In this series of blogs, I explore the musical details of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. For a comprehensive introduction to my approach and my creative experience, start with my introductory four-part “Appendices:” Part 1 “Journey to Middle-earth,” Part 2 “Themes of Middle-earth,” Part 3 “Forming a Fellowship,” and Part 4 “There and Back Again.” I also blogged about scoring episodes 101, 102, and 103.
SCORING EPISODE 104
“THE GREAT WAVE”
SPOILERS AHEAD: The fourth episode of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, “The Great Wave,” is the first unburdened by the need to introduce the audience to new characters, cultures, and lore. As a result, I was able to shift my focus away from generating and introducing musical themes, to developing and interweaving them.
UNREST IN NÚMENOR
Whether featuring the Númenor Theme or The Faithful Theme, all of the episode’s Númenorean scenes are accompanied by the Middle Eastern musical influences that represent this culture. This story thread pulsates with percussive frame drums, evocative duduk and yaylı tanbur, and distinct chromatic harmonies.
The Númenor Theme introduces the episode with a regal, pastoral statement in the French horns and low strings as Queen-Regent Míriel conducts The Blessing of the Children, a ceremony emphasizing the value she places on future generations. Ironically, this scene also reveals her greatest fear: a recurring nightmare of a great cataclysmic wave sweeping over and destroying the city. As the wave crests (in one of the season’s most impressive visual effects!) the choir declares an ominous text in one of Tolkien’s Elven languages, Quenya.
Rosta-laivar, sina am lantuva
Oceans rise, this world will fall
The nightmare passes, and the following scenes return to the streets of Númenor where civil unrest brews and the Númenor Theme returns. An unruly mob is subdued when Chancellor Pharazôn assures them that “Elven hands will never take Númenor’s helm!” Here, a patriotic solo trumpet presents a noble version of The Númenor Theme. With actor Trystan Gravelle’s mighty leadership, Pharazôn offers the crowd celebratory drinks! Middle Eastern frame drums kick in with a seductive groove and the low strings, Armenian duduk, and yaylı tanbur offer a slithering statement of the Númenorean anthem’s melody.
In contrast with the soaring and triumphant introduction to Númenor in the third episode, Pharazôn’s version here is notably more subdued, suggesting his passion is real but his intentions may be more nuanced.
The Númenor Theme takes a darker twist later in the episode, when Míriel shows Galadriel her palantír, a magical seeing-stone through which she envisioned her cataclysmic nightmare. After Galadriel sees the same prophecy, actor Morfydd Clark beautifully portrays Galadriel’s utter shock, as the choral sopranos and altos offer a creepy, funereal dirge statement of the Númenor Theme.
The women sing in Adûnaic, Tolkien’s language for Númenor, “Anadûni akallabêth anâ,” meaning “Western downfallen men.” High female singers are generally reserved for music pertaining to the race of Elves or other immortal beings, so hearing this theme, so strongly associated with the kingdom of High Men, gives the scene an ominous foreboding.
The other crucial theme connected to Númenor is The Faithful Theme, which recurs throughout “The Great Wave.”
In the third episode, I connected the theme directly to three related characters and used different colors to set them apart. The father, Elendil’s version of the theme is always stated in regal brass, and the son, Isildur’s on rustic folk instruments. The daughter, Eärien’s features a Renaissance recorder. Hers is developed in a romantic direction in this episode as she meets a charming young man named Kemen, son of Pharazôn.
The Faithful Theme reaches new heights in the climax of this episode. When Míriel casts Galadriel out of Númenor the leaves of Nimloth, the White Tree, begin to fall, and the soundtrack swells with a massive statement of The Faithful Theme. To replicate the fluttering leaves cascading ripples of strings, harps, celeste, and bells fill the soundscape. This moment makes clear that Elendil’s melody is in fact a theme for The Faithful, a minority political faction in Númenor still loyal to the Elves.
As this powerful melody soars, Elendil witnesses this powerful omen and immediately understands the grave significance of the falling of the white leaves, and so too do Míriel and Pharazôn. These two characters reverse their decision to cast out Galadriel. The weight of the score here not only emphasizes the importance of their decision, but also implies that the rest of Númenor will follow suit.
