Tolkien Songs

Warren Mars JRR Tolkien

Warren Mars & Ronald Tolkien

A Partnership Beyond The Grave

I am a fairly serious Tolkien fan. I first read The Hobbit around age 10 or 11, which I much enjoyed, and attempted The Lord of the Rings shortly after, but was put off by the sternness of the work. I was about age 12 before I could finally cope with the adult stance of the trilogy and was greatly taken with it. As a teenager I would once or twice a year devote an entire weekend to staying in bed and reading the 3 books, from cover to cover. I would start on Friday evening and would generally be finished by Sunday evening.

I read them less often as an adult but continued to do so. At some point I lost count of the number of times I had read them, but it is certainly more than 10. I have also read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion more times than I can remember. This is important! One cannot properly understand The Lord of the Rings unless one has read and absorbed The Silmarillion. With all the many names and maneuverings this certainly takes more than one reading. Much later I read the Lost Tales and The Lays of Beleriand. I also took the time to learn the Feanorian Script.

Despite not being a musician himself, Tolkien obviously understood the importance of music and song in the ancient culture he was creating and specifically had his characters actually sing a great many songs. He took the time and trouble to write down the words to these songs and had them printed in the story itself. The significance of this cannot be overlooked and since Tolkien didn't write the music himself there is obviously a crying need for someone else to do so. Someone with the intuitive understanding and musical background to bring these songs to life with a style and quality that befits such a masterfully told heroic tale.

Being so deeply immersed in the mythos and also in Celtic and classical music, it was only natural that, when ready, I should feel the call to step into this breach. I simply put the words up onto my keyboard and the flood gates opened.

I knew that I was the chosen vehicle. When the songs came to me I felt they came from the races themselves, their history and heritage finally finding a voice in reality. At times I found myself in tears at the various tragedies of these peoples, weeping with them and for them. Every song moved me deeply and there was so much emotion coming through that I was overwhelmed and choked up as I sang them.

I used Ronald's exact text as a general rule, but had to massage the verses in a few cases in order to give them the regular structure necessary for music. In cases where the same song appears in various places, with different verses, I consolidated them into one. In a very few cases I added or changed a word or two. Generally I used every word he wrote in the songs I selected. I considered his text to be rather sacred and only made changes if I felt I really had to.

I felt (and still feel), that alliterative verse is not appropriate for classical song, since it lacks the regular rhythm that is the cornerstone of western music. For this reason I have not set any of JRR's poems that use this discipline, such as "Theoden's Elegy" or "The Children of Hurin". This is not to say that such verse cannot be set, but to this point at least, it does not suit my style.

True, I am not the only musician to have had a go at the works of JRR. There are a great many that have written music and songs inspired by the books, (check it out), but not so many that have used Tolkien's words. Of these, barely a handful have done a decent number of them, as I have. If you wish to hear a full realisation of Tolkien's songs the only commercially available version is that of "The Tolkien Ensemble". This is because Tolkien's Estate have a blanket ban on anyone else using his words. (see legal issues).

I have no personal issue with The Tolkien Ensemble and I am sure they do the best job they know how, but for me at least, they fall well short of what I expect, and indeed, what I have written. To me their settings lack quality melody, harmony and instrumentation. I think it is fair to say that the acceptance of their recordings by the public has been underwhelming at best, especially compared with the movie soundtrack.

I felt (and still feel) strongly, that a full orchestra and classical arrangement is the only satisfactory treatment for a work of the grandeur of The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. I disagree with those who think it should be performed in the manner of music from the Dark Ages. It matters not that the music described in Tolkien's text is limited to harp, vocal, drums, flute and the odd trumpet, the language is grand, the tale is grand and the music must be likewise grand - only a full orchestra will do!

Yes, others have tried to set Tolkien's words to music, but those that I have heard have fallen well short. This kind of music can't be written to order, as the bean counters at Tolkien's Estate would like to believe. The composer must be called to the task by a force outside himself, perhaps by a force beyond the grave. Believe me, I am the chosen vessel, I am he that is called, I know it, I feel it. Listen to my setting properly performed and you will know it too.

One day even Tolkien's Estate will know it, even though that day be not until the expiration of their copyright.
On that day shall the true believers have the music that they have waited so long for, and shall I have my recognition at last.
As for the greedy, narrow-minded, weak-hearts of the Estate of JRR, they shall never see a cent from it. Nor shall they enjoy it. But it shall eat away at them to the end of their days.

Inside The Eagle & Child Tolkien's Grave

Scenes from my Tolkien pilgrimage to Oxford in 2010 - with the Inklings plaque in the "Eagle & Child" and at Tolkien's grave.

Little Green Men