“Eärendil” translates from Quenya (one of J.R.R. Tolkienʼs invented languages) to “Sea lover,” and is the name given to the half-elven mariner whose tale ends The Silmarillion. Its inspiration is the Old English “Earendel,” a personal name that also evokes the “morning star.” A 21-year old Tolkien first encountered the word in 1913 among a group of Anglo-Saxon religious poems he was studying at Oxford, and that moment marks the earliest known inspiration for The Silmarillion and related works of his imagination.
My tone poem Eärendil depicts two parallel tales consecutively, concerning Tuor (Eärendilʼs father) and Eärendil himself. As the closing tone poem of my Four Legends from the Silmarillion, Eärendil also extensively revisits music from each of the previous three tone poems: Ainulindalë, Narsilion, and Tinúviel.
Eärendil opens in the middle of a great storm, out of which “Ulmo the lord of waters arose in majesty and spoke to Tuor.” Tuor is instructed to seek the hidden city of Gondolin, which lay in the elevated Vale of Tumladen, surrounded by Echoriath, the “Encircling Mountains.” A lengthy uphill journey culminates in Tuorʼs first glimpse of the great city, where he is greeted by trumpets that are answered across the vale by echoing musicians. He espies “the images of the Trees of Valinor” that memorialize those original sources of light as depicted in Narsilion, and is presented to King Fingolfin, the founder and builder of Gondolin, whose daughter Idril will quickly win his love.
A pair of variations on the trumpetsʼ fanfares follow, depicting 1) a gentle dance, celebrating Tuorʼs arrival and 2) a lullaby to accompany the birth of Eärendil to (human) Tuor and (elven) Idril. But trouble is near: after centuries of searching, Morgoth had finally discovered the location of Gondolin. He interrupts these pleasanter sentiments, attacking “over the northern hills,” and utterly destroys the city.
Tuor, Idril, and Eärendil manage to escape and travel south, first to the Vale of Sirion, and ultimately, following the riverʼs course, to the sea. Tuor and Idril, now advancing in age, feel the pull of the “deeps of the Sea.” They build a great boat and sail to the west, where they come “no more into any tale or song.” Their pentatonic valedictory music is given to the cellos and double basses.
The second half of Eärendil follows Eärendilʼs parallel life story. He weds Elwing, a refugee like himself, descended from the union of Beren and Lúthien and inheritor of the silmaril that Beren cut from Morgothʼs crown. The sea calls to him as Ulmo called to his father: missing his parents, he sets sail in his own ship, Vingilot, to find them.
A further pair of variations (following those on the previous trumpet fanfares) depicts Eärendilʼs travels. He 1) “could not rest,” and sails to seek both his parents and also the home of the “Valar in the West” (who had not been visited since the end of Narsilion). He hoped to “move their hearts to pity for the sorrows of Middle-earth.” But the impediments to reaching Valinor are great, and result in 2) his being “defeated by shadows and enchantment.” In the meantime, Elwing (at home with their two sons), is unexpectedly attacked by Maedhros and Maglor. They are the last surviving sons of Fëanor, who smithed the silmarils.
“But Elwing with the Silmaril upon her breast” saves herself by casting herself into the sea, from whence Ulmo rescues her (a hugely dramatic gesture that covers the entire range of the orchestra). She is turned into a bird and flies to meet Eärendil, who is still at sea. Eärendil and Elwing together manage to finally make their way to Valinor. Their ship Vingilot is hallowed by the Valar and borne “away through Valinor to the uttermost rim of the world.” Sailing forever through the oceans of heaven, Eärendil will remain at Vingilotʼs helm and adorned with the shining silmaril, as “a watch upon the ramparts of the sky.”
Eärendil was composed in Brunnen, Switzerland, where I was a resident artist at the Villa Schoeck (the ancestral home of the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck). Brunnen sits on the northeastern-most corner of Lake Lucerne, ensconced amid the Alps. Not coincidentally, both water and elevation figure as prominently in Eärendil as they did for me in Brunnen. In fact, elevation—depicted musically via register—is the single most important structural determiner in the piece. Its music gurgles out of the depths of the sea, rises to the hidden city of Gondolin, descends to the Vale of Sirion, and ends in the highest reaches of the heavens. At the same time, Ulmoʼs (water) variation from Ainulindalë is virtually omnipresent in Eärendil. Depicting the marinerʼs ultimate place among the stars, Eärendil ends with various echoes of the opening of Ainulindalë, which began in distant space, before the Earth was created.