Essential VGM #2 – “The Lords of the Rings Online”
Lord of the Rings Online is generally considered to be more loyal to the Lord of the Rings books than the Peter Jackson films. And it’s a wholly immersive Middle Earth experience despite being now over a decade old. However long it’s been around, LotRO has been lovingly tended over the years. And its music forever revamped and re-imagined.
Like most MMORPGs, LotRO has had its share of composers. Geoff Scott, Brad Spears, Egan Budd, Stephen Digregorio and Chance Thomas. All have done their part in contributing to the musical world of LotRO and the legacy of Tolkien. And every piece of music fits seamlessly into the world Turbine have built over the last 12 years. And each piece, eternally bound to the LotRO experience for many an adoring player, carries them right back to Middle Earth and to Tolkien’s ‘Secondary World’.
The piece I want to look at today is one for Rivendell. In its original form, we heard the piece as composed by, I believe, Stephen Digregorio. (I think it was Digregorio though, given how many composers have worked on LotRO over the years, it’s been difficult to pin down exactly who wrote what.) And then, in the 10th Anniversary re-orchestration of many of the game’s memorable pieces, we hear an arrangement by Chance Thomas – the mind behind the fantastic soundtrack to the ‘Riders of Rohan’ LotRO expansion.
The Last Homely Home [Analysis]
When I think of the elves at Rivendell, I think string arpeggios. Mystical, ambiguous and ethereal. It’s hard to talk about Lord of the Rings music without mentioning Howard Shore’s incredible work on the Peter Jackson films. In fact, it’s his choices when composing for Rivendell for the Fellowship of the Ring that has bound the sound of phrygian arpeggios to Rivendell. It makes sense then that, when we hear the opening notes of the original orchestration of LotRO’s Rivendell theme, we hear similar, albeit higher, string arpeggios.
In Chance Thomas’s re-orchestration however, things are different. Instead of the confident string signature of the elves, we hear a timid, breathy flute. Alluring and one with the ambient fx layered into the track, the flute turns a string statement into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the woods. The light of a spring morning, flickering between new leaves and heating the ground for the first time since the cold of winter turned to leave.
For me, this change from strings to flute is the perfect choice. The strings return later as we see but from outside the home of the elves, Rivendell is a place of mystery and of the arcane. This quivering flute, grace notes and all, captures the spirit of the elves. A magical folk in a world no longer for them. A wise and reverent people abiding in ‘the last homely home east of the sea.’
When you hear this flute, dipped in the gentlest of atmospheric reverb, it is as if you are being called onwards by a distant voice. And when at last it fades, the strings come up to meet you. Behind, the woodwinds support the new lead in chords, pulsing gently for the first part of the melody. Then, from beneath, the cello swells into counterpoint before too folding into chordal support in the low pitches for the rising melody.
Accompanying the lower strings now is our brass section. Providing weight to the lower sounds, like the rocky gorge at the edge of which Rivendell was built, this low brass hugs the listeners ear. And as the melody rises to its zenith, and the cello provides counterpoint once more, you can almost hear the soft voices of the elves. ‘Welcome to Rivendell’.
A cymbal rush and the life of the town is taken into the music. Staccato woodwinds provide the chirping of the birds in the trees while the lower strings drive the piece forward with a deeper melody alluding to Shore’s Rivendell theme. Scattered woodwind pulses decorate the piece then as the higher strings take precedence once more.
For but a moment, the scattered woodwinds continue before lulling into middle range chordal support for the body of the sound, the lower brass. And as the brooding brass gives us a touch of the hidden power of the elves at Rivendell, our lead strings calls out in question. A four note motif which is, in turn, answered by the cello and a higher string answer of the question. And as the lift of the piece gives way to a dynamic ebb, we hear the brass echo the motif in its lower voice. Following the syllables, you can almost imagine it being a concurrence of the phrase, “And so we go on.”
And in the closing moments of the piece, we hear the breathy flute return for a fragment of the opening passage. A final farewell from the elves as the fellowship goes onwards towards the new and old alike. Though their destination is known, what they may face will not be. And as they go on, they say goodbye to the last homely home.
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Lord of the Rings Online ‘Rivendell’ Original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXCt0p1EISY
Lord of the Rings Online 10th Anniversary Soundtrack by Chance Thomas on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/5qtPsIs6BHsOGmlFsbpgL1
Rivendell theme by Howard Shore for The Hobbit: https://youtu.be/3x6HrCrEJrc