In Summary: Choral Interpretation of Tolkien’s Elvish Verse

Well, the summer is over and so is my project. Finally.


In my proposal I set out to compose a piece of choral music two to three minutes in length, using the text of one of the songs that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote into his epic novel The Lord of the Rings. All being said and done, the finished piece is just a hair over three minutes long, and the text I decided to use is known as the Ambar-metta, which translates into English as “world’s-end” or “end of the world.” It was originally quoted by Elendil, an outcast on the isle of Númenor, when he fled the island shortly before it was Sodom-and-Gommorah’d by the Valar (the gods of Middle-earth) for being full of corruption fraught by Sauron. However, Elendil and a small band of his followers were still faithful to the Valar, who took pity on them and deposited them safely on the shores of Middle-earth. The Ambar-metta was recited a second time by Aragorn, descended from Elendil after forty generations and the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, during his coronation ceremony following the destruction of the One Ring. In both of these instances, the Ambar-metta is sung amidst a context of overwhelming grief and loss of life, and yet the words carry hope for a future brighter than the tragedies that have just occurred. I attempted to bring across this mood in my composition.


The full text of the Ambar-metta is as follows, in its original Quenya:


“Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!”


And is translated into English:


“Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.”


“But wait!” I hear you cry, “I thought you said your composition was three minutes long. But it barely took me two minutes to get through all the pronunciation, let alone read it. How could you possibly turn that into a full-length song?” Well, good question. (And you’re absolutely right, nobody would want to listen to a choir singing incorrect pronunciation, stumbling over the words of an invented language, in harmony for three minutes. You just can’t build a song from that.) What I ­did do is repeat the text over and over again several times throughout the piece, sort of like a fugal Latin chant; and indeed, the Latin language evidently inspired many major aspects of Quenya. (One detail of my piece that I paid especial attention to as I was composing it was the word hildinyar, “heirs:” this word shows up forty times throughout the entire piece, in token of the fact that there were forty generations of descent from Elendil to Aragorn.) I also structured some of the chord progressions and cadences of my piece off of classical Latin chant. Even moreso than Latin, however, the Finnish language served as a huge inspiration for Tolkien’s development of Quenya. While Latin served as a chiefly aesthetic inspiration, meaning that Tolkien designed Quenya to look and sound sort of like Latin (as well as serve a similar role in Elvish lore and culture to the historic role that church Latin played in the development of Western Europe), the grammatical structure of the Quenya language takes after Finnish much more closely. As such, I attempted to draw inspiration regarding the structure of my composition much more from classical Finnish music than Latin music. An article I read earlier in the summer, “The Influence of the Kalevala on Contemporary Finnish Music” by Joshua Palkki, provided a neat little list of compositional elements often attributed to this “Kalevalaic” genre of music (named after a traditional Finnish epic known as the Kalevala), including (but not limited to) call-and-response between the different parts, pedal tones (in which one or two voice parts sing long, sustained tones while the rest of the choir continues to sing melodies above them), and a 5/4 time signature (which mimics the trochaic tetrameter of the Kalevala). All of these elements can be found in my own composition.


In spite of all of this, however, I did not allow my own incredibly weird personal style of composing to be completely washed out. It was certainly a challenge to be working under so many restrictions, but I was still able to produce a melodious [citation needed] and highly complex final product. At the beginning of the summer, and again earlier today, I attempted to establish contact with the publishers of the Tolkien Estate via email, asking them for licensing for my piece so that I might be able to perform it publicly – nothing would please me more than to have the opportunity to perform my piece with the William & Mary Choir. Unfortunately I have yet to hear back from them, so I cannot post any recordings or sheet music to this blog because, y’know, copyright. I will, however, have both of these at the research fair in September, so if you are interested in hearing my piece, you can feel free to listen there. Or come find me and have me play it for you. Either way.