What Music Can Teach Us About Discipleship

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Santiago Pinzon

One of the most legendary film scores in cinema history is that of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The score – composed, orchestrated, and conducted by Howard Shore – immerses viewers into the sprawling world of Middle Earth, making the cultures and characters residing in it feel real to viewers, despite the trilogy’s fantastical setting. Particularly impressive is the music for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Shore uses music to help establish plot, characters, and themes. However, more can be gleaned from this brilliant score than its effects on the film’s audience; rather, the music can serve as a way to view higher truths in a unique light. More specifically, when thought of in a more theological way, it can enhance our understanding of the greatest truth – Christ.

There are several great leitmotifs – musical fragments that represent characters or ideas – from The Fellowship of the Ring such as the Shire theme and the Lothlorian theme. However, one leitmotif and its development throughout the film stands out in particular: the Fellowship theme.

A good overview of the music of The Fellowship of the Ring can be found here. Though the theme itself is beautiful and inspiring, what truly makes it special is how it develops as a musical idea throughout the film.

The first time the Fellowship theme makes an appearance, barring the opening title sequence, is when Frodo and Sam are on the verge of leaving the Shire. As Sam and Frodo contemplate the realities and consequences of leaving the place they call home for the first time, a sparse arrangement of French horn and woodwind gently play a fragment of the theme, carrying an air of gentle anticipation of the journey ahead. Almost immediately following this tender moment, the film cuts to an imperious Gandalf riding to meet Saruman at Isengard. The brisk galloping of Gandalf’s horse is accented by a much more ominous, though still fragmented, rendition of the Fellowship theme backed by an urgent pulse from the timpanis. In the span of a few minutes, an initially small musical idea becomes multifaceted, from conveying the idea of leaving a source of comfort for an uncertain yet necessary adventure to that of an awareness of an impending evil.

The next time Shore uses the Fellowship leitmotif occurs when Aragorn enters the narrative. The previous caravan, merely composed of four Hobbits, is now boosted by the presence of a strong-willed and altruistic warrior and the soon-to-be Fellowship of the Ring is beginning to take shape. This is reflected by a new optimistic variation of the Fellowship theme; the more optimistic variation is backed by multiple french horns to mirror a fleshing-out of our band of heroes. At the first major turning point of the film, the Fellowship of the Ring is finally formed to destroy the One Ring once and for all; a fellowship composed of different cultures, ideals, desires, and beliefs, yet all part of one mission – the destruction of the Ring. It is at this moment that the Fellowship theme receives full development and orchestration for the first time. Up until the moment Elrond officially convenes the Fellowship, full string and horn sections triumphantly build upon what was already developed, swelling in emotion and power. Similar to the Fellowship at this moment, the Fellowship theme is at its highest glory here; the leitmotif conveys the themes of brotherhood, suffering, perseverance, love, adventure, uncertainty, and triumph, all in a few measures of music, one idea with multiple facets.

The last time the Fellowship theme receives similar fanfare occurs towards the back end of the film, in which the Fellowship fends off hordes of orcs in Balin’s tomb deep in the mines of Moria. As the shrieks of orcs echo from the halls, Gandalf urges the Fellowship to make haste to the bridge of Khazad-Dum. The group storms out of Balin’s Tomb to their next task as a singular statement of the Fellowship leitmotif is made. The brass makes this moment both heroic and inspiring, while the percussion adds a sense of urgency to reflect the reality of the perils present around them.

In the span of the film’s runtime, Shore’s development of the Fellowship theme brilliantly tells a compelling story. By beginning with simpler, more understated variations and slowly adding layers and nuance, the idea gratifyingly flourishes into a fully-formed, all-encompassing idea. This progression effectively draws viewers in and leads them to the heart of the story. This method of development carries a great beauty. All of these ideas culminate to a sort of fullness, which only comes when following the path that is laid by letting yourself be drawn in the first small seed. Bearing all of this in mind, one can apply this framework when coming to understand that which is greater than a good work of cinema. In fact, it can be applied to thinking about Christ, specifically how He calls us to discipleship in Scripture.

