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[Exclusive - Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - First Listen]

Has any other theme in recent film history engendered as much excitement as Howard Shore's epic motif for the One Ring? If you're a fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, you probably know it by heart mysterious, undulating and somber. All three films open with a variation of it, and collectively the tune has become the musical equivalent of the archetypal roaring fire and worn leather chair. It says "sit down, get comfortable. I'm going to tell you a story".

In this case, it is a story many have waited years to see on the big screen. After countless radio adaptations and one rather large animated misfire, J.R.R. Tolkien's Return of the King looks to finally get its due this December in theaters everywhere.

Along with the release of Return of the King comes the aforementioned Mr. Shore, the series' resident composer, and the eagerly-awaited soundtrack. As has become the style, Shore is again joined by an impressive list of musical soloists, among them American soprano Renee Fleming, renowned flautist Sir James Galway, and vocalist Annie Lennox.

Though it likely only represents a fraction of the music in Jackson's reportedly gargantuan epic, the forthcoming CD from Warner Reprise is indeed well worth the year-long wait since Shore's Two Towers knocked our socks off. And though the CD will be available in a myriad of packages (some with bonus DVDs and collector cards and so on) this review will be limited to the most important ingredient - the music. (Worth noting is the fact that, unlike the Two Towers CD whose Deluxe Edition featured a bonus audio track, the musical content of Return of the King looks to be the exact same across the boards.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, it's important to get a few things out of the way before we dive into the CD proper. Number one, I have not seen the movie yet. Number two, I have read the book and know it fairly well. Number three, any analysis of so-called "on screen action" is pure conjecture on my part. Ergo, I could be very wrong about a lot of what follows.

Looking at the 72 minute disc's track titles, a good many of them seem intentionally designed to thwart spoilers (unlike that other, older "Return" movie, whose original soundtrack had one memorable whopper called "The Emperor's Death"). It's a good thing, though, since the CD is set to hit store shelves three weeks ahead of the film.

One final note, a personal one: thanks to Dan Goldwasser for consistently deigning me worthy of getting the Lord of the Rings CDs before the rest of humanity. Writing these previews has been a thrill I am sad to see conclude here. And oh yeah - thank you to the five or six people who actually read this before clicking the sound samples.


Warning: possible spoilers ahead!

1. A Storm Is Coming (2:51)

The final chapter begins with a light and mysterious figure in 3/4 time, a waltz-ish piece that soon segues into Shore's theme for the One Ring. Playful, Hobbit music follows (calling to mind the increasing tempo of Fellowship's "The Black Rider") before again turning to a solo fiddle's reading of the theme for the One Ring. At first listen, the colors are lighter and sprightlier than last time, and even more varied. The cue wraps up with an aggressive restatement of Sauron's theme and the low ostinato that usually accompanies the Ringwraiths.

2. Hope and Memory (1:45)

Along with "A Storm Is Coming", this cue continues a very pleasing reprisal of all the major motifs from the previous two scores, beginning with what Shore has called the Hobbit "Hymn" and finishing with the noble return of the Fellowship theme. Never resting on his laurels, Shore also weaves a warm new figure into the piece. (Prefiguring the future heroics of Sam maybe? Merely a guess.) Clearly, this cue befits a reintroduction of the many major characters of Tolkien's world, and the amount of musical shorthand Shore gets away with here is often astonishing. Wagner, eat your leitmotivic heart out.

3. Minas Tirith (3:37) Featuring Ben Del Maestro

Before I make a fool of myself by making up onscreen actions to correspond with this cue, I should state my opinion that "Minas Tirith" is probably a suite / tone poem comprised of moments from various points in the score (much like "The Riders of Rohan" was on Shore's CD for The Two Towers).

The track begins with ominous low strings and faint rolling percussion, a texture that repeats several times over the course of the CD and evokes a tangible sense of imminent war. The music then begins what can only be described as a loping build to a triumphant reading of Shore's theme for the people of Gondor. We first heard this theme in Fellowship (the film, not the CD) at the Council of Elrond played on a solo horn. Hearing it fleshed out here, racing and pulsing, is a major highlight of the CD and a musical moment that is nothing short of breathtaking. (Trailer fans, this is indeed the motif heard at the end of the Return of the King preview, though in a different - and less suspect - arrangement.)

4. The White Tree (3:25)

Though probably another amalgamation of cues from several points in the score, odds are even that portions of this track accompany the first depiction of inner Minas Tirith within the context of the film. Gandalf and Pippin pass the grotto holding the wilting White Tree of Gondor. The cue begins in a melancholy vein, sounding almost like plaintive John Williams, evoking the sadness of the once majestic tree. As before, Shore slowly begins to increase the tempo, strings slicing furiously and rising (through the many gates of the city?) into another triumphant reading of the Gondor theme. This is definitely an album highlight, taking the listener on a literal ride before thundering to a finish.

