Review Summary: Howard Shore has been able to do the impossible by adding sensational music over an equally impossible film.
What Howard Shore has done for the Lord of the Rings trilogy is simply amazing. When it was announced that Shore would compose the scores for these movies a lot of people were skeptical. Shore isn't the kind of composer we normally associate with these kind of movies. But he surprised us all. His extensive research and attention to detail. His complex web of themes and motifs. It has all been vital in bringing Tolkien's world to life.
For each score, Shore has expanded on ideas established in previous scores. The score for The Two Towers improved and expanded on music presented in the first film, and The Return of the King goes even further. It would have been easy to more or less write the same score for all three films - it's not uncommon when it comes to series of films or sequels - but the three scores for The Lord of the Rings are all logic descendants to their precursors, managing to stand on their own while at the same time also being part of a larger whole. Shore's approach has been to regard all three scores as individual parts of one large piece - like three acts of one long opera. A wise choice.
Already established themes and motifs show up in the score. Sometimes Shore just hints at them, and other times he really twists and changes them. There aren't that many full blown renditions of the themes, something which isn't necessary since all themes already are familiar enough. The exception is the theme for Gondor, just hinted at in previous scores. In The Return of the King this theme is finally allowed to shine in all its glory. It opens the third cue, "Minas Tirith", performed by subtle horns but is given a more direct, hard-to-miss presentation towards the end of the track.
The main Ring theme, referred to as the "History of the Ring" theme by Howard Shore, is of course used, first heard in the opening cue, performed by a sad solo violin. Other Ring themes appear as well, such as the low descending figure heard mostly in the first film and closely related to Gollum's Cimbalom theme in the second film. His thematic companions are also used of course, although mostly small snippets here and there. The Rohan theme shows up in a couple of cues, often more aggressive and brassy than in The Two Towers. There's really no reason to mention every theme used in the score - practically every theme from the two first scores make appearances throughout the score. And it's like getting a visit from old friends.
The Return of the King is at times quite a bit more upbeat than The Two Towers. The Return of the King is mood wise a much more balanced score than The Two Towers, which is the darkest score in the trilogy. The opening "A Storm is Coming" and "Hope and Memory" includes hints of the Shire music and passages reminiscent of the "mushroom music" from the first film. Light woodwinds and bouncy strings. The occasional whistle and flute solos by well known Sir James Galway certainly help in making the score more lyrical and lighter at times. "The Return of the King" and the final score track, "The Grey Havens", both includes some really beautiful, melodic music. Especially "The Grey Havens", with sweeping statements of the theme associated with Frodo and the Shire. A real tear-jerker. But the score includes some really dark parts, as well. "Cirith Ungol" is powerful and uneasy track and "Shelob's Lair" is a really exciting action track. And tracks such as "The Fields of the Pelennor" features some extremely intense choir music. It's also worth mentioning that large parts of the action cues aren't included on the soundtrack CD, since they weren't recorded when the CD was produced.
As usual, the score relies heavily on voices. Full choir is used in many cues and solo contributions by singers such as boy soprano Ben del Maestro and soprano Renée Fleming can be heard in a couple of tracks. Billy Boyd makes a surprising appearance in track five, "The Steward of Gondor". It's a very sad little piece and Boyd's singing voice is really excellent. And Viggo Mortensen gets to do a little singing in the ten minute long "The Return of the King". Just one verse and it fits the mood and sound of the rest of the music really well. Reprise Records, who have really done an awful job with the three soundtracks (several versions, collectible covers no-one cares about and totally ignoring Howard Shore when it comes to the marketing) will probably focus entirely on the single Annie Lennox track included when marketing. Composed by Shore, Fran Walsh and Annie Lennox, "Into the West" is a pretty good song and a rather nice ending to the soundtrack. It's more commercial sounding (although with a very nice orchestral backing) than "Gollum's Song" from The Two Towers and I wasn't too surprised when it won an Academy Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture. The score was also nominated as well, and won for Best Film Score. The Return of the King is an amazing finale to some of the most impressive film music ever written.