For years my childhood friend Michael Zlogar had been urging me to set the opening section of J. R. R. Tolkien’s posthumous The Silmarillion to music. “Ainulindalë,” which translates as “the music of the Ainur,” is Tolkien’s creation myth, in which the creation of our world is effected through music. Ilúvatar, his supreme being, sings a theme that is subsequently varied by his principal helpers, holy creatures (the “Ainur”) that each oversee a particular provenance of creation that correspond to the “elements” of ancient civilizations: water, air, earth, and fire.
Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë” serves as a clear formal map of my work, which falls into six sections: Prelude, Theme, and four Variations that each meditate on their respective elements. Ainulindalë is the first of four tone poems that collectively make up my Four Legends from The Silmarillion.
The Prelude features discrete motives that will later coalesce into the Theme proper, because Tolkien says that the Ainur, before the appearance of Ilúvatar’s Theme, knew and sang “only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came.” The Theme itself is strong and heroic, featuring an opening gesture arising out of nature’s overtone series, and the whole encompasses an enormous register, from G below middle C to the A-flat four octaves above that, and uses all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale.
The first variation is Ulmo’s, the Ainu whose milieu is water: Tolkien reports that his “voice is deep as the deeps of the ocean which he only has seen.” This variation features flowing figures in the low strings and “wet” percussion instruments like the gong, tam-tam, and rain stick. The theme is given to the trombones, who glissando in the manner of whale calls, and later to the high winds accompanied by a calm sea of sustained strings.
The second variation is Manwë’s. His realm is the air, and this music is mostly quick and light, featuring fast muted strings and, towards the end of the variation, a quicksilver section for strings and winds that recalls Holst’s “Winged Messenger” from his Planets. Manwë is also a kind of warrior deity, and Tolkien tells us that “the trumpets of Manwë are loud”: there are two sections in this variation that feature the trumpets, trombones, and horns playing fanfares and variations on the theme in various canonic dispositions.
Aulë is the source of the third variation, earth. This music is full and clear, starting with tonal walls of sound that accompany remembrances of Ilúvatar’s original theme. Tolkien remarks that “the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery.” As a result, this section features various recapitulations: statements of the original Theme are joined by hints of the other variations, particularly Ulmo’s watery music toward the end, which freezes under a pair of clarinets intoning a variation on the original Theme.
This frozen sonority melts with the appearance of Melkor, whose fire variation is the most complex of the four. Melkor is a Lucifer-like character—Tolkien says that he is “mightiest among” the Ainur—who aspires to create on the level of Ilúvatar. He supplants the latter’s Theme with a new one of his own, and also aims to undo the work of the other Ainur by perverting their variations through caricature. Several new ideas of an abrasive, almost insipid, character appear in this last section, including a recurring falling progression for three trumpets and an angular, densely chromatic moto perpetuo in the strings and winds. Tolkien describes this final section of the Ainulindalë as reaching a fever pitch, wherein the barbaric ideas of Melkor contend with the noble Theme and its Variations. This musical battle ends with the intervention of Ilúvatar himself, who raises both hands to silence the din, “and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.”
My Ainulindalë is a tone poem in the same sense as those by Richard Strauss (and Dvořák and Sibelius), and is specifically modeled on Strauss’s Don Quixote, which is both a musical depiction of the knight’s various misadventures and a set of “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character.” Ainulindalë is also a mini concerto for orchestra—all the members and sections of the orchestra have ample opportunity to display their expertise. I composed this work for the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra and HSO Music Director Stuart Malina, with whom I have collaborated extensively; Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project were the inspiration for the ensuing three tone poems. I am enormously grateful to Lois Grass and the Lois Lehrman Grass Foundation for commissioning these works and for supporting me and my music in so many ways for so many years.