Johan de Meij is a Dutch conductor, trombonist, and composer, best known for his Symphony No. 1, nicknamed “The Lord of the Rings” symphony. His Symphony No 1, The Lord of the Rings, made de Meij’s name world renowned as a top composer for wind orchestra, a rank he retains to this day with his later symphonies and other works.
In an interview with his colleague and good friend Anthony Fiumara, the composer looks back on his highly successful work. What gave Johan de Meij the idea to put Tolkien’s epic novel to music? How did he proceed? Did he find his voice the moment he started to compose? And finally, what are his thoughts about his ‘first-born’ with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight?
Why did you want to compose a symphony for wind band, a category that barely existed at the time? ‘I started to play music when I was 15 but in fact in I grew up in two different musical worlds: the local wind band and the symphony orchestra. I found symphonic works more attractive and rapidly familiarized myself with the symphonic repertoire, borrowing stacks of records and scores in the library of The Hague. At the start of the 1980s, when the idea arose to write a major work for concert band, I felt there was a gap in the available body of literature that I should fill. At the time, there were few original pieces longer than 20 minutes. The symphony orchestra boasts a tradition of well over three hundred years. The wind band repertoire tentatively took off almost a century ago. It is now in full swing and there are hundreds of substantial works for wind orchestra. So what I did was fairly innovative. At the time, everyone said I was crazy to write a piece lasting 45 minutes. Some claimed that no band would play it and that ‘our’ audience would not be prepared to listen to a single piece of music for three quarters of an hour. Of course, the question is: when do you experience a work as lengthy? I have heard four-minute compositions that were far too long! I am glad that I did not listen to their advice. If I had, The Lord of the Rings (LotR) wouldn’t exist. My then publisher thought it was too risky to invest in such a sizable work so I started my own publishing company, Amstel Music.’
When did you know you wanted to become a professional musician? ‘In high school, I had no idea that I would become seriously involved with music. I was playing a lot of soccer but had to give it up because the local wind band often performed on the weekends. In any case, I have always had a passion for creating things. I had hardly started on the trumpet when I was writing and arranging my own short pieces. In 1972, I started to train as an elementary school teacher, but I continued to play in various orchestras. I quickly progressed to a reasonably advanced level. Yet in those days, the notion that I could earn a living through music was unthinkable. Therefore I decided to become a teacher, even though I never had any real ambitions to teach. Only after I was drafted into military service (1975–1976) did I discover that I was destined for a musical career. After a short audition I was assigned to the Cavalry Band in Amersfoort. That was much better than sitting on a tank for 16 months somewhere in northern Germany, where the Dutch Cavalry had their training facilities. First I played the E-flat tuba, then baritone horn and trombone, and I became quite versatile. I also started to arrange music. During this period there was a vacancy for a baritone player at the Amsterdam Police Band (Amsterdamse Politie Kapel), at that time the only non-military professional wind band in the Netherlands. I passed the audition successfully and three days after leaving the army I joined the band. From one day to the next I had turned into a professional musician before I had even graduated from music college. As a musician in the Police Band, I had a lot of free time on my hands, so I enrolled at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. In 1983, I graduated as a conductor and in 1984 as a trombonist. On top of this I performed as a substitute in virtually all of the major Dutch orchestras, under important conductors such as Valerie Gergiev, Edo de Waart, Hans Vonk, Peter Eötvös, Gunther Schuller, Ton Koopman, Frans Brüggen, Luciano Berio, and Heinrich Schiff. At a later stage, this exposure to symphonic music had a decisive influence on the aesthetics of my work as a composer and arranger.’
