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Old 02-21-2010, 08:44 AM   #1
Faramir Jones
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Thumbs up 'Microphones in Middle-earth: Music in the BBC Radio Play', Paul Smith

Among the most famous adaptations of LotR is the BBC radio play of 1981, which I personally regard as the best adaptation of that work so far. Because of this, I was very curious to read what Paul Smith's 'Microphones in Middle-earth: Music in the BBC Radio Play' was like. My curiosity was more than satisfied; and I warmly recommend this article to anyone with an interest in the play, for three reasons.

First, the author is extremely well-qualified to analyse the play's music ‘from both a musical and a literary point of view', in terms of how it came to be, why it had the particular structural segments, and who performed it, he being an admirer of LotR since 8, a countertenor since 19, and an actor ‘lucky enough’ to perform adaptations of the play in front of an audience including Brian Sibley, co-adaptor of LotR with Michael Bakewell. (p. 241)

Second, he explored the consequences of the selection of Stephen Oliver by the production team and their belief that the music ‘must sound essentially English'. (p. 242) His explanation of what music lovers often mean by music that ‘sounds English’ was very good:

the early 20th-century Pastoral School of English composers such as Vaughan Williams..., Finzi, Moeran and Delius, as well as the contemporary setters of pastoral verse (e.g. 'A Shropshire Lad') such as Quilter, Butterworth and Gurney. Much of this music can be characterised by generally quiet dynamics, consonant harmony, simple melodic contours, and often a “rocking” accompaniment in 6/8 or similar compound time signatures. It aims to evoke a particular atmosphere of place – “landscape in music”. (p. 242)

The author then proceeded to explore how Oliver’s compositions for the play

take inspiration from the whole history of English music, from the modal harmonies and polyphonic invention of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, through the structural devices and floridity of the English Baroque to the English Pastoral School and even the highly individual textures of Britten. (p. 243)

His explanation of how Oliver used this whole history to evoke ‘particular aspects' of the drama, characters and places of LotR is well worth a read. (pp. 243-250)

Third, the author also explained how the high quality of the performers, both singers and musicians, along with the music itself, not only inspired future performers but helped make the radio play so well-regarded. (pp. 251-252)

I learned a great deal from this article, and warmly recommend it to anyone with any interest in the play.
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Old 02-21-2010, 02:49 PM   #2
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I quite agree, Faramir, and I found this chapter to be very readable and interesting. I also see parallels with Greg Martin's chapter on "Music, Myth and Literary Depth", which also explores connections between Tolkien and Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the English composers mentioned by Paul Smith.

I am also a great fan of the BBC radio play and have been privileged to hear the Cambridge Society perform part of it at "Tolkien 2005" in Birmingham. Paul Smith spoke and sang in that performance; his countertenor voice was wonderfully otherworldish for the Eagle's song.
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Old 02-21-2010, 06:38 PM   #3
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I also enjoyed this chapter, even though I was unfamiliar with the radio drama until now. For those of you who, like me, haven't had the good fortune to hear it before, they appear to have all the episodes here on YouTube.

I've now listened to some of the radio drama, and it's interesting to do so after reading Smith's essay, as I find myself being particularly attentive to the music. So far I find Oliver's settings of the songs to sound very "authentic" - by which, I suppose, I mean that they sound very much as I have always imagined them to.
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Old 02-22-2010, 01:49 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Aiwendil View Post

I've now listened to some of the radio drama, and it's interesting to do so after reading Smith's essay, as I find myself being particularly attentive to the music. So far I find Oliver's settings of the songs to sound very "authentic" - by which, I suppose, I mean that they sound very much as I have always imagined them to.
Lot more on the series (including contributions from Brian Sibley himself) in our unfinished thread http://forum.barrowdowns.com/showthread.php?t=14646 . Quite a bit on Stephen Oliver's music can be found there. There is a (very) limited edition recording (which a few of us have of a talk given by Brian Sibley, Michael Bakewell (the adaptors), Penny Leicester (the director) & a number of the cast, along with Stephen Oliver himself (& an excerpt from the tape prepared by Christopher Tolkien as a pronunciation guide for the actors) which was given at the Church House Bookshop back in 1981, which took place just a few days before the series was first broadcast.

Don't know if any of the following made it into the essay, but here's a bit from a couple of my posts on the thread:
Quote:
The music was by Stephen Oliver (Morgan had originally wanted Sir Malcolm Arnold). Oliver decided that he didn't want anything that sounded 'too grand', as most of the audience would be listening to it on small radios. He chose to use almost exclusively Violas & Cellos (the only real exception being Boromir's horn). Oliver commented that he found Tolkien's lyrics 'poor' - except for the alliterative verse, which he thought brilliant. The approach he took to setting them to music was quite practical - if it was a walking song he would use a walking rhythm' dum-dum-dum.
&
Quote:
I love that Church House recording - though I'm not sure Stephen Oliver's annecdote on the afternoon he spent teaching the Ambrosian Singers the song from the Field of Cormallen would be quite acceptable in these more PC times ('Like teaching disabled children to sing God save the Queen' as he put it!).
You might also like these pages from Brian's blog http://briansibleytheworks.blogspot....fadden-on.html & http://briansibleytheworks.blogspot....uction_23.html

Last edited by davem; 02-22-2010 at 01:54 PM.
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Old 06-07-2010, 07:03 AM   #5
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Last week I discovered, quite by accident, in a branch of my library in Zürich, the LotR BBC radio play.(14 CDs) I have wanted to listen to this much praised adaption for some time, so I was happy to be able to take it home and listen to it for the first time! I enjoyed it very much and agree that it is indeed very well done.

