Have you ever written something that inspired a musician to compose new music? J.R.R. Tolkien hoped to do so one day, and had he lived to hear the scores of the Lord of the Rings trilogy created by Howard Shore, he would have been in awe.
I was reading Tolkien’s correspondence last week and came across a fascinating letter he wrote to a musician who was requesting permission to write a serious composition based on The Hobbit.
This would have been quite different than the quaint “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” made famous by Leonard Nimoy. (I wish their choreographer had read the book, so we could have been spared the tiny T-Rex arms sported during the chorus by the dancers.)
Anyway, returning to more serious musical ventures, in 1964 Tolkien received a request for permission to write a “Hobbit Overture.” It came from British composer Carey Blyton (1932-2002) who would become best known for his song “Bananas in Pyjamas.”
Tolkien’s response to the composer’s query is fascinating, on several levels. First, he is gracious in extending his permission, without any restrictions. And, in 1967 Blyton did compose “The Hobbit” Overture, opus 52a. It appears on the CD, British Light Overtures 3.
Secondly, he shares his unspoken desire that his work might someday inspire music. Then he makes a curious comment about the illustrations of Pauline Baynes, which would similarly grace the work of C.S. Lewis.
After that, Tolkien describes his own, musically impoverished, upbringing. Finally he expresses his deep appreciation for good music, despite his lack of knowledge on the subject.
And Tolkien accomplishes all of this in just a handful of sentences!
You certainly have my permission to compose any work that you wished based on The Hobbit. . . . . As an author I am honoured to hear that I have inspired a composer. I have long hoped to do so, and hoped also that I might perhaps find the result intelligible to me, or feel that it was akin to my own inspiration—as much as are, say, some (but not all) of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. . . . .
I have little musical knowledge. Though I come of a musical family, owing to defects of education and opportunity as an orphan, such music as was in me was submerged (until I married a musician), or transformed into linguistic terms. Music gives me great pleasure and sometimes inspiration, but I remain in the position in reverse of one who likes to read or hear poetry but knows little of its technique or tradition, or of linguistic structure.
It is common for people of sincere Christian devotion, such as Tolkien and Lewis, to express an appreciation for the divine capacity of music to touch the human spirit.
Martin Luther, for example, wrote much about music. “Music is God’s greatest gift,” he proclaimed. He was not only a composer of hymns, but also an acceptable player of the lute, which he used to accompany his children during their family devotions.
Music is deeply intertwined with the heart of Christian worship.
C.S. Lewis on the Subject of Music
One of the modest challenges in contrasting fellow Inklings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis results from the significantly different natures of their literary corpora. While they both wrote fantasy, though of a vastly different magnitude, Lewis’ vocation as one of Christianity’s chief modern apologists necessitated that he defend the faith in diverse contexts. Thus, he wrote numerous essays and a number of texts addressing a wide range of considerations that his friend Tolkien never discussed in print.
Because of this distinction, it is relatively simple to discover what Lewis thought about the nature and powers of music. Typical of the man’s practical orientation, Lewis appears little interested in the abstract attributes of music. What interests him is its confluence with human existence. The following profound insight comes from his essay “On Church Music.”
There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.
Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.
But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.
This discussion about church music is particularly interesting due to Lewis’ personal dislike for much of the music used in worship, which I’ve written about before.
Lewis described his own church music pilgrimage in “Answers to Questions on Christianity.”
My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches . . .
If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament [holy communion], and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it.
I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis addresses this notion that we must look beyond the music itself, to assess its influence on our humanity.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Lewis recognized the deep influence and mystery with which music communicates and inspires. It is no accident that Narnia’s creation itself comes through Aslan’s song.
The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool.
It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer.
Returning to “On Church Music,” Lewis expands on the importance of our intentions as we approach music.
It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way, or ways, in which music can glorify God. There is . . . a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them. . . . An excellently performed piece of music, as natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with the ‘dragons and great deeps,’ with the ‘frost and snows.’
What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends.
When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall. . . .
We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. To which an answer came, ‘mine are the cattle upon a thousand hills,’ and ‘if I am hungry, I will not tell thee.’ If God (in that sense) wanted music, He would not tell us. For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.
At the outset of this column I declared Tolkien would have been “in awe” of the musical score written to accompany the Lord of the Rings movies. Lewis too, I believe, would have been impressed by the scores composed for the three Chronicles of Narnia films made thus far. We owe a debt of gratitude to three composers: Howard Shore,* Harry Gregson-Williams,** and David Arnold***.
An Historical Postscript
In the spirit of Lewis and Tolkien, who appreciated the importance of music, we’ll close now with another engaging quotation from the wry pen of Doctor Martin Luther.
I wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.
The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.
A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
* Howard Shore has nearly a hundred credits as a composer, conductor and orchestrator on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In addition to the Tolkien cinema projects, he has also worked on a number of other very successful films and ninety-six episodes of Saturday Night Live. Shore won three Oscars for his work on Lord of the Rings.
** Harry Gregson-Williams has nearly a hundred credits on the IMDb, including a number of box office successes, a variety of popular video games, and several productions in the Shrek series. He won awards for his work on the Chronicles of Narnia series and another of my favorite films, Kingdom of Heaven.
*** David Arnold, wrote the score for the third Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has seventy-three credits listed on IMDb, ranging from this year’s Independence Day: Resurgence, all the way back to a BBC made for tv picture entitled Mr. Stink.