Michael Sparrow – Ainulindalë: The Music of the Gods – Wrapping Up

“In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose…and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.”


Here at the end of the summer, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do – I composed a full-length piece of orchestral music that retells my favorite story ever written. As it now exists, it is complete, but not yet finalized; that is, I have written all of the music I intend to (each of the four movements can be found in mp3 format at the end of this post), and it is enjoyable and perhaps performable, but I would not want to publish it until I have done a good deal of polishing and small-scale editing. I do someday intend to publish it, but perhaps I’ll leave that project for another summer.


Looking back on the work I have done this summer, I have learned quite a bit about myself as a composer and about the world of composition more broadly. My two composer contacts have graciously provided me with mountains of useful information, which will prove incredibly helpful both in editing this current piece and in pursuing future works. I could sorta feel as I worked my way through this composition that some aspects of writing for large ensembles come naturally to me, whereas other conventions or common practices were totally lost; it was very good, therefore, to have the input of two other people who are already invested in these practices to guide my hand as I seek to establish myself in this world. One of the most helpful tools I received was a pocket-sized book entitled “Essential Dictionary of Orchestration,” which I recommended to Theo Herrin, our other Monroe composer this summer; after purchasing it I would refer back to it nearly every day to make sure the limitations of the individual instruments would enable me to do everything I wanted to do. The volume of their recommendations would take up another full set of blog posts, so I won’t list them all here; suffice to say, I have received tremendous aid moving forward as an aspiring composer; this all was especially useful to this project, since I have only been writing for instruments that I myself do not remotely know how to play. Due to the passage of time and the rate at which I received new information or generated new thoughts, there are signs within my piece of the evolution of my style to make my piece more accessible and engaging. For example: after the very first entrance of the flute in the second movement (which I wrote before any of the others), I learned through a meeting with one of the other composers that the flute in such a range cannot be easily heard over the rest of the ensemble. For the rest of the piece I wrote my flute parts in a very high register, with the exception of some exposed solo passages. I also realized halfway through the first movement that I had used essentially no syncopation in any of my melodic figures or instrumental solos; if you listen closely, you’ll hear the turnaround point where I start to use much more syncopation in the opening duets section of that movement. All of this is very good – it provides demonstrable proof to my growth and maturation as a composer, and is a sign that I am exploring many different areas in order to find my own voice.


The summer was not, of course, without its surprises. First and foremost, I was expecting my final piece to be not much more than half an hour in length, perhaps up to 45 minutes if I was inspired quite strongly. The final piece is 52 minutes (plus change) in length, longer than most Classical symphonies. Another surprise: it is easy to write acceptable piano music, but I find it impossible to write really high-quality, engaging parts for the instrument. This is especially striking since I wrote for it as an ensemble part rather than the solo instrument it usually serves as; it is much harder to do the latter effectively than the former, since you don’t have full sections of strings and winds to fill in the rest of the space. A final surprise was the appearance of thematic material beyond the three themes I established at the very beginning of the summer (Creation, Peace, and War, outlined in more detail here). [describe mov. 3 rhythm, mov. 4 opening, mov. 2 “war” rhythm] I think it does bode well for me that all of this musical material seemed to generate spontaneously as a side effect to my natural process of composition; a big fear for any artist is to suddenly run out of quality material, but this summer has reassured me somewhat that such a day for me is yet far off.


Several strengths and weaknesses of mine made themselves apparent in the process of composing this work. For one thing, I really enjoy writing bassoon parts – the opening section of the fourth movement ought to be evidence enough for that. I also have a tendency for most instruments to write very high in their ranges, with the exception of the bass instruments trombone and bassoon, and the clarinet. This stands in contrast to my general habit when writing vocal music, which tends to sit rather low in the ranges of the parts I’m writing for. Perhaps as a bass I’m more sympathetic to how hard it is to sing in one’s highest register than I am for playing in it; in any case I do hope I don’t give my French horn player an aneurysm. Another important takeaway from this summer is awareness of the intensely cerebral approach I took in composing this piece. I had a very specific nonmusical focus that I tried to express in purely musical terms, and I believe I did so effectively – at least from an analytical standpoint. I have nine single-spaced pages of notes that go through all of my movements and document every appearance of my three themes; it’s a very good piece to write a research paper about, but not all of it is all that pleasant to listen to. Most of it is, part of it is very much not but in an intentional way, and the entire third movement just feels very mediocre. It went exactly where I wanted it to go in terms of the inspiration of the music and the place in the narrative, but it is not engaging or exciting to listen to; I may eliminate this movement from the final piece when I do get around to publishing it.


Moving forward, I know my next big music composition project will be the capstone for my music major: I will be composing and conducting a setting of the Catholic Mass for piano and 4-part choir (let’s see how hard it REALLY is to compose piano music). Following that…who knows? I expect that my next large-scale wind ensemble or orchestral work, whatever and whenever it may be, will contain much more experimentation with blended timbres and how different pairs or larger combinations of instruments sound together. One of my composers from this summer pointed out that my piece was so intensely focused on painting a relationship between characters that I left myself very little if any creative space to explore relationships between sounds; this former approach aligns with the core intention behind my project, but the latter approach will need to be much more prevalent among my future works. A piece recommended by the same composer, Symphonic Metamorphoses by Paul Hindemith, is an excellent case study in how different combinations of instruments sound and how the changes in those timbres can drive the evolution and progression of a piece of music.


All told, this was a very full summer, but a richly rewarding one. I learned so much about music and about myself as a composer, and I can take everything I learned and all the music I have created with me as I continue to pursue a future in this field. Keep your eyes peeled for the publication of this piece – until then, here is a Google drive folder with mp3s of each of the four movements in their draft stages. Enjoy!




  1. Hey Michael! This is a very very cool project that is way outside of my field, but I have the benefit of being a fan of music and LotR. For me, when I have tried to listen to music for LotR things that aren’t the Peter Jackson films (i.e. the musical or the 1978 animated film) I find it very hard to get into them because I’m so attached to the Howard Shore soundtrack. To my ear, there isn’t much of Howard Shore in your composition, was that intentional or just a byproduct of your method of composition? If it was intentional, how did you do it? Or if I’m totally wrong and you were influenced by Shore, what parts are most inspired by him?

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