The Road Goes Ever On. A Song Cycle: Donald Swann Spotlight

This post is the third part of Music library intern Dan Hunt’s research into J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth and the music connections that influenced him. You may wish to begin with the first post in this series.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar. [1]

The previous post in this series discussed the music traditions of medieval Iceland and particularly the significance of oral tradition in both Iceland and “Middle-earth.” That theme will be revisited in the coming weeks. For this next, post however, the attention shifts from musical influences on Tolkien’s world to Tolkien’s influence on the music of our world. 

Though its initial release was lukewarm and relegated to cult following status in the 1950’s, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has since become a cultural powerhouse. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Return of the King” won every award it was nominated for at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Countless pieces of entertainment from video games, toys, and tabletop party games have been developed that are either set in Middle-earth or have drawn heavy inspiration from the source material. People have even created recipes for some of the food depicted in the series. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that many musicians have taken the books of the Legendarium as inspiration for a plethora of songs and musical projects.

Though there can be a lengthy discussion of Tolkien references in rock music, or the composition choices for the film scores of both live action and animated “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films, this post will be devoted to a project that was carried out in the 1960’s; Donald Swann’s “The Road Goes Ever On.”

Donald Swann may not be a household name today, but throughout the 1950’s-60’s he and comedian Michael Flanders were part of a successful musical revue, Flanders & Swann. The duo took their act around the world and received critical acclaim with their “At the Drop of a Hat” production. In his free time, Swann composed pieces for operettas and musicals. He was also an avid reader and routinely traveled the world with two important accompaniments; his wife Janet, and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy of books. 

Inspired by the story, songs, and poetry breaks, and encouraged by his wife, Swann created a seven part song cycle in between stops during Flanders & Swann’s 1964-65 tour (two more songs, “Bilbo’s Last Song” and “Luthien Tinuviel,” were added some years later). The project was picked up for publication by Houghton Mifflin with the lyrics licensed by George Allen & Unwin, Tolkien’s publishers. Now more than a pet project, Swann included notation for piano, guitar, and voice with lyrics taken straight from “The Lord of the Rings” series and “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” a related publication of a character seen in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Swann even reached out to Tolkien, aged 74 in 1965. He played the early drafts of the cycle and asked for Tolkien’s input on the songs. Tolkien was enthusiastic about the project; he made notes on how he thought certain pieces should go and even offered to provide elvish inscriptions, song descriptions, and translations to some of the music that was written in Quenya (the language Tolkien created for the Noldor race of Elves.). 

Of the featured works in the Song Cycle, “Namarie” stands out; Tolkien dictated to Swann how HE thought it should go, rejecting Swann’s composition and proposing something that sounded more like Gregorian chant. The significance of the song and this creative decision made for a perfect match. The song is a lament sung by Galadriel, an Elf Queen who resides in the magic forest kingdom of Lothlorien. In a very condensed history, Galadriel and her brothers led an exodus of Elves departing from “The Undying Lands” (Also called Valinor, it is the continent where the Valar (Gods) reside; the Valar had previously allowed the Elves to dwell with them so as to protect them from the dangers of Middle-earth). As punishment for their disobedience, these Elves were forbidden to return. By the time of the “The Fellowship of the Ring,” nearly 6000 years later, Galadriel is the only surviving member of her line (The House of Finwe) and it is in this song that she reflects on her great longing to return home. Below is the English translation provided in Swann’s work:

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind,
long years numberless as the wings of trees!
The years have passed like swift draughts
of the sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West,
beneath the blue vaults of Varda
wherein the stars tremble in the song of her voice, holy and queenly.
 
Who now shall refill the cup for me?
 
For now the Kindler, Varda, the Queen of the Stars,
from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like clouds,
and all paths are drowned deep in shadow;
and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us,
and mist covers the jewels of Calacirya for ever.
Now lost, lost to those from the East is Valimar!
 
Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar.
Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell! 

This is how the song/poem originally appeared in the “Fellowship of the Ring.” Tolkien had decided not to provide a translation.

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni unótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lisse-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
ómaryo airetári-lírinen.
 
Sí man i yulma nin enquantuva?
 
An sí Tintallë Varda Oiolossëo
ve fanyar máryat Elentári ortanë,
ar ilyë tier undulávë lumbulë;
ar sindanóriello caita mornië
i falmalinnar imbë met, ar hísië
untúpa Calaciryo míri oialë.
Sí vanwa ná, Rómello vanwa, Valimar!
 
Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.
Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië![2]

Being a song cycle, Swann relates that the songs are to be performed together and all the way through. “…if the song cycle is performed exactly as written there should be no interruptions for applause since the key and mood relationships are built in.”[3] This is fitting, given that the people of Middle-earth have a song for nearly every occasion. “I Sit Beside the Fire” is a cozy song sung by the hobbits, “In the “Willow-meads of Tasarinan” a stoic retelling of Ent history (and as close as any tree will get to expressing emotion). “Namarie” is a bittersweet lament, while “Errantry” is a jaunty metrical feat that will either leave you panting for air or chuckling by the end. 

Donald Swann is just one of many individuals who harnessed their fanaticism for Tolkien to create something new. Since the series publication, Tolkien’s works continue to be a source of musical inspiration. Below you will find links related to “The Road Goes Ever On,” as well as the location of the score and other relevant texts in the Stony Brook Library.

Useful Links:

Location of the “Road Goes Ever On” Scores:

  • Cage M1621.4 .S947 R62 1967
  • MUS M1621.4 .S947 R62 1967
  • OVERSIZE x Child Lit SWANN  

Bibliography:

  • Rothman, Lily. “The Hobbit is Turning 80. Here’s What Reviewers Said about it in 1937.” TIME. Retrieved from: https://time.com/4941811/hobbit-anniversary-1937-reviews/
  • Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York. Sterling. 2013.
  • Swann, Donald. The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1967.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York. Houghton Mifflin. 1954.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1937.
[1] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1937). 313. 
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring (New York. Houghton Mifflin.1954) 368
[3] Donald Swann. The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1967) viii 
Gisele Schierhorst

Gisele Schierhorst

Head of Music Library at Stony Brook University Libraries
Gisele is the Head of the Music Library. She is the liaison to Music, Africana Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology.
email: gisele.schierhorst@stonybrook.edu
Gisele Schierhorst

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