Pastoral folk or Wagnerian metal – which music best suits Tolkien?

In the last few posts I’ve been exploring the way J R R Tolkien subverted twentieth century literature, creating a whole new form of fantasy – and why The Lord Of The Rings in particular was such a runaway success. Today I’m wrapping the series up with a few thoughts on the way people reacted emotionally – through music.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

Tolkien himself worked with composer and pianist Donald Swann – the musician half of the Flanders and Swann comedy duo – to put some of the many songs from his imaginarium to music, notably ‘The Road Goes Ever On’.

But he wasn’t the only one. In 1968, Swedish composer Bo Hansson wrote a whole album – Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings. It basically pioneered the prog-rock concept album, though it wasn’t released outside Sweden for several years. The music was instrumental, largely built around some astonishing tone colours and sounds that Hansson was able to extract from a Hammond B3 electric organ.

In many respects it was of its time, a product of the way the youth generation of the 1960s questioned their world. Today I find it almost unlistenable. But when I heard it in the 1970s I thought it amazing. Looking back, I think Hansson had – conceptually, through music – captured the intersection between the subculture of his time and Tolkien’s mythos. It wasn’t going to work quite as well a generation later.

Other music based on the book was folk-ish or pastoral, again drawing conceptual inspiration from the world of The Shire. But there was far more to LOTR than that. The deeper side of Tolkien’s mythos demanded a different interpretation – darker, more powerful – which emerged in the form of heavy metal during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from Germany and Scandinavia where Tolkien infused material and related fantasy-driven music became a whole sub-genre dubbed, predictably, ‘heavy mithril’. The pattern was set by the German prog-metal band ‘Blind Guardian’. This is their Nightfall in Middle Earth:

This – and a lot of what followed – was music of Wagnerian proportion in blending brutally heavy metal with orchestra and choir, creating monolithc sound-scapes, all steeped in the same Scandinavian tradition that had influenced Tolkien in the first place. The lyrics were often studded with Tolkien references – typified by Nightwish’s  Wishmaster, where there were explicit call-outs to Lorien and Elbereth.

To me this broad musical response to Tolkien captured the reality of his imaginarium, with its layers of meaning – and particularly the dissonance of the pastoral, homely Hobbits set against huge and heroic symbols of deeper mythology. Pastoral folk-rock or Wagnerian heavy metal? Both are appropriate for Tolkien’s world, I think.

Your thoughts?

This series wraps up with the next and final post – watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


11 thoughts on “Pastoral folk or Wagnerian metal – which music best suits Tolkien?

  1. Just on a tangential note: why in God’s name did they sack Tarja? (As Nightwish did moments after that concert in Helsinki.)

    When I read LOTR in the early 80s it coincided with me hearing Jethro Tull’s The Broadsword and the Beast for the first time. To me that album, particularly side two, comes close to being a rock soundtrack to the novel with its folk/synthesised/rock arrangements and Ian Anderson’s nasally vocals.

    1. They did, didn’t they. A lot of those songs were written for her voice (certainly someone with operatic training and an enormous range) so it’s only since picking up Floor Jansen that they’ve been able to do proper renditions as far as I can see. Apropos Tull – I agree. Their sound definitely fits Middle Earth. Same cultural core I suspect. Good stuff – I am a Tull fan from way back…

  2. Oh I love the tag of ‘heavy mithril’!
    Back in the 70s we used to drive home from Christchurch to Nelson in the university holidays, right through the majestic high country that evoked LOTR long before the movies were shot there, and we’d play Bo Hanssen’s album as a soundtrack. Although I felt that Jean Michel Jarre’s music actually captured the atmosphere better with its elfin riffs and driving bass. (I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout music but I know wot I like.)
    I loved barrelling through the Lewis Pass with the stereo blaring in my little red Datsun, on gravel roads in those days…
    Ah yes, I remember reminiscing…

    1. Now I have ‘Oxygene’ going through my head! It’s amazing how music gets associated with events – it’s different for everybody in detail as to which music but the general principle seems to be the same.

  3. For me, very little from rock is suited to LOTR. The closest I’d go is Jethro Tull or perhaps Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” or “The Battle of Evermore.” Perhaps I’m a purist, but I’d always want to hear Celtic music in its many forms in accompaniment with LOTR. It seems to fit the time and the feel much better. As I write this, this is what I’m listening to.

    1. Very cool! Apparently ‘Battle for Evermore’ was directly about Middle Earth. Apparently a lot of Zeppelin has Tolkien themes – the motif of a single voice lifted up above the hubbub emerges not just in LOTR but also in ‘All Of My Love’. And with reason. All good stuff. The fact that Tolkien brings so many different associations, musically, to readers underscores just how many ways we can relate to his work. He really tapped such a deep core of human reality with his writing. I’m hard put to think of another popular writer whose effects were similarly broad.

  4. This is MARVELOUS, Matthew! Thank you for these fantastic finds — especially that last clip of Nightwish, which blew me away. But as much as I enjoy some good Teutonic metal, it seems more suited to the destructive and mechanistic world of the orcs than to Middle Earth. On that score, I’d have to agree with EagleAye in giving Tull or Rush a nod. Or perhaps even Tangerine Dream? The ethereal soundscape they created for the film “Legend” would play beautifully against LOTR, I think.

    But then … what do I know? I’ve yet to read the book(s). They’re on my list, though! You’ve finally made a believer out of me, I think.

    Thank you.

    1. No question that European metal is in the tradition of Wagner! I think that’s why bit dovetails with Tolkien so well. I agree that relates to only aspects of Middle Earth. Folk rock and ethereal soundscapes mesh with other aspects – to me, underscoring the sheer breadth of what Tolkien did and all the levels that engages us on. Did you ever see the 1980s ‘Robin of Sherwood’? Soundtrack by Clannad. A lot of that, to my mind, fits Middle Earth,

      1. … and thusly, Matthew Wright continues to broaden my horizons. No! I’ve not seen “Robin of Sherwood.” But anything with a soundtrack by Clannad is well worth watching, in my book. Thank you, Matthew!

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