Right afterwards I read the essay on the music, while listening to the respective music on the 14th CD (only the music). Thus I could really appreciate it!

I liked most of the music, my favourite being "Gil-Galad was an Elven King" (which I already had heard previously) The Rohan themed music is also great! As for the Elvish music: for me the film music sounds more "right".
The countertenor as the eagle's voice is intriguing - when reading the "song", I never imagined it as a melody and voice, and I suppose that any talking/singing voice would seem a bit strange, but since an actual eagle's scream is highpitched, the countertenor is quite apt!
What I found downright ugly was the "Shadowfax" theme. (Too modern for my oldfashioned taste, I guess)

But
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Oliver commented that he found Tolkien's lyrics 'poor' -
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Old 06-21-2010, 12:44 AM   #6
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Oh I forgot all about that BBC one... must track it down.
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Old 04-23-2011, 01:39 AM   #7
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Pipe 1981 BBC Lord of the Rings

I would agree that this is the definitive Lord of the Rings for me, every voice is perfect (with the exception of Arwen). The cuts sit very well with me since I think the Tom Bombadil and the barrow wights are completely unnecessary, other additions and cuts throughout I also think fit very well.
I listen to the whole 13 hours at least once yearly, although I do remember a few minor differences from the cassette version that I got back in the mid 90s.
I would say its largely because of this version that I could never take the movies seriously, with Keith Urban as Eomer being the only good translation to my mind. I only wish they carried on and made a dramatisation of the Hobbit afterwards with some actor cross over, that would have been great.
Also on the music - great. Simple, effective, and epic all at the same time. Theoden's ride to Minas Tirith is personal favourite.
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Old 04-23-2011, 05:56 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Renzolicious View Post
I would agree that this is the definitive Lord of the Rings for me, every voice is perfect (with the exception of Arwen). The cuts sit very well with me since I think the Tom Bombadil and the barrow wights are completely unnecessary, other additions and cuts throughout I also think fit very well.
I listen to the whole 13 hours at least once yearly, although I do remember a few minor differences from the cassette version that I got back in the mid 90s.
I would say its largely because of this version that I could never take the movies seriously, with Keith Urban as Eomer being the only good translation to my mind. I only wish they carried on and made a dramatisation of the Hobbit afterwards with some actor cross over, that would have been great.
Also on the music - great. Simple, effective, and epic all at the same time. Theoden's ride to Minas Tirith is personal favourite.
Actually BBC DID do a Hobbit (back in 1968). this is probably why they did not continue on afterward as far as they were concerned, they had DONE a full cast dramaitization of the Hobbit.
However if you are looking for a little "more" than waht was in the box, there is a sort of "extra" episode to the Lord of the Rings (the reason I suspect why some people described the series as 14 hours, as opposed to 13. Some years after the Lord of the Rings dramatization was done, an addional episode was produced, covering Tom Bombadil and the Events in the old forest. The only two actors that crossed over on this were Ian Holm (Frodo) and Michael Hordern (Gandalf) who plays the Narrator (though it is possible the narrator only exists on the disc version) The CD of this (at least, over here in America) is part of a 3 disc set called Tales from the Perilous Realms (the set also has "Smith of Wooton Major", "Farmer Giles of Ham" and "Leaf by Niggle").
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Old 04-23-2011, 10:36 PM   #9
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Quite right on the 1968 radio production of the Hobbit - I didn't like it. Although there is another radio version that I've heard of that I would like to check out since I could barely stand the 1968 version.
I actually tracked down that "14th" hour just last week, and it was interesting to hear, but I prefer the longer version without it.
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Old 04-24-2011, 08:47 AM   #10
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As I recall Tales from the Perilous Realm was produced by the BBC for the original Radio 5 station, which was aimed at young listeners. It was originally broadcast over 6 episodes with Bombadil & Giles broadcast in two parts & Niggle & Smith as single episodes. They were adapted by Brian Sibley, one of the adaptors of the BBC LotR. They don't work quite as well as the LotR in some cases (Smith particularly doesn't capture the heart & mood of Tolkien's tale - but then, for me Pauline Baynes pictures are so essential a part of the story that the story lacks something in print if they're absent) but the Bombadil episode is a fine piece of work (Its Nigel Planer who plays Frodo, though, not Ian Holm).
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