Michael Cunningham from the Tolkien Society (UK) sends along this review of ‘At Dawn in Rivendell’ featuring Christopher Lee (Saruman).

[Vitsit tolkienensemble.com]

Amidst the respective wakes of commercial flotsam and heated discourse which marked the paths left by Peter Jackson’s cinematically interpretative forays into Middle Earth rises the latest release from the Tolkien Ensemble. Entitled ‘At Dawn in Rivendell’ this release is the penultimate installation of a tetrad of works by the Ensemble which began in 1995 with ‘ An Evening in Rivendell’, followed with ‘ A Night in Rivendell’ in 2000. The extant works saw fruition through the musical alliance of Caspar Reiff and Peter Hall. Both composers and performers are joined on this release by Christopher Lee, The Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata, Copenhagen Young Strings as well as a number of soloists who contribute to the realization of this juncture in the Rivendell series of recordings.

To the CD itself. Opening with a spoken word piece delivered by the distinctive tones of Christopher Lee, the prefatory ‘Verse of the Rings’, which is the Ring count; ‘Three rings for the Elven-Kings…’. Lee performs several other spoken-word pieces throughout the CD such as ‘Warning of Winter’, ‘Boromir’s Riddle’ and the ‘Riddle of Strider’. I feel Lee’s voice works in delivering such in somewhat dry tones which do well in summoning an air of inevitability. This is evident on ‘Malbeth the Seer’s Words’ where the Copenhagen Young Strings provide a precursory canvas upon which foreboding washes before drifting up to catch Lee’s words towards the end of the piece; words which carry the listener to the ‘…Paths of the Dead.’ ‘Song of Gondor’ presents a solemn nobility of strings sweeping upwards towards a baritone, almost plaintive delivery of the prose. Companion to this mood may be the track ‘ Éomer’s Song’, both pieces elicit, I feel, echoes of such Old English works as The Ruin and The Wanderer and, especially with ‘Éomer’s Song’, The Battle of Maldon where Byrhtnoth characterised the old northern spirit in the face of inexorable doom. A cry for the heroic past to return and the encroaching dark fog to lift.

Amongst such pieces one finds ‘relief’ in the guise of ‘A Walking Song’, ‘A Drinking Song’ and ‘ A Bath Song’, each self-descriptive and bathed in a canvas of capering melodies and good interplay of vocals that will surely tempt the hairiest of feet to get a tapping. These compositions are enjoyable and the employment of instruments such as doublebass and mandolin add to the atmosphere each track stirs. Here the juxtaposition of diverging musical flavours throughout the CD capture, I feel, the merging of chronological horizons, from the equine tramp of the Riddermark to the waistcoated bowels of Bag-End, which draped events in the narrative in a kaleidoscope of variation and vibrancy.

Within ‘The Long List of the Ents’ and ‘Treebeard’s Song’ Lee again features. This time Lee narrates as Treebeard latterly projecting his bass tones, accompanied by the orchestral solo of Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. Is the voice convincingly Entish? Well I’d submit that’s a matter of perspective, certainly time constraints may compress the natural norms of Middle Earth in respect of this particular medium. Otherwise it serves to evoke the age-knotted Treebeard to good effect. Twenty pieces comprise the CD and the final of these is the ‘Elven Hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel’ now, one is no-doubt familiar with the portrayal of Elven song in pats mediums of the like and often such, I feel, are all too diaphanous, failing to give breath to the race they seek to animate. However I can quite honestly say that I found the Ensemble’s piece to work as it were. The piece seems more fleshed and, indeed, professional while maintaining its vision thereby producing an almost fey quality without subverting to the familiar commercial cloak worn by Clannad-type artists. No, this piece worked to set itself apart from the previous pieces, therein its landscape unfolded and wove together with the mezzo-soprano of Signe Asmussen accompanied by the gentle waterfall of an Irish harp.

One aspect this CD drew out for me was the recognition of the rich vein of oral tradition infused throughout Tolkien’s work, a passive undercurrent to the tidal flow of the main narrative. Tolkien’s prose, I feel, embodied not only his relationship with ‘Lit and Lang’ but also of that northern heroic spirit, imagined or otherwise, that gradually ebbed as wood fell and choking edifices rose heralding the passing of something momentary and now rarely glimpsed or evoked. I approached this CD with a fresh ear and I was delighted not only with the musical interpretations therein but also the care taken with the booklet to reproduce the respective prose and the illustrations of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, whose enthusiasm for Tolkien’s works resulted in the Danish translation of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was also familiar with the Queen’s pictorial interpretations of his works. For me this series is singular in a sense as it avoids the pitfalls of ‘cinematic scores’ and, through artists more than familiar with Tolkien’s works, it instead delivers a lively interpretation that, in part, fleshing aspects of Tolkien’s works personal to the listener in a less intrusive manner than cinematic reproduction. This CD will certainly continue to reward the listener on each play.