5. The Steward of Gondor (3:53) Featuring Billy Boyd

After our grand introduction to the last citadel of man, the action likely turns to Gandalf and Pippin as they seek and audience with Denethor, the surly Steward of Gondor and father to both Faramir and the late Boromir. The faintly rolling drums of war are here again, backing at first a staid reading of the Gondor theme, then a soaring string passage.

Then, a surprising solo vocal takes center stage. Billy Boyd (as Pippin) sings a pretty, folkish tune regarding his apprehension about the situation he has found himself in. As mentioned before, it is these strange and adventurous musical choices that really begins to set the CD for Return of the King apart from the previous two Rings score releases.

6. Minas Morgul (1:57)

In the shadow of the city in which the Ringwraiths reside, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum find themselves firmly entrenched in the evil land of Mordor. Trailers for the film seem to suggest that this may be a staging ground for another run-in with the Witch King, the leader of the Nazgul seen astride a Jurassic-sized Fell Beast. Terrified of direct confrontation, they must find another way around.

A harsh and terrifying rendition of Sauron's theme lets the listener know with no uncertainty exactly how close to the great evil we are. Foreboding brass stands out, as does the return of the 5/4 time signature usually related to the sinister wizard Saruman.

7. The Ride of the Rohirrim (2:08)

Meanwhile, the denizens of Rohan have assembled their majestic horses for a thundering ride to the rescue of the White City (stunning imagery also seen in the preview). Shore's stately theme for Rohan makes a reprisal, backed by more pounding drums of war. The cue then turns gentler, and a Hobbit-ish celtic flute figure peeks through, probably for the induction of Merry into the fighting ranks of Theoden's army.

8. Twilight and Shadow (3:28) Featuring Renee Fleming

No doubt this cue depicts one of the last chapters in the plot thread involving whether or not elven maiden Arwen will leave for the Grey Havens with her people or remain devoted to Middle Earth and her human love, future King Aragorn. Soloist Renee Fleming's voice is as haunting and ethereal as any I've heard, backed by unabashedly romantic swirls of strings and faint hints of Shore's Rivendell arpeggios. The piece finishes with a touching reprisal of Two Towers "Evenstar", one of the loveliest and most aching cues Shore has ever written (in my humble opinion).

9. Cirith Ungol (1:44)

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have since found the "other way" deeper into Mordor, an endless climb up an impossibly steep staircase hewn into the side of a mountain known as Cirith Ungol. What Sam suspects (and master Frodo is oblivious to) is that Gollum is leading them into a deadly trap in the caves at the peak. The One Ring theme sneaks in and out of low tremolo strings before the cue finishes with incomplete snatches of several themes, including the Hobbit "Hymn", Sauron's theme, and even a hint of the previously unreleased passage for the Pass of Carhadras from Fellowship.

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10. Anduril (2:35)

In Rivendell (possibly in flashback, depending upon how faithful the film is to the book), Aragorn watches as Elrond supervises the reforging of the shards of Narsil into Anduril, the legendary sword of kings. After listening to the Rivendell theme shrink and retreat with the Elves over the course of The Two Towers, Shore pulls one of his most satisfying musical tricks yet by giving us an utterly soaring and triumphant reading of the theme. His strings reach higher and higher, replacing feelings of loss and sadness with hope and anticipation. This is a major, major highlight and a spine-tingling return of one of my personal favorite themes from all of the Rings films.

11. Shelob's Lair (4:07)

Too late to turn back now, Frodo and Sam are led into the web-strewn lair of the ancient and evil spider known as Shelob. As Gollum ducks away into the shadows, Sam is forced into the role of makeshift hero after Frodo is stung and feared dead. Listening to the cue for the confrontation, one is reminded that before Rings, this is the kind of music a lot of filmmakers came to Shore to provide. The heart-stopping suspense of Seven and Silence of the Lambs are readily on display here, the most musically frightening passage these films have had since "A Knife In The Dark" from Fellowship. What is truly remarkable here are the changes in time signature Shore uses to evoke a sense of relentlessness and terror. If the music is any indication, this scene is going to be one hell of a showstopper.

12. Ash and Smoke (3:25)

Though this track title could be taken a number of ways in the context of the book, this cue probably involves Sam's efforts to rescue his beloved Frodo from a tower full of Orcs (unless they omitted that scene from the film entirely) and carry him to the steps of Mount Doom to complete his task and destroy the One Ring. Again, musical terror and uncertainty abounds, notably with several big, brassy renditions of the Ringwraith ostinato as well as a spooky boys choir, sounding a lot like an evil Ring crying out against those trying to destroy it.

