Michael Sparrow – Ainulindalë: The Music of the Gods – Blog Post 1

“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but a few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.”


So begins J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Silmarillion, a compendium of the mythology, pre-history, and history of Middle-earth. The passage above begins a long section that details the creation myth of Tolkien’s universe, wherein for eight pages he continues to develop the idea of a great Music that brings all other things in the world into Being. For three reasons, this passage especially resonates with me: Tolkien is my favorite author, and his writing style always deeply moves me; Tolkien like myself is a Roman Catholic, and certain elements of the theology thereof can be found in his works, beginning of course with this creation myth; and the comparison of so beautiful a story to music, which I consider the greatest beauty in the world, makes this one of my favorite passages in all of literature. For these three reasons I decided to try my hand at representing what this Music might have sounded like, in the tradition of a Western orchestra.


This post is intended to serve as an introduction to the characters I will be representing in my music. The Ainur, in Quenya “Holy Ones,” are spirits of power, essentially the gods of Middle-earth; their number is never specified by Tolkien, but after the Music is completed and brought into Being by Eru, fifteen of them took on physical form and descended into the newly created world to protect and oversee it. These fifteen Ainur are known as the Valar, or “Powers,” named as follows: the kings Manwë, Ulmo, Aulë, Oromë, Mandos, Lórien, and Tulkas; the queens Varda, Yavanna, Nienna, Estë, Vairë, Vána, and Nessa; and the Black Enemy, Melkor. Each of the Valar has their own personality and patronage, but only ten play important roles in the story; these ten I will introduce in more detail here.


Melkor, Manwë, Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna, Aulë, Nienna, Oromë, Mandos, and Tulkas are the ten Valar that will be featured in my piece; each will be represented by a separate instrument (or group of instruments), and will be further distinguishable from one another by different melodic or rhythmic gestures. Melkor is the Vala of fire, darkness, and ruthlessness; he is a clear parallel to the Christian figure of Lucifer, in that from the beginning he was the most powerful of the Valar but fell from Eru’s favor due to his own pride and lust for dominion. I will represent this aspect of his, the gift of power that surpasses all the rest of the Valar, with the full string ensemble; since he has an entire section to himself, I will not demark a musical gesture to distinguish him further. Manwë is the Vala of the air and sky, and winged creatures; he is also the most attuned to the will of Eru and more powerful than any other Vala except Melkor. He is represented by a bass flute, on which the aspirations by the player will come across most powerfully; his distinguishing gesture is trills. Varda is the Vala of stars, light, and beauty, the spouse of Manwë and most powerful of the queens. Her instrument is the flute, similar to Manwë but in a treble register to complement his bass, and the shimmering sound of the high register is reminiscent of the twinkling of the stars; her distinguishing gesture is arpeggios. Ulmo is the Vala of water in all its forms, close in power and friendship with Manwë; he is represented by a full percussion section (whose contents are listed below). Ulmo is one of three Valar who does not have a spouse, and was the most directly involved in later ages in the affairs of the Elves; being thus distinct from the other Valar he, like Melkor, has a section all to himself, and likewise does not have a further distinguishing musical feature. Yavanna is the Vala of plants and trees, a caring and motherly spirit; her instrument is the French horn, and her musical motive is ascending scales or other stepwise motions that indicate green shoots springing up from the ground. Aulë is the Vala of earth, stone, and craftsmanship, and is the spouse of Yavanna; he, like her, will be represented with a brass instrument, in this case the trombone, and he will be represented by on-the-beat accents reminiscent of a blacksmith’s hammer. Nienna, always in a state of mourning, is the Vala of sorrow, hope, and endurance; she, in addition to Melkor and Ulmo, is without a spouse. Her instrument is the oboe, and her distinguishing musical motive is descending scales to imitate a cascade of tears. Oromë is the Vala of woodlands, hunting, and horses; his instrument is the trumpet, which will mimic the sounds of both his hunting horn and his steed, and his musical motive is triplets. Mandos is the Vala who manages the Houses of the Dead; he alone knows the full will of Eru, though he only prophesies when bidden by Manwë. His instrument is the bassoon, and he is characterized by extended periods of rest interspersed with periods of playing. Tulkas is the Vala of physical strength, athleticism, and laughter, and remains free of cares and anger even in the darkest of times. His instrument is the clarinet, which can imitate the sound of laughter quite well. Finally, Eru Ilúvatar, the All-Powerful, will be represented wherever he appears by the piano, which on its own is capable of a far greater range of expressivity than any other single instrument in the orchestra.


Not all of the instruments will be present throughout all movements of my piece – my next post will talk more about the larger structure of the thing, but below you will find a more condensed version of the full orchestration, in the proper ordering for an orchestral score:


Flute – Varda, the Lady of the Stars

Bass Flute – Manwë, the Lord of the Breath of Arda

Oboe – Nienna, the One Who Mourns

Clarinet – Tulkas, the Valiant

Bassoon – Mandos, Doomsman of the Valar

French Horn – Yavanna, Giver of Fruits

Trumpet – Oromë, the Hunter

Trombone – Aulë, the Master of All Crafts

Piano – Eru, the All Powerful

Vibraphone – Ulmo, the Lord of Waters

Timpani –

Triangle –

Chimes –

Suspended Cymbal –

Snare Drum –

Bass Drum –

Violin 1 – Melkor, the Black Enemy

Violin 2 –

Viola –

Cello –


  1. tepayer says:

    Thanks for your update!! I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your work, especially since I’m a Tolkien fan myself. I was really struck by your instrument choices, and their correlating characters. Since music can do so much to influence and create a certain mood or feeling, it was really interesting to see how you’ve paired specific instruments, which evoke a certain feeling, with specific characters. As I said, I’m really looking forward to hearing how your work progresses!!

  2. Your project sounds fascinating! I have never read any of Tolkien’s works, but the way you describe your connection to the mythology of The Silmarillion is very compelling. I recently finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, which has an equally complex but very different relationship to Christian imagery, so it is interesting to compare the two series. I appreciate your detailed explanation of the instruments you’ll be using, especially since I grew up listening to compositions like Peter and the Wolf which make use of similar techniques. I hope to hear the composition when it’s finished!

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