The Many Leitmotifs of The Desolation of Smaug

DOS

As a follow up to last week’s analysis of the music of the first Hobbit movie today we will be exploring the many new musical themes in The Desolation of Smaug. Whereas film reviewers felt the first film relied too heavily on familiar themes, this time around some argued that the score was too dark and that none of the new themes were memorable. However reviews for the released soundtrack told a different story: this was an ambitious, beautiful (if somewhat dark) addition to Howard Shore’s Middle-earth magnum opus.

As with all his prior contributions to this series, Shore’s most intricate work on The Desolation of Smaug comes out through his various leitmotifs denoting different themes, locations, and characters. While many of them could be missed in a first or second viewing, Shore really has put tremendous effort into tying a grand assortment of these small musical statements into a larger cohesive whole. It is this devotion to telling one big story that really sets his work on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings apart from the vast majority of film scores.

Although I’m sure I haven’t identified all the new themes in this movie nor am I knowledgeable enough to give anything even close to a professional musical assessment, I feel that these themes and what they represent to filmmaking are too important to be left unnoticed. We will try to stay in chronological order of the film although since these leitmotifs are repeated at various times this will prove difficult.

A final note: since the soundtrack was recently removed from Spotify, I am stuck with posting links to YouTube videos, some of which may eventually be taken down. Just in case, I will include the track listing and time for your benefit.

The House of Durin

The leitmotifs for Thorin Oakenshield are pretty well established in An Unexpected Journey so I won’t get in to them here. There is however one brand new theme for Thorin representing his family legacy and his duty to restore the kingdom of Erebor to its former glory. It’s called the House of Durin and it is integral to the story of The Hobbit.

This low humming melody is played in several places, including when Bard finds the tapestry, as the dwarves find their dead kin, and the climactic battle with Smaug. It’s my personal favorite theme of the entire film.

House of Durin – Girion, Lord of Dale, 2:35

Heroic version (during the battle with Smaug) – My Armor Is Iron, 0:57

Beorn

This deep brassy theme for Beorn rises and builds in intensity appearing several times in the film’s opening act. It shrouds Beorn in mystery, refusing to reveal whether he is friend or foe. The introduction version slowly explodes into Smaug’s theme as played over the title credits of the movie.

Introduction to BeornWilderland, 0:53

Running from BeornWilderland, 2:32

Breakfast with Beorn, The House of Beorn, 0:32

Mirkwood

The Mirkwood theme is built around three falling notes in slow succession. It appears briefly at Beorn’s house when he mentions the forest’s danger. The full theme appears when the Company arrives at Mirkwood as Gandalf steps onto the path. Different variations of the theme are played as the Company wanders through the myriad paths of the forest.

Beorn talking about Mirkwood, The House of Beorn, 1:16

The Company arrives at Mirkwood, Mirkwood, 0:00

Into the forestMirkwood, 1:53

“We’ve lost the path”Mirkwood, 3:08

Wood-Elves

There are several themes for the different Wood-elves and they often blend and run together quite seamlessly. However they are quite distinct as we will see below. To remind you just how important these characters are, the end credits music (Beyond the River) is pretty much solely devoted to the Wood-elves and their various themes.

Thranduil

Our first hint at Thranduil’s theme is again during Beorn’s conversation when he mentions the more dangerous and less wise wood-elves. However the big appearance is at the introduction to the king’s underground throne, orchestrated with beautiful strings and ethereal voices to create a wholly majestic effect.

Beorn talking about the Wood-elvesThe House of Beorn, 1:26

Thranduil Main Theme – The Woodland Realm, 0:39

Thorin’s confrontation with ThranduilThe Woodland Realm, 2:49

Thranduil’s first appearance in AUJ Extended Edition – My Dear Frodo, 3:23

The Woodland Realm

The Woodland Realm and its inhabitants have an appropriately mysterious theme. Most of the musical references to the Woodland Realm are dominated by Thranduil’s theme and I can only think of one time where the Woodland Realm theme is played in full, but it does seem to be hinted at in several places in the film. It’s main introduction occurs when the elves are leading their dwarf captives over the bridge to the entrance of their kingdom.

