Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Are Those Elves Singing?

This week we of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus are in rehearsals with the orchestra and conductor Erik Ochsner (pictured here) to perform Howard Shore's full musical score to The Fellowship of the Ring, live in front of a Powell Hall audience, accompanying a big-screen projection of the film by Peter Jackson. This is a version of the film music that restores vocal and instrumental cues that were dialed down to inaudibility or completely cut during the final round of sound-editing, but for the most part it's just a performance in which Shore's music glories in the spotlight while the film's dialogue and sound effects move into the background.

I've watched the movie many times on DVD, but until I became a part of this performance I never really paid very close attention to what the chorus was singing in the background. Now I can tell you what they're singing, in case you wondered but were afraid to ask... For the following I am indebted to Paul Hahn, the Symphony Chorus's resident hobbit and Middle-Earthian linguistic expert.

At the beginning of the movie, as a Cate Blanchett voice-over begins to set the stage for Tolkien's ring epic, a female chorus sings a couple of chant-like phrases in Sindarin, one of the major elvish languages of Middle Earth. The first phrase means, "Who brings us this token of darkness?" The second phrase, which partially slips into the Quenya dialect, is a conflation of two poetic fragments which, put together, don't mean anything as far as I can make out. Either Shore selected his fragments of text with an ear for making them sound meaningful through their musical setting, or this riff is a casualty of the swift, sure blade of the editor. Maybe a bit of both...

The ancient battle between the free forces of Middle Earth and the armies of Sauron is accompanied by a chorus singing a mixture of textual fragments, including the Black Speech ditty engraved on Frodo's ring ("One ring..."), the Quenya word for "ring," and bits of a poem in Adunaic, the human tongue of the ancient kings who became the nine ring-wraiths ("We renounce our maker..."). At different points throughout the first half of the film, the chorus repeatedly sings variations on this evil hymn, notably the words "Bari'n Katharad," or "Lords of Unending Life."

After the ring betrays Isildur and ensnares Gollum as its bearer, the women's chorus comes in with a gradually building tone cluster on the Quenya words meaning "Herald of death."

During Gandalf's visit with Bilbo, before the birthday party, after the line "some cheese here" the chorus hums for a spell, without text. While Bilbo struggles with the seduction of the ring after his escape from the party, the choir hums a bit more, from "It's here in my pocket" to "Well, no and yes." Then, once more, in a series of strained gasps, the humming accompanies Bilbo's final struggle before dropping the ring on the flagstoned floor.

After the torture of Gollum, as the black riders ride out of Mordor in search of "Baggins! Shire!" there is a brief reprise of the "We renounce our maker" hymn. Then, while Gandalf pours over ancient scrolls relating Isildur's ill-fated dalliance with the ring, you may hear a bit of Quenya poetry describing the temptation of "the strength, the weapon...go to victory!"

The women and children contribute more ominous humming as Gandalf gives Frodo and Sam their marching orders and sets them on their way. Then the men hum their own dissonant chords during Gandalf's conference with the corrupt Saruman, from "His gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh" to "You know this? How?" Then, after Gandalf poses the sardonic question, "When did Saruman the wise abandon reason for madness?" the full chorus returns to the Dark Speech and the inscription on the ring: "In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie," etc.

When Frodo has a presentiment of the black riders' approach and orders his traveling companions off the road, the chorus builds up a dissonant crescendo on a fragment (not even a whole word) of "We renounce our maker." Then, during the race for Buckleberry Ferry, the same ring-wraith hymn returns in full force, climaxing at the Adunaic words for "We cleave to the darkness." The same ring-wraith theme is sung during the black riders' attack on the inn at Bree, and again when the four young hobbits face the nine riders at Weathertop.

