"I feel as if I was inside a song"The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

Looking back on this paper, it should have become clear that music indeed is an important part of how Middle-earth works. To sum it up again in a few brief sentences: Of all ways of trading information, preserving cultural identity, passing it on and making it available to other parties not directly partaking in the specific cultural background, music is the one most prevalent and most important in Middle-earth – and presumably the whole of Arda. This stems from music being the foundation from which the physical world is derived: The music of the Ainur (“First Music”) became physical form as per Ilúvatar’s doing. With everything that is and everything that happens foreseen (we might say “composed”) in the First Music, every possible event is part of that music, as such directly linking musical expression into the world. In a world made from music, music naturally is present in and through anything, making music a natural means for all the cultures of Middle-earth to express themselves.

The existence of evil in the world, through Melkor’s doings, adds another layer. Even though Ilúvatar stated that even Melkor’s dissonance was part of His plan, Melkor nevertheless after the creation of Arda was able to – within certain boundaries – follow his own agenda. This is what we might explain as the Free Will; Ilúvatar willingly did not prevent any of His creations to act against His will. Now to explain why even the Valar and Maiar were not able to exactly foresee the unfolding of all future events – even though everything was foreseen in the First Music – we can stay within the terminology of music and apply one of its features to Arda: The creation of the physical world and all the actions the Valar/Maiar went to undertake from then can be likened to a musical performance of a piece. Even though Ilúvatar composed the music, so to speak, the aforementioned free will allowed the Valar and Maiar to interpret it in their unique ways, just like an artist does in a musical performance.

Because music is central to the very core of Middle-earth, all the cultures of Middle-earth possess a rich musical culture (even including Orcs, as we have seen). The Music of Middle-earth seems to be based on the First Music, which in turn is not only present in the physical world (“the sound of water”), but has also been passed on by the Valar themselves to the Elves in the Undying Lands. Their influence now seems to have made the musical cultures of Middle-earth largely compatible to each other because they are ultimately derived from the same source. In both The Lord of the Rings as well as The Hobbit, characters frequently sing songs or pass on messages by means of a song or poem. Some cultures, like the Dwarves, use songs as a means of representation to outsiders. Oral tradition seems prevalent; repeatedly characters express their hopes that their deeds will be “worthy of a song”.

As such, the Tolkien Ensemble’s endeavour to create modern versions of the songs and poems makes perfect sense and actually supports the narrative by giving it back its original medium. The motion picture trilogy for the same reason uses vocal music or parts, but with some exceptions outlined before does not use the original songs and poems. What it does, however, is take certain aspects from the narrative and further explain and extend them by means of a piece of music. Both Gollum’s Song and Into the West are examples of this: They take an aspect, in both cases transcending the boundaries of the film – Into the West refers to the Undying Lands, which are not directly explained in the film; Gollum’s Song speaks about Gollum’s past, which is only very briefly shown – and using music explain this aspect further.

The stage show is in a special situation: Because it by its very nature lives by its music, for its portrayal of a music-based world the medium lends itself naturally. Indeed the stage show stresses some important aspects that are apparent in the book, but not as clearly outlined, namely the use of music as a natural means of communication just as spoken language. The music in the stage show was meant to be the regular day-to-day music of the characters, a part of their life.
Setting Tolkien’s poems to music, or creating poems based on his ideas brings Middle-earth and its inhabitants to life. It allows the tale to become livelier by filling one gap of passing on information: Just like the spoken word of a text forms an important part in bringing across information, so do vocal and instrumental music. To add one more layer to the legends of Arda certainly is something Tolkien would approve of – in fact he did with Swann’s music – especially considering his intention to with his Legendarium create a mythology for the English.