Main theme, The Woodland Realm, 0:00

Legolas

Legolas’ theme is very fascinating. Since his theme is usually played fast (during frenetic action sequences) and Thranduil’s theme is played slow (over long extended introductory and dialogue sequences), it’s easy to overlook their relationship.  Legolas’ leitmotif is actually based off the first line of Thranduil’s theme but it is obscured due to the tempo differences. Listen to Thranduil’s theme and then compare it to the Legolas leitmotif below and behold the uncanny similarities.

Legolas arrives at the river – The Forest River, 1:32

Legolas mega action version – The Forest River, 4:11

Legolas at Bard’s houses – The Hunters, 4:22

Variant: Legolas chases after BolgThe Hunters, 9:20

Tauriel

As Thranduil’s captain of the guard as well as the center of an unlikely love triangle, Tauriel has perhaps the most complex musical themes of any character in this film. She not only has her own leitmotif but also a few dedicated to her different relationships.

Tauriel Battle Theme

During her first appearance we hear her main battle theme as she leaps down to rescue Kili from the spiders. This powerful and melodic string rhythm appears many times throughout the score and reminds us of just how dangerous Tauriel can be.

Tauriel saves Kili from spiders, Flies and Spiders, 7:23

Tauriel arrives at the barrel chase, The Forest River, 1:15

Beautiful end credits version, Beyond the Forest, 2:45

Tauriel Reflective Theme

We also hear quiet meditative oboe music for the times that Tauriel is reflecting upon her place in the world as a lowly Silvan elf. This music, more of a style than an actual melody, is first heard during her conversation with Thranduil but is also heard in other places. If you listen carefully to the first example below you’ll hear a lovely blend of Tauriel’s reflective music, Tauriel’s battle theme, and finally the second half of Legolas’ theme.

Lowly Silvan Elf, The Woodland Realm, 3:49

Tauriel Reflective theme, Feast of Starlight, 2:19

The Feast of Starlight

Of course there is also special music for Tauriel’s budding attachment to Kili. This elegant vocal piece is one of the highlights of the entire score, providing a stirring emotional weight for their scenes together.

The Feast of Starlight – Feast of Starlight, 1:35

Plucked harp version – Kingsfoil, 1:07

Flute version – Beyond the River, 1:06

Fittingly, there is also a final reference to the Legolas theme right as Tauriel decides to stay behind and save Kili’s life. The music transitions quickly from the Legolas leitmotif to the Reflective theme and right into the Feast of Starlight.

Tauriel chooses Kili over Legolas, Kingsfoil, 0:20

Esgaroth

While not quite as many as the elves of the Woodland Realm, the men of Lake-town get a good amount of new themes all to themselves. With a more medieval feel to them, its themes add great personality to this ill-fated town that has seen better days.

Bard

Bard’s theme reflects his ambiguity as a character. Switching between descending minor and major notes, his theme shows us how uncertain everyone else is about this dubious smuggler. The first instance of Bard’s theme contains only a few notes but later versions develop his melodies further as we get to know his character more fully.

Bard on his barge (simple version)  – Bard, a Man of Lake-town, 0:11

“That trouble-making bargeman’s behind all this.” –Protector of the Common Folk, 0:00

“Where are the weapons?” – Thrice Welcome, 1:36

Lake-town

Much like how the human city of Edoras was given big stately music in The Two Towers, the Lake-town leitmotif is centrally featured several times during outdoor shots. Carrying a strong Medieval pulse, the theme pretty much captures the heart of this city right away. When Thorin delivers his speech about restoring Esgaroth to its former glory, a quieter version of the theme is played.

