Johann De Meij: Symphony No. 1 "The Lord of the Rings"

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
J. R. R. Tolkien 

Johann de Meij (b. 1953) is a Dutch trombonist/composer/conductor that incidentally we haven't talked about in over two years.  Born in Voorberg, Netherlands he is well known for his love of wind band and Tolkien.  He is a prolific and popular composer, amassing four large-format symphonic works for band as well as a quite a few popular concertos, including the T-Bone Concerto for trombone.

Normally I launch into some diatribe about how historical the composer was or what sort of environment existed to forge the work we're talking about, but this one is pretty straightforward.  de Meij is a low brass band nerd and he really likes Lord of the Rings.

The piece itself is divided into five distinct movements that all are sorts of character studies of the various characters and locations in the LOTR universe.  They are:

  1. Gandalf (The Wizard) 
  2. Lothlórien (The Elvenwood)
  3. Gollum (Sméagol)
  4. Journey in the Dark
    1. The Mines of Moria
    2. The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm
  5. Hobbits
The first movement begins with a triumphant, heroic theme that then transitions into another, quicker theme evoking imagery of a breakneck chase across Middle Earth.  These all feel very much like film scoring, with lush, full band sound supporting these massively sweeping melodies. The piece then brings about a hymn-like conclusion to the chase and enters a bit more introspective section that recaps the original 'Gandalf' theme.

If I had to compare it to a specific style in Western-Art Music, I'd say it's a bit like a symphonic poem, but instead of evoking specific imagery of setting, date and or time, this is more of a character study of sorts.  It explores the emotions and actions of the individual characters more so than setting any scenery in the mind's eye.  The exception to that would of course be the 2nd and 4th movements which do explore actual locations within the LOTR universe.  Movement II establishes a sort of curious, but slightly dangerous tone establishing the formal and reserved nature of the elves in Lothlórien with a stately waltz that echoes a Baroque ensemble that transitions to a forest of woodwind-inspired birds.  It concludes with a restatement of the original theme and fades into the darkness.

Gollum is this wickedly twisted, loping galop that effectively sounds terrifying with an alto saxophone solo at the beginning.  Again, de Meij expresses more the quality of the character and his personality rather than specific scenes that take place within the book.  Just listening to this, if you knew nothing else about Gollum, you'd know he's not exactly the sort of person (or thing) you'd want to hang around.

Journey in the Dark captures the tension and anxiety of the ring-bearing party's entrance into the Mines of Moria and the madness of the orc attack following which we hear a brief statement of the Gandalf theme right before things wind down a bit, probably demonstrating some of de Meij's most vivid storytelling through music as we hear Gandalf's famous stare down with the balrog.

In the final movement we again visit not specifically a place, but a archetype of the Tolkien world, the Hobbits.  Introduced by the Gandalf theme, which is befitting as through the books and the movies we're often given to view the Hobbits through the lens of Gandalf, it then transitions to a folksy, upbeat tune that sounds very, well...Hobbity.

My only gripe with this movements is that this movement then goes into what essentially amounts to a slow, "pomp and circumstance"-esque rehashing of the same Hobbit theme. It's very well done, but after almost 40 minutes of music, it's a bit stale.  Like writing, composing tends to have a problem with overstating the obvious and in my humble opinion, this restatement of the main Hobbit theme drags on for a bit too long without saying anything too terribly new.  Perhaps de Meij was pre-editorializing the insanely long ending as described by Peter Jackson.

Despite this, I still really love this work.  de Meij captures a Romantic style and love of a good melody and blends it quite well with more modern compositional techniques for band today.  Not that I don't think Howard Shore did a fine job with the score for the Peter Jackson movies, but I certainly wouldn't have been disappointed had they approached de Meij for the job himself.

Interestingly, he was actually discouraged from writing the work as it was to be his first major work and at that time (in the mid-1980's) there wasn't much wind band music longer than 30 minutes.  This work you will notice clocks in around 45 and despite the protestations of his contemporaries in the early days, de Meij's Symphony No. 1 was the catalyst that launched him into contention with some of the finest composers of this era, gave him the ability to found his own publishing company, Amstel Music, which currently publishes several Nordic composers to this day.  de Meij is a much sought-after conductor and frequently can be found in performances all over the world.

If you've only got a few moments, I'd recommend at least listening to Gandalf.  However, if you're a die-hard Tolkien fan it might be worth it to settle in for the full 45 minute epic.

See you next Friday.