The beautiful melody sung by a boy soprano soloist during Gandalf's encounter with a moth atop the tower of Isengard, while the orcs below rape the landscape, is a Quenya text meaning: "The earth groans and the wind is crying." And the lovely number for female voices that accompanies Arwen's first appearance actually begins with the name "Tinuviel," a maiden from elvish folklore who is a tragic type of Arwen and whose name literally means "nightingale." The rest of the riff means, "Elven-fair, immortal maiden." During Arwen's ride against the Nine, with Frodo on board, the wraiths' "We renounce" hymn returns.

Then comes something I am amazed that I never recognized, until now, as a choral piece in the English language! As Arwen cradles the gravely ill Frodo in her hands and whispers the prayer, "What grace is given me, let it pass to him; let him be spared. Mighty Valar save him," the female voices echo her exact words, tapering across the scene change to Frodo waking up in the house of Elrond with Gandalf by his side.

During the flashback when Gandalf is visited a second time by the moth, before throwing himself off the top of the Orthanc, there is a tiny, fragmentary reprise of "The earth groans." Then, as the vista of Rivendell unfolds before Frodo's wondering eyes, the gorgeous number for women's chorus actually sings Sindarin words you can read in the main body of Tolkien's novel: "A Elbereth Gilthoniel..." Just as the reprise of "The earth groans" breaks off in mid-word, Shore's setting of "Gilthoniel" is ruthlessly insensitive to the text, placing the word across the break between two distinct phrases; but it sounds magical, and the lyrics mean: "O queen of stars, kindler of stars, there falls like shining jewels..." And after a brief reprise of the beginning of this incomplete thought, the men come in with a humming accompaniment to the Shire Theme.

The love scene on the bridge between Arwen and Aragorn is decorated with a lovely solo, titled "Aniron," for mezzo-soprano backed up by the male chorus (humming). The soloist's lyrics are Sindarin for: "From darkness I understand the night: dreams flow, a star shines. Ah! I desire Evenstar! Behold! A star rises out of the darkness. The star's song enchants my heart. Ah! I desire Evenstar!"

Near the end of the Council of Elrond, as the members of the Fellowship pledge their aid to Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, there is a bit more neutral-syllable humming by the men's chorus. And then...intermission!

On the pass of Caradhras, as Boromir picks up the ring dropped by Frodo and struggles against its pull, the ominous-sounding couple of phrases is a reprise of the seduction theme heard earlier, "The strength, the weapon," etc.

At the doors of Moria, as the starlight and moonlight light up the mithril filigree around the door, the women's chorus intones a fragment of Sindarin text: "The light of Feanor falls... desire... Feanor..." It's tragic that Shore never set in full the poem of which this, and other choral riffs, is only a tiny part--but there's no point sharing it with you, since you won't hear it in this film.

The men's chorus swings into Dwarvish as Saruman and Gandalf converse telepathically about the perils of Moria: "Durin who is deathless, eldest of all fathers, who awoke to darkness beneath the mountain, who walked alone through halls of stone," etc. Actually Shore seems to select random bits of this poem for this cue, but I quote it more or less in full because the left-out bits come in during the awe-inspiring reveal of the undergound metropolis of Dwarrowdelf.

The flight from the Balrog occasions the most extended continuous piece of chorus music, all for the men's chorus. The words, again in Dwarvish, mean approximately: "The demon comes! The earth shakes! Fear rips our heart! Fire in the deep! Flames lick our skin!" And in the frequent bark-like refrain of "Lu! Lu! Lu! Lu!" you hear the dwarf bard crying, "No! No! No! No!" The chorus repeatedly sings this text, arranged and rearranged in a dizzying multitude of combinations, for a staggering number of densely-scored pages, continuing way beyond the point where the chorus track drops out in the DVD cut of the film.

The heart-wrenching music behind the scene where the fellowship reels in shock after witnessing Gandalf's death is performed first by tenors and basses with a soprano soloist, with a boy soprano taking over later--all on a neutral syllable, as befits people speechless with grief.