Initially, you established a reputation as an arranger. When did you start? ‘As soon as I got the job with the Amsterdam Police Band I began to make my own arrangements. In 1978, I produced Abba Cadabra based on songs by the Swedish pop group Abba. This was when I was confined to my sickbed: my left leg was in a cast because of a ruptured Achilles tendon, and I had all the time in the world. Straight away, the Police Band included the arrangement in its repertoire and it found a publisher, Molenaar in Wormerveer (NL). The APK was a great place to experiment, I could try out ideas and colleagues would provide me with valuable feedback. I produced one arrangement after another, all of which are still frequently performed, such as Moment for Morricone, Phantom of the Opera, Star Wars Saga, and James Bond 007.’
You started composing in the early 1980s, at the relatively ripe age of 31. How did you make that move? ‘My arrangements were very successful and people increasingly asked me when I would write an original score. At this time I was not just studying at the conservatory but also took additional conducting lessons with Arie van Beek. He put the idea into my head to seek inspiration in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. I will never forget that moment. We were standing near his bookcase. Suddenly he remarked drily, ‘Perhaps this is to your liking?’ as he pointed to a row of Tolkien books. I could not have guessed that this simple sentence would signal a turning point in my life.’
How long did it take you to compose the symphony? ‘I worked on it for four years in total, from 1984 until the end of 1987—quite a stretch. You have to remember that no one had commissioned me to write the piece. There was no pressure: I was doing it for my own amusement, purely as a hobby. Throughout that time I also created arrangements, like Phantom, Star Wars, Les Papillons, and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. When in 1986 I attended a reading rehearsal for Romeo & Juliet at The Guides (De Gidsen, the Royal Band of the Belgian Guides, A.F.), I had just finished the fourth movement of LotR, Journey in the Dark. The conductor Norbert Nozy agreed to give it a first reading. That was a revelation. It is a fantastic orchestra and they were able to play it on sight, in one go. Equally important, it sounded good. Subsequently, everything gained momentum. I completed the work within little more than a year. On 3 December 1987, when I wrote the last bars, I was overcome with emotion—I realized I had accomplished something special. On 15 March 1988, The Guides performed the world première of the symphony in Brussels. It was a crucial year in my career. The Amsterdam Police Band was dissolved, and almost immediately I started to play as a trombonist with Orkest De Volharding, a 13-piece contemporary wind ensemble, which I did until 2008. I also started my own publishing company in 1988. In the beginning the only work it published was the Lord of the Rings Symphony.’
How did you proceed when composing the work? ‘I read the novel very carefully, made notes, and swiftly developed the concept for the structure of the work. In fact the symphony focuses solely on the chapters in the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring. The Movements 1, 3, and 5 are musical portraits, profiles of the main characters in the novel, i.e. Gandalf, Gollum, and the Hobbits. These movements are not really programmatic whereas Movements 2 and 4 are. The latter closely follow the chronology of the storyline. I do not stick religiously to the way the novel is ordered. Instead, I tried to create an arch spanning the movements. Obviously, the ‘golden section point’ is in the fourth movement. I started with Journey in the Dark. Not because of the golden section but when I first read the book, this was the first chapter that appealed to me. That toilsome journey, trudging through the dark underground passages in the Mines of Moria, a sense of claustrophobia…Midway through this movement, I invented Gandalf’s leitmotif that makes an entrance in the first part of the symphony. Gandalf slides into the abyss from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm following his fight with the Balrog, so I needed that motif. Subsequently, I incorporated it into the other movements to achieve more unity. I did not have a premeditated blueprint. TLotR is not a traditional symphony but rather a suite of five symphonic poems. The form evolved intuitively. At first I thought ‘Gandalf’ should be the third movement, as the number three plays such an important part in this. It is a bit ethereal, it contains three parts (A-B-A), and the theme is 3 times 3. I am deliberately playing around with the number—in the vein of Bach—so it made sense for Gandalf to become the middle section. But when it was finished I decided it should be the opening movement; the overture. The Gandalf theme is seminal to the symphony so it has to be exposed in Movement 1, not in Movement 3. As a result Gollum, certainly the most bizarre movement, comes third. It is preceded by Lothlórien, which starts beautiful and gentle whereas its arch seamlessly morphs into Gollum. When I conduct the piece, I often go from Movement 2 to 3 without any interruption. Following the low flutes in Lothlórien, Gollum appears abruptly. It is as if he jumps onto the stage. Next, we hear Movement 4, the spectacular climax of the symphony. Many of the themes reoccur in Movement 5, Hobbits. Following the dramatic developments in the earlier movements, the sun finally breaks through. It is no accident that the end of the symphony is quiet and subdued, peaceful and acquiescent, in C major. This is in keeping with the mood in the final chapter of the book, The Grey Havens.’