This triumphant moment of The Faithful Theme sets up a powerful musical motor that reverberates under Míriel’s speech as she calls upon Númenoreans gathered in the streets to aid their kin, the Southlanders. The theme builds in the final moments as dozens of volunteer for the campaign to travel to Middle-earth. (This marks the most triumphant and rousing statement yet of The Númenor Theme, a record this piece will only hold for one episode, until the climax of the Episode 105!)
The fourth episode of The Rings of Power introduces us to one of the season’s primary antagonists, Adar. The leader of the terrifying Orc army is not what we might expect. Neither brash nor aggressive, Adar is quite light in frame, and soft spoken. Though he radiates malevolence, he resembles an Elf more than an Orc. Our first impression of him is formed as he gives a death rite to an Orc soldier wounded in Arondir’s attempted escape. Here, his theme is presented in its truest and most intimate form, played on breathy Asian woodwind instruments, a combination of Japanese shakuhachi and a Chinese membrane flute.
The Adar Theme picks up momentum at the shocking reveal that he actually speaks Elvish. In his conversation with Arondir low strings accompany Adar’s recollections, memories of his youth in Arondir’s home of Beleriand. (Tolkien fans know that this region was destroyed an age past, during the Great War against Morgoth, which would make Adar a very ancient character.)
THE SECRETS OF THE MOUNTAIN
The most surprisingly emotional storyline in “The Great Wave” is that of Elrond and Durin. Over the course of their scenes, their two themes, The Elrond Theme and The Durin Theme, interweave back and forth, snapping between nostalgic ballads, tense stand-offs, wistful solos, mournful requiems, and playfully jaunty dances. Held together by powerhouse performances from Robert Aramayo as Elrond and Owain Arthur as Durin, these scenes showcase how tightly and symphonically their melodies can intertwine.
My favorite quotation of the Elrond Theme in the entire season was written for this episode. As Durin seethes over his father’s decisions, Elrond recounts that his own father’s deeds were so great that “The Valar lifted him beyond the bounds of this world, to forever carry the evening star across the sky.” (This is not hyperbole, this literally happened!)
Though Elrond describes events of mythical proportions, we hear a surprisingly intimate solo clarinet whispering Elrond’s wistful melody. The score is not commenting on the epic deeds of the father, but on the emotional pain of the son who struggles to live up to his father’s reputation. As I sketched this scene, I noticed tears pouring down my face.
This story arc offers another clue in one of the score’s most intriguing mysteries. An enigmatic set of chord changes occurs as Elrond peels back a curtain in a hidden mine, revealing a strange glowing vein of ore. Later, these chords move to the forefront of the orchestration, when at last Durin entrusts Elrond with his secret: they are mining for a mysterious ore called Mithril.
These recurring chord progressions bring tremendous significance to the story. They were first heard in the premiere episode, over the Main Title card, at Celebrimbor’s introduction, and again in the End Title song “Where the Shadows Lie.” Throughout the episodes, they have appeared and vanished, quickly, like a wisp of steam. With Durin’s revelation to Elrond, this theme can, for now, be given a name: The Mithril Theme.
(As I continue to write blogs, it will become clear that this theme is not merely a theme for Mithril. For simplicity’s sake, I will call it that henceforth until I can reveal more.)
Our two Dwarven themes come together beautifully when Prince Durin IV apologizes to his father, King Durin III, for having dug for Mithril in forbidden mines. Here, as ever, his father is musically represented by the Khazad-dûm Theme.
Where first it was a rousing, energetic march, here the melody broods with tension and unease as Prince Durin cannot read his father’s feelings. The scene pivots as the King says, “Forever am I with you, my son.” Here, the Khazad-dûm Theme’s more emotional B-Section occurs for only the second time in the series. With its surprisingly nimble harmonic progression, the music indicates that this strict monarch is easily able to forgive his son’s transgressions.
OTHER THEMES RETURN
Several other important themes make significant appearances in “The Great Wave.”
Galadriel’s heroic theme recurs in all her scenes, none more memorable than where she is deported from Númenor. Here, the orchestra settles into dark ambience and a haunting solo female vocal ethereally floats her theme across the soundscape, singing in Quenya.
Néya Amna kala, néya á amna te
Apsene hónnya, vanyalyë o-ve
Once near light, once by them
Forgive my heart, you depart from us
This delicate performance is the first in The Rings of Power by my wife, Raya Yarbrough, with whom I have collaborated for more than twenty years (notably on my scores to Battlestar Galactica, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Outlander, where she sings the title song). When I saw this scene, I immediately heard Raya’s haunting vocal timbre in my imagination, and I was honored she could hop into the studio and track this.
