my public work on The Lord of the Rings with the Complete Recordings. The films were out and people had heard most of the music in one form or another. It was a nice, easy way for me to break into all this because I could say anything I wanted to. I couldn't really give anything away. Sure, I held on to a few surprises, but nothing heavy. This time, I'm involved while the movies and scores are being created. There were a good number of thematic connections I couldn't even describe in the liner notes, because those connections would give away plot elements from the next two pictures. I received a lot of notes from the studio -- and you know what, they were very intelligent notes! Edits and rewrites are a part of every creative endeavor; they always have been, they always will be. I owe the people at the studio a huge debt because they trusted me to make contemplative music theory a part of a mass-marketed mega-release. That took a lot of faith! The Complete Recordings were (and are) a huge hit, but they appeal to a very specific niche market. The Hobbit: AUJ is more on the level of a pop album in terms of its wide appeal. I still can't believe they let me open up a discussion on modes, tonalities, clusters, music examples, etc. I even worked two classical music in-jokes/references into the liners ... I'm not sure if anyone has found them yet. One's pretty obvious.
Suffice it to say, the score in the film is, by and large, exactly what Shore put on the page. For the most part, this is the score I heard when I first watched/heard the film. I loved it then, and I love it now. To me, it's the perfect return to Middle-earth, every bit as carefully shaped and considered as our beloved Rings scores. I know people discovered some alternate compositions en route, but take it from someone who has dedicated huge amounts of time and energy into researching alternate music from Middle-earth: this is all just part of the process. And those 'head-scratcher' moments that I've already received several hundred emails about? Yep, they're considered, too. And they mean things. Some of those things I can't talk about yet ... meaning I'm still not allowed! Anyway, I'm extremely glad that we have some puzzling going on around here! We've been so well-informed for the past few years, it's actually pretty invigorating to have to stumble around a bit.
That said, as some of you have noticed, I have asked someone to step in and moderate comments. It is always ok to question things. However, accusations, demands, assumptions, and expressions of entitlement can get pretty unattractive. I've said before that I consider my work on these projects to essentially be a musical performance. I'm not a writer, I'm a musician. I just happen to be performing on a laptop, but it's still a form of musical expression as far as I'm concerned. I need to come at that process from a positive place, so I've asked someone to temporarily keep house so that shouting doesn't crowd out my headspace. I know, what a diva, huh? :) This will not be a permanent change. Let's just all take a deep breath, ok? Spoilers for The Hobbit: AUJ are now officially permitted. Unpleasantness still isn't.
Here, by way of making it up to you, a little bit of a hint. The music of Azog has caused something of a stir this weekend. Why does his last scene in the film include music we've previously associated with Mordor? I can't fully answer that question, but I can lead you a bit: Azog's primary theme is a descending pair of thirds (G-Eb-F-D) with a chromatic snap at the end (Eb-D-Db). Musically, Azog has a connection to Mordor's musical world from his first appearance on. His final scene is very much in line with this approach. Why this consistent connection? We shall see ...
And you thought I was kidding when I said we had a long journey ahead of us!