In the mid-2000s, Time-Life released a compilation of the "heaviest" orchestral pieces - stuff that they figured would still move modern audiences jaded by years of rock-n-roll and heavy metal. They called it "Classical Thunder", it was technically all from the Romantic and Modern periods.
Most of the pieces were good, though they were all very famous stuff and tended towards the loud and thinly scored. But what makes music powerful is the emotion it draws out in the listener, and straight loud (or just familiar) is about the worst way to do that. Good instrumental music doesn't just overpower you - it tells a story; it draws you into its world; it moves you.
So here's my effort to come up with a playlist of stuff that is largely symphonic in nature and will - if you understand a little bit of background on the pieces - totally blow your mind. This will likely be a recurring feature on this blog.
Symphony #1 "Lord of the Rings", by Johan de Meij
So, couple of things. First, with a name like Johan you'd figure the guy was a dead 19th Century composer, but actually he's still writing music and directing in the Netherlands. Second, this is not an orchestral piece - it's actually a symphonic setting for wind ensemble, which makes it near and dear to my heart. Third, the work has nothing to do with the films or their scores; it predates them by over a decade.
Symphony #1 was inspired by themes in Tolkien's work, and in a very (very) rough way it tells the story of the books, focusing on one of five thematic elements in each of its movements. I'm not going to go over all of them in detail because while you should listen to the whole thing, it's 1, 2, & 5 that have the most punch.
Movement 1: Gandalf
Gandalf was in many ways the impetus for the events of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. An agent sent by the Valar in the West to fight evil in Middle Earth, he developed a special fondness for mortal men and especially hobbits (and their pipe weed). Gandalf is an imposing figure, but also a gentle and deeply caring person, and this movement captures both his majesty and his warmth.
There are four themes in this movement. The first is the fanfare, heralding his triumphant arrival. The second is the main "Gandalf" theme which returns several times throughout the work. The third theme evokes the wizard riding his horse Shadowfax into battle. And the last theme is the chorale, which is a hint of his divine nature and figures briefly but significantly in the second movement.
Movement 2: Lothlorien
In the novels, Lothlorien is the last of the great Elven lands in Middle Earth. It is a place of mystery and beauty - and danger, if you cross Galadriel and her people. This movement captures the otherworldliness of the place. It begins as an atmospheric wash of sound; the deep forest, complete with bird calls. Following that is a lilting dance of the elves.
The movement continues with the story of Frodo's visions in Galadriel's mirror. First he sees a portent of Gandalf's sacrifice in Moria, which is represented by a return of the chorale from the first movement, played initially as chill-inducing pairing of bassoon and trombone (a trick de Meij might have borrowed from Brahms), then by the entire brass section. We can actually hear Frodo's heart beating as the music swells to a climax. After a brief interlude, Frodo sees the lidless flaming eye of Sauron, which is even more terrifying. The movement fades out with Frodo's pounding heart and gradually calming breathing.
Movements 3: Gollum
This movement evokes Gollum, who pursues Frodo attempting to steal back the One Ring, and who is both pitiable and dangerously mad. I think it does a good job of capturing the character's bipolar nature; alternating between fearful and aggressive.
Movement 4: Journey in the Dark
This movement tells the story of the Fellowship's passage through the Mines of Moria and their eventual confrontation with the Balrog at Khazad-Dûm. It begins with a slow march through deserted halls deep within the Earth, a palpable sense of dread building the whole time. Then there is a sudden transition to a battle as the heroes are forced to fight an army of orcs. At the climax, the Balrog enters, its flaming whip cracking. This is the point where Gandalf's main theme returns - the famous "You shall not pass!" moment where he saves the fellowship by hurling both himself and the Balrog into the pit. The movement ends with the sad march up and out of the ruin.
Movement 5: Hobbits
This may be one of the most joyful pieces of music ever written. I am not kidding when I say this. Listen to it and tell me it doesn't make you smile.
At the start of the movement we hear the call of a far-off horn; it is what remains of the Fellowship returning to the Shire after their long adventure. The horns approach and build into a quiet reprise of the Gandalf fanfare from the first movement. The music becomes mysterious for a moment, then familiar and longing (one of my favorite moments in the entire Symphony), then breaks into a celebratory march. This builds, with the addition of voices, before transitioning to a more intimate (and then once-again triumphant) melody in 3/4 time.
But as we know, Frodo doesn't stay in Hobbiton forever. Gandalf returns (along with his theme) and they set off for the West with one last reprise of the fanfare. We watch the ship sail from the Grey Havens and slowly disappear from view, accompanied by the rolling of the waves and an eerie Elven theme from the (now lost) Lothlorien.
The final fade-out provides a bittersweet ending to the Symphony but that's entirely appropriate - one of the central themes of Tolkien's work was the fading of magic and wonder from the world. To not end the piece with a farewell would have been a disservice to the source.