Lake-town theme – Protector of the Common Folk, 1:53

“Our house is being watched” – Thrice Welcome, 2:15

Alternate somber version during Thorin’s speech – Durin’s Folk, 0:32

The Master of Lake-town

Although the Master doesn’t have too many scenes and often shares the ones he does have with other main characters, he does have his own peculiar and sometimes ominous melody. Since he exerts his will through his servant Alfrid, they seem to share the same theme. However when the Master is present, his theme is played with a dulcimer-like instrument instead of strings.

Alfrid questions Bard – Protector of the Common Folk, 2:38

Alfrid dumps the fish – Protector of the Common Folk, 3:22

The Master’s theme (quiet version) – Thrice Welcome, 0:31

The Master’s theme (loud version) – Thrice Welcome, 1:01

Girion

Girion, Lord of Dale, is only seen in flashbacks but he is prominently discussed twice during the film. Both times he is given new interesting music. I can’t quite figure out exactly how his two pieces fit together, although the second one sounds a little bit like Bard’s theme.

Girion’s failure – Girion, Lord of Dale, 0:45

Girion’s heir – Durin’s Folk, 1:32

The Nature of Evil

The High Fells

The spooky tombs of the Nazgul receive a haunting high register vocal melody. It’s beautifully eerie and not what you would expect from one of the more evil places in Middle-earth.

The High FellsThe High Fells, 1:01

The Necromancer

The major Necromancer cue appears at his battle with Gandalf battles in Dol Guldur. His dissonant pounding feels vaguely familiar until eventually fully transforming into a distorted Sauron melody.

The Necromancer Revealed – A Spell of Concealment, 2:05

Bolg

I haven’t been able to figure out if Bolg has his own leitmotif, if his is a variation of his father Azog, or if he simply shares generic battle music with the other orcs. If you sort it out, let me know.

Smaug the Terrible

As the primary villain and impetus for this entire quest, Smaug naturally has three main themes all to himself. Each of these contain numerous variants which I will try to all list below.

Main Theme

We first heard Smaug’s theme back in the prologue to An Unexpected Journey. His sinister six note melody has shades of Sauron in it, yet remains distinct. In The Desolation of Smaug the dragon’s theme is first played vehemently over the title credits. It then takes on so many different forms I have lost track. It is also has a two note component that sometimes precedes the full theme.

Smaug (An Unexpected Journey version) – My Dear Frodo, 4:56

Smaug (introduction) – In the Shadow of the Mountain2:11

Smaug (sneaky version) – Inside Information, 2:06

Smaug (subdued version) – Inside Information, 0:08

Smaug (intense version) – Inside Information, 2:54

Smaug Slinking

This music is used for when Smaug is sneaking around. It sounds similar to the sneaky version

Smaug (slinking) – Smaug, 0:15

Smaug (more slinking) – Smaug, 0:58

Smaug’s Wrath

This particular theme doesn’t appear until the final climax of the film as Smaug flies toward Lake-town. It’s strangely beautiful and captivating. I believe it represents the dragon’s terrible and majestic beauty. Though he is on his way to burn all of Lake-town to the ground, he is still an irresistibly amazing creature to behold.

 Anticipating Smaug’s Wrath – My Armor Is Iron, 2:13

Choir variant – My Armor Is Iron, 3:33

“What have we done?” – My Armor Is Iron, 4:30

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4 thoughts on “The Many Leitmotifs of The Desolation of Smaug

  1. Beautiful article – thanks so much for writing this. I must confess that I was one of those who – upon my first viewing of DoS – felt that the score was underwhelming. Only when I listened to the soundtrack separately (and countless film viewings) did I begin to appreciate Shore’s compositions.

    After reading your article, I have no doubt in my mind. Shore’s done it again and I can’t wait to see how he concludes the third film. 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback! This article was a beast to finish so I’m glad it finally saw the light of day. I can’t wait to hear what film three has in store as well.

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