An Essay by Gene Hargrove

Originally published in Beyond Bree in January 1995

Even though J. R. R. Tolkien does not discuss music in LOR, Appendix F (II), "On Translation," provides a useful basis upon which to reconstruct his views. In this essay, Tolkien distinguishes between the languages of various peoples in Middle-earth in terms of certain Indo-European predecessors to modern English. English is presented as the official representation of the languages of the Shire, Gondor, and Rohan. According to Tolkien, Hobbit language was "a rustic dialect, whereas in Gondor and Rohan a more antique language was used, more formal and more terse." In terms of the actual history of English, modern English, though newer, is actually a degenerate, rustic, form of a London dialect, less complex or sophisticated than older forms of Old English, to which the word antique refers. Tolkien presents no differences between the language of Gondor and the Shire in LOR, but comments in "On Translation" on grammatical differences, specifically with regard to the second person pronoun. It was Pippin's failure to distinguish between familiar and deferential forms of you that convinced Gondorians that he was a prince. (Gondorians also used "was come" instead of "had come," following Germanic grammar.) In contrast, Hobbits had much more difficulty with the language of Rohan, where they simply recognized many similar words. In LOR Theoden and Merry spend much time talking about the origins of words. Pippin and his Gondorian friends do not. Beyond these three languages, Tolkien is concerned primarily with place names. He selects Frankish and Gothic languages to represent the speech of the Men in the Vale of the Anduin, Dale, and the Mark. The speech of the Stoors and Bree-men, and therefore the Dunlanders, is Celtic. Tolkien states that the Elven languages play the role of Greek and Latin, but even the untranslated songs in Sindarin and Quenya follow his Germanic patterns exactly.

Although in a footnote, Tolkien warns that the adoption of these early medieval languages to represent languages in LOR - for example, that of the Riders of Rohan - "does not imply that the Rohirrim closely resembled the ancient English otherwise, in culture or art, in weapons or modes of warfare, except in a general way due to their circumstances," music, or singing, because of its close relationship to the evolution of language in the Middle Ages, is probably an exception to his general warning.

In 597 Pope Gregory sent missionaries to convert the Germans to Christianity. While doing so, they also taught them to write and convert their spoken language into written form. The Germans modelled their written language on their oral language. Before 597, these Germanic peoples had maintained an oral literature, mostly as lays, which they chanted or sang to the accompaniment of small wooden harps. These songs were narratives that celebrated heroic deeds. They were composed of unrhymed rhythmical lines tied together internally by alliteration. "Lament for Theoden" and "Song of the Mounds of Mundberg" are examples of this kind of song and by analogy can be taken to represent the earliest form of human music in Middle-earth. "Mundberg," in particular, fulfills the traditional function as a historical record, complete with lists of important people who died in the battle. The evolution of poetry and song in the Middle Ages was away from unrhymed rhythmical alliterative songs toward the metrical rhymed lines of modern poetry and music. Examples of this latter kind of music and poetry can be found in the Arnorian poem "Riddle of Strider" (even though Bilbo claims to have written it) and the closely related Gondorian poem "Boromir's Riddle," and at the folk level, "Athelas." Tolkien himself was especially interested professionally in Old English literature from "Beowulf" to "Gawain and the Green Knight," which stand at opposite ends of the Middle Ages. In "Gawain" the transformation to metrical rhyme is not yet complete. The main stanzas are alliterative, followed by short rhymed stanzas. In LOR, although most lines are rhymed, they are not yet completely metrical. Nearly all have pauses, caesurae, near the middle of each line, even when they are fairly metrical otherwise. The caesurae split each line into half lines. "Galadriel's Song" has two caesurae per line, dividing each line into thirds.

The lack of metrical form and the presence of the caesurae pose special problems in trying to write or reconstruct authentic music for Middle-earth. Because the number of syllables can vary dramatically and the placement of the caesurae can further contribute to this irregularity, tunes have to be found that can accommodate this variation while still providing simple, recognizable melodies. For example, the same notes in "The Last Ship" must take care of "the grey night was going," "till the long light was shimmering," "as she ran down to the river," "one step daring," and, among others, "down the Seven Rivers."

The type of music developed to handle the poetry of the early Germanic peoples was Gregorian chant, one of five kinds of plainsong, a monophonic chant in free rhythm, as distinct from measured music. It was monophonic in that it consisted of a single line or melody without an accompaniment that was regarded as part of the work itself, as distinct from polyphony or homophony. Given the irregularity of the verse, there can be no question that the music in LOR was primarily chants with free rhythm. Close attention to the text of LOR also reveals that in almost all cases songs were sung without musical accompaniment. Exceptions are the music of the Dwarves in Bilbo's house in The Hobbit (which may be a pre-LOR carelessness) and perhaps the music in Rivendell, especially the "Song of Earendil," though it may be an example of standard Germanic chant. According to Tolkien, everyone was "intent upon the music of the voices and the instruments" and "the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words." When Bilbo begins to sing, the "dream of music" turns "suddenly into a voice." All of these remarks suggest that the instrumental and vocal music were identifiably distinct and probably did not occur simultaneously.