The spooky women's-chorus number undergirding the fellowship's journey into the perilous forest of Lothlorien begins with a reprise of the opening fragmentary gibberish, then flows into a Quenya lament of the elves as they pass into the West: "Our love for this land is deeper than the depths of the sea. Our regret is undying..." There's something witchy about the pitch-sliding intonation of the choir and solo violin at this point. Then the revelation of the treetop city of Galadriel comes with female voices singing, "Behold the light! Nenya is this ring, unbreakable, that I possess."

The lament for Gandalf, which the elf Legolas hadn't the heart to translate for his human friends, I can at last translate for you. Sung again hy women's chorus accompanying a mezzo solo, it means: "The bonds cut, the spirit broken, the flame of Anor has left this world. Mithrandir, O gray pilgrim, no more will you wander..." And, as is typical for a film score, it cuts out in mid-phrase!

The women's chorus comes back in the Mirror of Galadriel scene with a reprise of what they sang at the opening of the Lothlorien act of the film. Then, during the fellowship's departure by boat down the river Anduin, as Galadriel announces her parting gifts, we hear yet another Quenya lament. Listen to the alto voices in particular: "Ah! Like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees." The men's chorus joins only at the word "trees," and the piece ends with the out-of-context word meaning "queenly."

The little bit of choral music at the Argonath (the tall statues of Aragorn's kingly forbears) is mostly humming, except for the sopranos, who sing Tolkien's Quenya words for Aragorn's coronation: "Out of the great sea to Middle Earth I am come. In this place I will abide, and my heirs..." Again, Shore snips off the last syllable of a word as the cue ends.

Sometime after Boromir attacks Frodo and the latter decides to strike out on his own, there is a cue for female voices, reprising the "seduction of the ring" theme. During the final climactic battle with the orcs, there is a choral phrase rising in pitch and volume but which, as near as Paul Hahn can tell, is a bunch of nonsense syllables. Maybe Shore decided to invent a bit of Orcspeak?

The scene in which Boromir is hit by a succession of arrows, and keeps trying to fight albeit with rapidly fading strength, the men's chorus sings, in a halting, gasping manner, selected syllables of the boys' choir's Quenya threnody which they accompany: "The tree is bare, the fountain still. Whither goest thou Boromir?" There are a few fragmentary words after this: "We heard...vale...where now...?" Then the voices give out. Later, as Boromir dies in Aragorn's arms, the men and boys come back in with Sindarin fragments: "I do not love... the arrow..."

The rest of the chorus's contribution is pretty much humming and neutral-syllable accompaniment through the closing credits, at times in a vocal arrangement of the Shire theme. The Enya song "May it be" comes in there too, with a massive amount of choral humming which I find to be more vocally strenuous than anything else in the piece. I won't infringe on copyright so far as to quote the mezzo soloist's lyrics, which, after all, are in English, so you can figure them out for yourself--except for a couple of Quenya phrases meaning "Darkness has come, darkness has fallen."

Later still there is a piece in which Shore sets a noble theme from the film to a song titled "In Dreams" for boys' choir and humming men's chorus: "When the cold of winter comes," etc.--which, again, you may be able to decipher for yourself, since it's in English--though most of us don't listen that far through the end titles. And finally, almost at the very end of the credits, there is a women's chorus reprise of "A Elbereth Gilthoniel," the Rivendell theme.

1 comment:

Magpie said...

You may be interested in my site, "A Magpie's Nest"
which documents all the lyrics in the soundtrack in terms of what is sung and what the English translations are.

The "choral phrase rising in pitch and volume" is Black Speech:
Ash Burz-Durbagu burzum-ishi
which translates to:
One for the Dark lord on his dark throne

I enjoyed hearing your account of the different parts of the choir and the neutral syllable singing.

Also, Guillaume Schneider wrote an account of his experiences singing in the LOTR Live to Performance concerts you might find interesting:

I hope you don't mind my putting a link to your blog entry on my website.