Jewish Journal

Composer’s Score Has a Unique ‘Ring’

by Carvin Knowles

Posted on Dec. 12, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Nineteenth century composer and notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner believed that a Jewish composer could never successfully treat serious mythical subject matter in music. But Wagner never anticipated Howard Shore.

Shore does mythologize music successfully -- for the second time. With next week's release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, audiences will hear more than just a sequel to Shore's Oscar-winning score. The soft-spoken composer said he's writing the continuation of a larger work.

"Essentially, 'The Lord of the Rings' is created as an opera," Shore told The Journal. "I'm writing a nine- or 10-hour piece based on Tolkien's legends and languages, with a 60-voice mixed choir, a 30-voice boys choir and 10 soloists."

While many might have detected in the first film's music characteristically Hebrew scales and modes -- similar to those found in liturgical tropes -- Shore said that he derived the music directly from the text. "The text is the most important to me ... the book is always open on my desk."

In order to write the work, Shore immersed himself in Tolkien's texts. "Because the 'Lord of the Rings' was so vast and such a complex piece, it took a lot of research and rereading. What influenced Tolkien to write 'Lord of the Rings'? I had to understand the period in which it was written. And I also had to understand the 50 years after and how it affected culture around the world."

The period when Tolkien wrote the main text was during World War II. At the time, Tolkien denied that he was writing an allegory about Hitler, claiming instead that his story of power and genocide are universal.

Yet the influence of his times are apparent in his work. In the second book of his epic trilogy, "The Two Towers," Tolkien's characters face an alliance of two leaders bent on utterly destroying the race of mankind.

While Tolkien used many of the same source materials that Wagner did for his operatic cycle, "The Ring of the Niebelung," Tolkien's story shows none of Wagner's characteristic German supremacy or anti-Semitism. This is a story for everyone.

The filmed version of the trilogy has kept the genocidal theme intact in "The Two Towers." "It isn't just the grand spectacle of battle and the horror of massive deaths," Shore said, "it is the intimacies of war ... the fear of war and of families being torn apart."

Even by adhering to the story, Shore, 56, hopes to leave his own mark. "It was important for me to let my own voice sing," Shore said.

Shore's own voice began when he was 7 in his native Toronto. "I rented a clarinet because of Benny Goodman. Actually, my mother rented me one. It came in a shoebox with tissue paper, because we couldn't afford a case. My mother played piano, and I played clarinet."

Shore's family was very active in the Toronto Jewish community, where his father was the founding president of Beth Shalom Synagogue on Eglington Avenue in 1953.

Shore attended Berklee School of Music in Boston. Afterward, he began playing successfully in a rock band in the '60s. During the '70s, he was the founding music director of "Saturday Night Live."

"Film music was my third career. I had always been composing," Shore said. "I chose film as a way to have my compositional ideas recorded.

His more than 50 film scores include "Analyze This," "Dogma," "That Thing You Do!" "Seven," "Ed Wood," "M. Butterfly," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Philadelphia," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Big" and "The Fly."

But the "Rings" scores, according to Shore, are different. "The most exciting thing for me is the Tolkien languages."

For the first film, Shore wrote choir music in five different languages created by Tolkien, an Oxford linguistics professor. For "The Two Towers," Shore added a sixth: "Most of the singing in Rohan and Helm's Deep is Old English. It is essentially 'Beowulf.'"

"The Lord of the Rings" scores are Shore's largest-scale soundtracks to date. Of the filmed versions of the story he added, "We know that we carry great responsibility to create this work. We are all at the service of the ring. We want to do justice to this literary classic."

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