Four years it has been now; four years since The Return Of The King graced our theatres, destined to become the second most successful film of all time, garning eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson. And, not least of all, two for Howard Shore and his never resting mind. Four years full of studying Tolkien, labouring over dozens of different cuts and scrutinising every thematic approach in each scene, making absolutely sure it relates correctly and pushes all the right buttons, Howard Shore's labour of love comes to a glorious, and well- deserved end.
The End? Not really. For three years now, Howard Shore himself supervised the production of these Complete Recordings, and it speaks for his character that he didn't give this project out of his hands.
So, here we are, holding The Return Of The King in our hands, and the question is today as relevant as it was four years ago - maybe even more, since we can now judge the full vision of Howard Shore: does it hold up? Did Shore do justice to his own brilliance, did he actually manage to bring the full spectrum of themes to a logical, conclusive, satisfying end?
If the last 20 years of film making have taught us anything, then it's certainly a strong reluctancy to set our hopes for sequels or prequels too high. How many times did we have the highest hopes for a single project, and it didn't only fail, but also had that uniquely ability to not only tarnish the film itself, but all previous entries as well?
That is the most important lesson, and it also reveals a very important aspect of creativity: dazzling the mind with a lot of flash is easy; illuminating the mind with structure demands far more from any artist. That today's movies fail to give us amazing eye candy can't be expected anymore, but amongst all the FX artists doing their magic and sound effect guys blasting the theatre's speakers, where's the story, the gravitas, the ingenuity?
So, am I trying to ease you into the message that Howard Shore actually didn't really deliver this time? No. I want to show you the vast deepness of the chasm on whose edge Howard Shore stood.
Obviously, Lord Of The Rings is not the first movie series with sequels that are better than the original. Motion picture history is littered with improved second parts. The difference, however, is that usually, when a composer delivers an improved sequel, it feels like revisiting the previous score. The composer develops themes by reconsidering the first installment. He might take the score from film one from A to B, and the second score from A to C.
In Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, Shore went from point A to B and B to C, respectively. Themes continued developments without a recap, drawing fresh connections while pushing the old in new directions; the palette widened, incorporating a grander sense of scope and advanced realisations of the styles.
Return of the King takes us triumphantly to point D, which logically expands the compass even further. Shore has built his emotional arc through nearly eight hours of music before reaching this score, and now, as we reach the destination, everything is touched with a sense of gravity. We've earned this voyage; we've come to its conclusion naturally, and the effects are nearly overwhelming.
Nowadays, it's an easy task to find film scores with beautifully soaring themes and powerful action. Nearly every film score today appears to see its task in creating music that is soaked with emotional highlights, moments of pathos and orchestral clashes of almost orgiastic proportions. But in 90 % of those cases, an essential element is lacking: the music and the film don't *earn* these moments, resulting in an atmosphere of fakeness and emotional pretentiousness.
This isn't the case with Lord of the Rings, and especially not with Return of the King. Two scores and six hours of music steadily, subtly and systematically build into this archetectural masterpiece.
Return Of The King has a different vibe from the very first bar. Orchestrations and compositions are a lot more diverse and intricate, and even the palette of soundscapes is more elaborate.
This is largely due to the fact that in Return of the King, Howard Shore combines and collides his themes to bring them down to a common denominator, to bring the stories to their logical climax. For instance, in "A Coronal Of Silver and Gold" or "The Land Of Shadow", the 5/4 beat of Isengard meets the Fourth Age Of Mordor theme, and the Orc theme of Isengard meets the Threat Of Mordor motif, indicating that Isengard's power and creatures have now been fully consumed by and integrated under the eye of Sauron.
From the very beginning, Return of the King builds on The Two Towers' maturity, and adds an amazing layer of thematic and textural developments. The bridging is absolutely seamless - the first 30 seconds of "Roots and Beginnings" sound like a direct continuation of Two Tower's end credits.
This score has a distinct touch of understated grandesse, which roots in Howard Shore's inherent subtlety, and which is perfect because the movie isn't about heroic, uplifting battles, it shows a world in decline and its hope of revival.
Everything builds into this, and the true meanings of all themes are revealed. Right in the opening sequence, "Roots And Beginnings", the essential meaning of the Ring's Seduction theme is presented. Or the ringwraiths; listen to Fellowship's "The Nazgul", Two Towers' "Wraiths On Wings", and then "Shieldmaiden Of Rohan", and you will not only see, you will understand. That's also a feelings very few scores can create.
When Aragorn bows to the four hobbits during the coronation scene, you hear the exact same short piece that plays when Frodo says "I will take the ring" during the Council Of Elrond; these are the moments that reveal a true genius of musical storytelling.
And amongst all these intricacies, Howard Shore never loses the focus on the heart of the tale. That is why the emotional climaxes reaches their full blossoming in the listener's mind, and each one stabs right into your heart, unfolding a deep satisfaction.
As you know by now, this gem includes four CDs, one DVD with the score in Surround Sound, and a more than intriguing booklet by Doug Adams, who guides us through the soundscapes of Middle-Earth.
Also, like Two Towers, this release includes countless additions that didn't make it into the film. These additions are sometimes of bigger, often of shorter nature, but they all glue together some score parts that appeared incoherent in the film. In the best sense of the word, they give the score even more time to breathe and to shine.
I don't think there has ever been a film score that lived and breathed quite like The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and The Return Of The King especially. Every piece of music has its meaning, talks to you, and leaves you deeply satisfied.
Unlike the Ring films themselves, their scores, or more precisely their themes, may never become part of popular culture, and in times where this is considered the knighting for any film score, Lord Of The Rings doesn't need to, since it has an entirely different goal, and works on an entirely different level.
If you wanted to place "The Return Of The King" in film music history, you will have to go back to the glory days of film music in the 50s and the 60s, when there was no difference between classically trained composers and film composers, when those great musicians didn't need to worry about sales or becoming part of pop culture, but instead created music through which their films lived, breathed and acquired true greatness. Spartacus, El Cid, North By Northwest, Ben Hur, Jason and the Argonauts, that is the royal company in which The Lord Of The Rings does not need to feel ashamed.
You could even say that The Return Of The King goes back to 18th/19th century opera in terms of how dozens and dozens of meticulously interwoven motifs not only shape the actors' performance, but also tell the story on their own. In this light, Shore's Ring trilogy has even an advantage over scores like Ben Hur or King Of Kings.
Howard Shore's masterpiece combines genuine opera with a glimpse of Golden Age, and this is an achievement for the ages.