13. The Fields of The Pelennor (3:25)

The gigantic battle of the Pelennor fields begins with fragments of the Rohan theme set against those relentless thumping war drums. Soon Shore increases the tempo and unleashes the start of the battle to end all. As I will mention a few cues down the road, Shore deserves a lot of credit for returning to the textures he used for the ancient, opening battles of the prologue of Fellowship. Not only does this bring things full circle musically, it lets the listener know by inference that these battles we are witnessing are on the scale of those before that shaped the very face of Middle Earth.

14. Hope Fails (2:20)

As mankind continues to lose his footing in the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith, a shamed Denethor places his badly wounded son Faramir on a funeral pyre in his inner sanctum, intending to immolate them both. Locked outside, Pippin frantically attempts to stop him. The music begins with a sad elegy (presumably) for the fallen Faramir, then turns dissonant and quite dark as his psychotic father goes looking for a lighter, so to speak.

Side note: there's a stretch early on in this cue that sounds a whole lot like Shore's piece "Brooklyn Heights", which you'll remember was re-appropriated for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Just thought that was interesting, since so many thought the music in Gangs sounded like Shore's Rings scores, an opinion I don't necessarily share.

15. The Black Gate Opens (4:01) Featuring James Galway

Part two of "the big one" opens heroically, dovetailing into an overdue reading of the Fellowship theme. Beyond that, Sir James Galway gives us a stretch of gentle tin whistle, likely to underline Merry's exploits as a soldier of Rohan (and that's all I'm going to say about that one). A much quieter, prettier cue than you might expect from the title, it ends with the first hint of Shore's theme for the Grey Havens.

16. The End of All Things (5:12)

With a track title like that, one can safely bet this is the moment we've been waiting three films for. Sam carries a despondent Frodo into the cracks of Doom with Gollum still not far behind. Those who have read the book (or know the signature song from the Rankin / Bass animated version) know what's in store here. Those who haven't shouldn't have it spoiled by a soundtrack preview.

As mentioned before, the choral arrangements here directly parallel "The Prophecy" from the score to Fellowship. Makes sense to me, using the same style of music to both make the ring and (potentially) to unmake it. Midway through the music, the sturm and drang subsides and the Ring itself makes a last attempt to speak to anyone who will listen: a boy soprano (always the voice of the Ring in the other films) begs Frodo to reconsider, tries to seduce him one last time. From there, it's all choral splendor and major key action. (You do the math.) A spectacular cue that delivers on the promises of all the preceding films.

17. The Return of the King (10:14) Featuring James Galway, Viggo Mortensen, and Renee Fleming

Tranquility returns to the world of Middle Earth with this cue, sounding like an upbeat cousin to "The Breaking of the Fellowship" from the first score. Several lengthy and unabbreviated reprisals of the major themes from the entire series begin to make this devoted listener misty-eyed. It's all here folks, most of the musical threads of the score tied up in one elegant ten minute stretch, dotted with Viggo Mortensen's own elven invocation of his kinghood and a soaring final reading of the Hobbit "Hymn". So it's with more than just a little wistfulness that we return to the folk-tinged bounce of "Concerning Hobbits" at the end of the piece. Musically, we are more than finishing a masterpiece. We are going home.

18. The Grey Havens (5:59)

For the mystery of Frodo's (and others) exit from Middle Earth, Shore does not just mine previous material and tug at our heartstrings (though there's surely enough of that here to satisfy those who would miss it). Instead, he has fashioned a finale that culminates in both a peaceful and awe-inspiring first step into a whole new world for the characters, and for the listener. His theme for "The Grey Havens" segues effortlessly into the final song on the disc.

19. Into The West (5:50) Performed By Annie Lennox

As a swan song for a trilogy beloved by many, "Into The West" will probably come under a lot of scrutiny. Light guitar pickings in the background certainly feel more like a traditional folk song than we may be used to (or have expected), but give it a chance: this track has a cumulative heft that is not to be underestimated.

Total CD Running Time (72:07)


On the whole, Shore's work on Return of the King (at least that which can be judged on this CD, away from the film) seems to alternately flesh out and pay off musical ideas built throughout the course of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's wonderful to see the composer making the most of such a broad canvas, using its interconnectivity to enhance the score as a whole. For its part, Return of the King is a satisfying, powerful, and emotional conclusion to a story that has touched the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.

One can only hope that, when all is said and done, Shore may someday get the wish he makes late in the disc's liner notes: a film version of that other Hobbit's tale. Until then, Shore can rest assured that he has left an indelible impression with a series of scores for which the word "masterpiece" seems quite modest.


Special thanks to Jason Cienkus at the Warner Music Group, without whom none of the articles we've had on the Rings trilogy for the past three years could have been possible. Additional thanks to Matthew Hodgson at TheOneRing.net for mirroring the clips during our server load troubles.