Fantasy Music

After writing about The Roar of Love and The King of Elfland’s Daughter in the last couple of blog posts (which adapt C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter), I was going to finish off this trilogy of mewsings with a look at a piece based on The Lord of the Rings. There are certainly plenty to choose from — see the Tolkien Music List for a comprehensive, not to say mind-boggling, index — but I chose something different from my usual musical tastes, Johan de Meij’s “Lord of the Rings” symphony, a classical piece in five movements inspired by Tolkien’s trilogy. The trouble was, it didn’t quite do it for me. That may be down to the fact that I don’t listen to a lot of classical music (though I do have my favourites). I’ve been listening to it this week (particularly the fourth movement, “Journey in the Dark”, which I keep wanting to like, as it’s my favourite part of the trilogy), but although it works as music, and is pleasant enough to listen to (and has won awards — the Sudler International Wind Band Composition competition in 1989), it isn’t quite what I was looking for in a piece of fantasy-themed music. Which got me thinking about what I was looking for.

In short, something that evokes the fantastic through music. Something that creates that peculiar sense of both otherness and long-lost familiarity, of weirdness and never-never once-upon-a-time-ness, of what the Romantics used to call “the Sublime”, that you get from great fantasy in any form, whether it be fiction, art, games, or anything else.

So here’s a test. Rather like Ursula Le Guin’s “Poughkeepsie” test for fantasy fiction (where you replace all the fantastic names with mundane ones, and see if the result still has something of Elfland in it), the “Poughkeepsie” test for music would be to ignore the names given to the tracks and ask if they still evoke a feeling of fantasy.

This might be a bit unfair on de Meij’s symphony, as it’s the first wholly instrumental piece of music I’ve looked at for its fantasy content. After all, songs can evoke a feeling of fantasy through their lyrics. But it’s also true that instrumental music can create that fantasy feel. In classical music, the prelude to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica is perfect fantasy music — in fact, I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to the opening chapters of Dracula, with its bleak wind effects and the weird, wordless singing of three female voices evoking the Count’s trio of undead brides. Similarly, Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (which is used at the end of Kubrick’s 2001), uses wordless, microtonal singing to get a really unearthly effect. (Strange how the human voice can be the weirdest of all instruments.) Also, of the albums I’ve looked at so far, both in the previous two posts and in my top five fantasy concept albums a while back, it’s tended to be the music, rather than the lyrics, that really makes them work in evoking that fantasy feel.

I think it comes down to a bringing together of the strange and the familiar. In music, this can just mean the use of exotic instruments alongside more familiar ones, as in Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, using “World” percussion and electronic synths, or Queen using a harpsichord alongside piano, guitars and layered vocals in “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke“. The Romantic idea of “the Sublime” was exactly this: a longing for a thing that is at once far removed and deeply familiar, a sense of the weird, even the frightening, alongside a recognition so deep it transcends mundanity, forging a connection with the deepest levels of your unconscious, to those most submerged parts that just don’t fit into the everyday world yet are still very much a part of you. That reconnection with the deeply familiar yet strange could well be the main function of fantasy. Certainly, it could be what I’m looking for in my quest to find fantasy in music; if so, it might seem a bit harsh to judge pieces that don’t quite attain it — it’s a tall order, after all — and which may, after all, not be trying to achieve it. (As I said, de Meij’s symphony works quite well as music, it just doesn’t quite seem to be fantasy music, to me.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep looking. Onward, to the inward!

Comments (2)

  1. Iian says:

    Hi Murray,

    I chanced across your blog the other week after wanting to learn more about the amazing David Lindsay. You can say that I came for the Lindsay, but stayed for your wonderful erudite reflections on fantasy and the weird in literature and British television (or that magical old phrase, ‘telefantasy’).

    I’ve come out of the shadows in this instance to recommend some pieces of fantasy music. One of the great composers of ‘weird music’ must surely be Joseph Holbrooke, who not only set works by Edgar Allen Poe to music as ‘The Raven’, ‘Ulalume’, and ‘The Bells’, but also collaborated with the great fantasy illustrator Sydney H. Sime on an album of musical grotesquerie called ‘Bogey Beasts’. Less macabre in subject matter than but more Celtic and Orientalist was Granville Bantock, a tone-poet in the mold of Wagner or Richard Strauss, who set Fitzgerald’s ‘Omar Khayyam’ to music in an epic opera, but produced symphonies inspired by Classical Greece (‘The Cyprian Goddess’, the ‘Pagan Symphony’) a song cycle set to Sappho, a Celtic opera (‘The Seal Woman’) and a many curious overtures and tone-poems on subjects such as ‘The Pierrot of the Minute’, ‘The Witch of Atlas’, ‘Dante and Beatrice’, etc. I think of him like the musical equivalent of John William Waterhouse in painting, or Lord Alfred Tennyson in poetry.

    Hope these might be of interest!

    Keep up the great writing,


  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks for those suggestion, Iian! I hadn’t heard of either of those composers before, but will certainly check them out — if nothing else but for the artists you compare them to. I like both Sime & Waterhouse. (I’ve seen some of the pictures for Sime’s ‘Bogey Beasts’ in a book on Sime I have.)

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