What follows is a brief interview with Caspar Reiff

Tolkien Society: What aspects drew you to Tolkien’s prose and indeed narrative through to the subsequent interpretation of same through the Tolkien Ensemble?

Caspar Reiff: The first time I read The Lord of the Rings was in 1990. I was 19 years old and like so many other readers absolutely amazed with the quality of the book. I read it in the Danish translation (by Ida Nyrup Ludvigsen) wich is very good except from the translation of the poems that loses a lot of the lyric strength in the translation.

After reading the book 2 or 3 times in Danish I decided to try to read it in the original language and that was the first time I discovered the poems as being more than a curious nuisance, but indeed another wonderful aspect of Tolkien’s masterpiece.

Throughout The Lord of the Rings Tolkien describes several of the poems as songs and as a musician the obvious question was: What does the music and songs of Middle-earth sound like? I really had to find out…

TS: How did you and your fellow composer(s) approach the project? Was the overall goal clear at an early stage?

CR: The overall goal of the project was clear in 1996.

First of all I wanted to be make a complete musical interpretation of the about 70 poems from The Lord of the Rings. Secondly the music and the concept should be “in the spirit” of Tolkien’s work by using acoustic instruments and professionally trained musicians.

Thirdly the soloists should fit the specific characters of The Lord of the Rings, one soloist could have a maximum of three roles, and those roles should in some way be connected with regard to race and musical tradition (like Peter Hall: Frodo, Sam and Tom Bombadil or Morten Ernst Lassen: Aragorn and Éomer). One soloist doing both elves and humans or dwarves and hobbits should be avoided.

The music should fit the various races of Middle-earth using folkmusic for the hobbits, the classical Liedgenre/choral music to the humans and a more ethereal mixture between the two for the elves. The more strange characters like Gollum and Treebeard should be treated individually. The overall music tone should be based on the British/Nordic classical- and folkmusic traditions.

One other very important part of the concept was to compose music that varied from the very intimate single voice or just singer/guitar or singer/piano over different chambermusic constellations to large orchestral and choir pieces. At quite a lot of places in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien gives hints to the musical instrumentation of specific poems. Those hits should obviously be respected i.e. using a harp if a harp is mentioned (like in Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar, “I sang of leaves…”)

Furthermore we should try to use as few technical options and cuttings in the editing of the recordings as possible. Not all, but quite a lot of the songs, are recorded “live” in the studio in “one take” and the use of more than three or four cuts in a song are very rare in the production.

Finally the titles of the songs should be taken from “Index I Songs and Verses” from The Lord of the Rings.

TS: Where there any problems in relation to particular prose pieces and their musical realization?

CR: The poems of The Lord of the Rings has a great span from the very short ones to poems spanning over three full pages in the book, with different styles like The Eagle’s Song: “Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Arnor…”, over Song of Eärendil: “Eärendil was a mariner” to A Drinking Song: “Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go…”.

One of the first things I discovered when I started the project was that it would be absolutely impossible for me to do all the music myself, at least in a convincing way. Fortunately my friend Peter Hall was able to help me, mainly with the folkbased music. Peter Hall has a vast knowledge of different kinds of folkmusic covering the British/Irish/Nordic traditions and instruments and as a classically trained musician (London College of Music) he knows the classical music as well. This was a very important thing for the project.

On two poems we cooperated with other composers i.e. Song of Beren and Lúthien (Anker Askov made the piano arrangement) and Song of Nimrodel (Kristian Buhl Mortensen made the arrangement for lute).

TS: Now with the third phase complete, looking back, do you feel you have so far achieved your desires within the context of the CD’s?

CR: Yes, I certainly do.

TS: What type of feedback have you received regarding the series?

CR: We have been very fortunate to get a lot of very positive reviews on all three albums An Evening in Rivendell, A Night in Rivendell and At Dawn in Rivendell and we have received a lot of letters and mails from all over the world from people appreciating our work.

A couple of years ago I received a letter from a person in America who told me that his daughters rat, called Arwen, was buried in the family’s garden – to the music of my version of Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar…

TS: What can we expect with the last instalment in the series?

CR: The fourth and final CD will be titled: “Leaving Rivendell”. There will be new soloists covering the roles of Gimli and the ent Bregalad and Christopher Lee will have a leading role on the CD as well.

But, as Gandalf says: “Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder.”…

TS: After completion of the series what direction will you take the Tolkien Ensemble or is its being purely for the works of Tolkien?

CR: The Tolkien Ensemble is devoted to Tolkien’s works. After the completion of the musical interpretation of the poems of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Hall and I will start to work on the poems of The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Apart from that Peter Hall are at the moment working on creating a full music version of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

So we have still a lot of work to do to complete the task, and afterwards I hope we will be able to keep the ensemble together, playing the songs in live concerts .

TS: Would you ever consider interpreting the prose of the Old Norse sagas in the same manner?

CR: I have never thought of that…

TS: Thank you for your time and I wish you well with your future projects.

Michael Cunningham