We also return to The Southlands in “The Great Wave,” where three musical themes make prominent statements. The yearning strains of a Hardanger fiddle playing the Southlands Theme soar as the people of Tirharad seek refuge in the watchtower of Ostirith. There, Bronwyn and Arondir are reunited, and an English horn again delivers their love theme as they speak on the parapet.
And Sauron’s ominous theme sears across the soundtrack as the disloyal tavern owner Waldreg reveals himself to be a supporter of Sauron in his tense confrontation with young Theo.
My two favorite scenes in the episode were both brilliant showcases for musical opportunities, and were released on the Season One Soundtrack album as “A Plea to the Rocks.”
The sequence begins in slow motion with Arondir and Theo, dodging a hailstorm of arrows, running through the forest in the hazy grey light of dawn, pursued relentlessly by Orcs. As the action then slows, the scene takes on a poetic, ballet-like feeling, one that I wanted to augment with a lush passage from the choral singers, singing in Quenya.
Amanya fírië, alcarinquë-anyalie
Koivierya queluva rië aurenna quel-kala
Envinyataina Órerya siluva elerrína
Blessed death, glorious memory
Her life will fade only upon the day light fades
Renewed, her heart will shine, crowned with stars
Deed of your people, remembered forever
The emotional impact of the scene is heightened by a rich plagal cadence when Theo looks up and sees his mother, Bronwyn, running headfirst into danger to save him. The music peaks as they emerge from the forest into the safety of the rising sun, before a piercing solo female vocal bursts unexpectedly across the soundtrack.
The eerie vocal carries us across an establishing shot of the mountains, before we realize the singer heard in the score is actually Disa singing in a Dwarven ceremony. This gorgeous ceremonial piece was co-written by myself and Sophia Nomvete, the actor who portrays Disa. The song began life when Sophia recorded a live vocal performance on set.
“For Disa, this isn’t just singing” Sophia Nomvete told me recently. “This has to be something more spiritual, and free, than just a song. I found the performance so desperately exciting because the showrunners spoke about it as kind of a power. This is Disa’s magic – using the power of her voice in order to literally move mountains!”
I asked Sophia what it felt like to sing in full costume, on the incredible set.
“We were resonating and pleading to the mountains,” she explained. “We needed this to ricochet to the back of Khazad-dûm, of Moria. Director Wayne Yip stripped away any pressure of cameras and technicalities and just let me do what I had to do. The performance was from an intimate power that I had to find internally. And we had to channel that outward, and still stay true to what the task of Disa was in that moment. Half the time I think I forgot that the cameras were even there!”
“Singing was always my release. It was my happiness, it was my pain, it was my everything,” Sophia confessed. She had trained in musical theater, but her teachers encouraged her to clean up the natural rasp in her voice. “It always kind of held me back, because I always thought that my voice somehow wasn’t perfect. And so this moment felt like an expression of what I had as a vocalist. It just felt like a freedom cry for my voice.”
I took Sophia’s vocal tracks from production and composed new material to support her soaring lines with deep Dwarven lyrics, chanting Khuzdul lyrics in a hypnotic pattern.
Â gundu, imâgru, kibil-khe
Gabilgathol, baruk khazad, azan
That underground hall, they keep, silver glass
Great fortress, axe of the dwarves, darkness
Sophia came back into the studio during ADR, because I needed one additional piece for the ending, and I had an absolute blast collaborating with her. (We were working remotely at that time, and in fact we would not actually meet in person until we passed each other in the hallway at the hotel in San Diego for Comic Con months later!)
The rich, organic feel of the Dwarven singing scene in “The Great Wave” results from the contributions of many talented individuals, including series sound designer Robby Stambler. He crafted the fantastic resonating vocal effect that overtakes Disa’s singing in the scene’s climactic moments.
Sophia articulated another reason why the sequence works so beautifully. “Musically, we can’t fight truth. There is a truth to music, isn’t there? There’s an honesty and a purity and rawness. There is a freedom to it and so I think people believe it. That’s why music is so damn close to my heart, Bear. It is so close to my heart.”
I could not agree with her more.