As Jesus begins his public ministry, the way He calls disciples to Himself is simple at the surface. In the Gospel of Matthew, at the sighting of the then-tax collector, Jesus only says two words – “follow me.”[1] Similarly, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew with “come after me.”[2] Once more, when being inquired by a pair of disciples as to where He stays, Jesus replies with “come and see.”[3] The simple words God the Son uses to call his flock to something great are akin to the lone french horn; serene, in a sense, yet resolute. Additionally, his beckoning lays the foundation for what He eventually reveals about Himself: his identity as God the Son. As his disciples enter into a life with Christ, He does not hold back on harsh truths to illustrate the urgency of his mission. Soon after, more disciples show their desire to follow Christ but cannot let go of their attachment to the things of the world; Christ urges them to follow him and to “let the dead bury their dead.”[4] At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses graphic imagery to emphasize the purgation of fleshly temptations, going as far as urging his disciples to remove their eyes if they are confronted with lustful sights. He describes his mission as that of a warrior when he proclaims that he came “not to send peace, but the sword.”[5] These hard truths serve as the pulsing timpanis that accent the urgency of Christ’s teachings. To be a disciple is to be weary of the temptations and sin found in this world; it requires an awareness of evil.

Going deeper into the Gospels, Jesus draws his disciples nearer to himself through signs of the kingdom of heaven. Through his parables, Jesus reveals several beautiful truths such as the unconditional love of the Father, the forgiveness of sins, the redemption of humanity, and the Last Things. Vivid images and allegories begin to form the layers to who Jesus is and what man is made for. These truths are then made evident to the disciples in Jesus’s works of healing and miracles throughout the Gospels. In these works, the disciples begin to see other characteristics of Jesus- Jesus as healer, Jesus as provider, and Jesus as savior. These moments with Jesus have a more personal feel to them, displaying both his majestic divinity and his loving humanity. The three french horns of his healing, nourishing, and salvific power have joined the mix as a more complete understanding of Jesus is being realized.

All of the buildup of these truths and revelations must eventually come to a culmination, as shown in the great events of the Gospels. From the revelation of Christ’s divinity at the Transfiguration, to the sacrificial act at his Passion and Death, to his glorious Resurrection and victory over sin and death, the central mysteries to the person of Christ are on full display. In a sense, salvation history finds itself at a moment of full orchestration. All facets of Jesus that have been revealed to us throughout the course of the Gospels intertwine to display the ultimate truth of Christ, God the Son, both Lion and Lamb, both Warrior and Healer, both divine and human. All instruments are at their full strength in this Gagliardian synthesis – different elements and characteristics, but one truth found in one Person.

The Gospels end with a heroic and triumphant moment when at his Ascension, Jesus urges his disciples to “teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”[6] For the disciples, this is a final iteration of the great message of Jesus, finally sending them out from the tomb of sin, temptation, and death to bring all souls the freedom and joy found in Christ.

As we have established, a core tenet of being called into discipleship consists of letting ourselves be receptive to a seemingly small idea which can, in turn, lead us to a greater truth. Specifically, following Christ’s call to follow Him allows us to know Him better and to bring others to know Him as well. This is all well and good, but how can one apply this rationale in one’s own life? It is not often that a conversion of heart consists of a figurative slap in the face from God, though that has been mercifully granted to some holy men and women such as St. Paul. Rather, Christ often speaks to us in a manner that is comparable to a whisper, or what can be called a tug of the heart. This can be found in the small desires of the heart to go to Mass, to take a few minutes to speak to the Lord, to encounter Him in the Scriptures, to receive the Sacraments. In these moments, Christ acts as the lone french horn, both simple and inviting, but eventually leading us into experiencing Christ as He is. Just as the viewer gets wrapped up into the story of a fellowship, the disciple becomes enveloped into the life of Christ.

Works Cited

The Vulgate Bible: Douay-Rheims Translation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

“Lord of the Rings: How Music Elevates the Story.” Nerdwriter. 17 February 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7BkmF8CJpQ>.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] Mt 9:9 (Douay-Rheims)

[2] Mk 1:17 (Douay-Rheims)

[3] Jn 1:39 (Douay-Rheims)

[4] Mt 8:21 (Douay-Rheim)

[5] Mt 5:29 (Douay-Rheims)

[6] Mt 28:19 (Douay-Rheims)

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