Polyphony, which simultaneously combines several lines of melody in parts, without any line subordinate to the others, did not begin to develop until near the end of the Middle Ages. There is little evidence that it existed in Middle-earth at all, except, once again for the Dwarves, which may be a mistake, although it does very clearly appear outside of Middle-earth in the void. In The Silmarillion Iluvator utilizes polyphony when he teaches the Holy Ones to sing in parts and then adds another part of his own, the third theme for humans. In all likelihood, the singing of the Holy Ones represents the most advanced type of music in Tolkien's worlds, a type that had not yet made a general appearance in Middle-earth in the Third Age. If so, then music in Middle-earth sounded much different than modern music, for it was a single line of melody without chords (music with chords being homophony, a development that occurred after polyphony).

Given that polyphony was at best rare in Middle-earth at the time of LOR, an authentic reconstruction of a song should be a single melody line without instrumental accompaniment. However, because it would be very hard for most people who are used to homophony (a melody line accompanied, at a minimum, by an instrumental arrangement of chords, three or more harmonious notes played simultaneously) to appreciate an endless series of bare-bones, unaccompanied voices, some compromise with authenticity may be necessary.

Percussion is also a problem. While modern music listeners expect a complex beat, such rhythm plays off of a metrical beat that is incompatible with pre-modern (modal) music, which highlights the free rhythm of each line of the song. Because the notation for the songs in Gregorian chant from the Middle Ages does not indicate the lengths of notes, it is not known exactly how any particular song was sung. It is not unlikely that each song came out differently each time it was sung, just as a passage from a book comes out differently each time it is read aloud. Most likely, the singer deliberately tried various approaches to the presentation of particular lines each time he or she sang the song. The object would be to display the natural rhythm of the line in contrast to the rhythm of the other lines. In measured music, each line is rhythmically identical. The complex beat masks the boring sameness of these lines. In monophonic music, however, the rhythm of each line is unique, determined by the arrangement of the words and the placement of the caesura. In this kind of music, a complex metrical beat may compete with the free rhythm and hide the rhythmical uniqueness of each line. Because of this problem, most percussion probably occurred at the ends of lines. To be sure, modern listeners want a complex beat. Providing it, however, is another compromise.

Because postmodern or alternative music is now abandoning metrically measured music, a compromise that permits the free rhythm of pre-modern music may be possible. For example, the music of Laurie Anderson, without its electronic sound, could come close to plainsong, if one is also willing to ignore the chords. In her songs, the words shape the music. Moreover, when she sings, the words are independent of the music. She drifts between singing and speaking, frequently stopping for dramatic effect. More elaborate instrumental music occurs between verses rather than as an accompaniment.

Concerning musical instruments in Middle-earth, the Dwarves play "little fiddles," "flutes," "clarinets," "viols," "drums," and a "harp." In "Frodo's Song at Bree," a cat plays a "fiddle." "Durin's Song" mentions "harps" and "trumpets." In the Middle Ages, the harp was a basic instrument that was strummed between lines in Germanic lays. The fiddle was a bowed stringed instrument, played on the shoulder or arm, but sometimes played upright in the lap like a viol. A viol was simply a larger version of the fiddle, held upright on the knee. It is not an ancestor of the Renaissance instrument and it is a contemporary, not an ancestor of the early violin. The flutes were most likely recorders or "blockflutes," the flute most commonly used in the Middle Ages for the accompaniment of dance and song. The clarinet was probably slightly bigger than the recorder and distinguished from it primarily because it used a reed. Trumpets were not musical instruments, since, like the bugle, they could produce only a limited number of notes and were therefore used primarily for fanfare. Percussion instruments could be anything and started in folk music with the banging of pots and pans.

Because of Tolkien's warning that the Germanic peoples used to represent the languages in LOR may not represent the peoples of Middle-earth in other respects, anyone writing music for songs in LOR is free to do whatever he or she wishes. Tolkien's own willingness to permit anything is well demonstrated by the Donald Swann's book of songs, The Road Goes Ever On. Although I do like "Upon the Hearth the Fire is Red," and can marginally imagine Hobbits singing it, Swann wrote his songs to demonstrate his abilities on the piano during live performances--an instrument that did not exist in Middle-earth. Because his music seems more concerned with being skillful than with being authentic, I have never been able to appreciate it as much as many other people do. In "Namarie," which Tolkien sang to Swann, and which he used in place of his own version, the music is straightforward Gregorian chant. Swann notes that "Tolkien approved five [songs] but bridled at my music for 'Namarie.' He had heard it differently in his mind, he said, and hummed a Gregorian chant." Although Tolkien approved the other songs without bridling, he might have been happier with music representing, and played with instruments more appropriate to, the Middle Ages. An unbridled compromise should always hint at medieval plainsong or chant, be performed with instruments that are appropriate descendants of that time, and permit the free rhythm to be heard.



ECH - August 23, 2006