Did you hit upon the right idiom right away? ‘It happened gradually. I wrote whatever entered my head or what seemed to present itself naturally. Many classical composers have had an influence on me: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Puccini, to name a few. I consider them as my tutors: I never had any lessons in composing or arranging. In 1984, I played in a large production of Puccini’s Turandot by the Netherlands Opera. It may show: I can easily identify fragments that refer to Turandot. For instance, the minor-9 chord that is typical of Puccini and the funeral march at the end of the fourth movement, which is akin to the final scene in Act 3, the death of the slave-girl Liù. Accidentally, I also included a hint of Bartók, namely a fragment from his Concerto for Orchestra. It was something that I did unwittingly. After I had finished the symphony, when I heard the Concerto again, I realized, Ah! That’s where it came from! There are also a number of deliberate references. For instance, at the start of the rapid passage in Gandalf you will find a direct quote from Stravinsky’s Firebird. I decided that I wanted to have a similar dynamic at that particular moment and literally borrowed it, in the same key. I do this from time to time—like a knowing musical wink. I simply find it fun!’
What were your most memorable events with LotR over the last twenty-five years? ‘The world première in Brussels in 1988 was an unforgettable occasion. It was the first time I heard the work in its entirety; until then, I had only attended rehearsals of the individual movements and fragments. I was poised on the edge of my seat and had to stifle a few tears during the Hymn in the final movement. It was sensational to hear the symphony from start to finish. LotR was broadcast by the BRT on Belgian national radio and it was a hit straight away. Since that initial concert, the symphony has been staged all over the world. That same year, the Dutch Royal Military Band (Koninklijke Militaire Kapel) with Pierre Kuijpers recorded the first CD, and the work won the prestigious Sudler Award in Chicago. In April 1989, the Award was presented to me in Baltimore, after a stunning performance by the US Marine Band ‘The President’s Own’, conducted by Colonel John Bourgeois. I was present at most of the premieres that followed, such as the Danish premiere with The Danish Concert Band, conducted by Jørgen Jensen in Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, and the Spanish first performance with Henrie Adams conducting La Artistica in Buñol, Valencia, with 3500 people in the outdoor auditorium. In 2000, when Peter Jackson’s eponymous film was on the horizon, I made a version for symphony orchestra with arranger Henk de Vlieger. It premiered in 2001, performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Later that year, the London Symphony Orchestra recorded it, under the magical baton of David Warble. This CD has sold over 70,000 copies worldwide! That recording session in London was a revelation: Warble read it through with the LSO once, but it sounded terrific right away. It was recorded all in one day. Dave Warble also did over fifty performances with the California Wind Orchestra, narrated by renowned actor Georg Takei (Mister Sulu from Star Trek, A.F.). I recently conducted a beautiful ballet production with the Toronto Youth Symphony, and a very exciting performance and live recording with the Siena Wind Orchestra in Yokohama, Japan. Besides the orchestral version, acclaimed arranger and longtime friend Paul Lavender, made some wonderful adaptations for younger band and orchestras of LotR, to make it accessible to hundreds of groups of lesser technical ability. His arrangements opened up a whole new audience and even greater appreciation of the work.’
Today, after 25 years, I can look back upon thousands of performances, dozens of recordings, and many guest appearances and lectures in every corner of the world. Just because of one piece some people advised me not to write. I have written other successful works, for example two additional symphonies, four solo concertos,The Wind in the Willows, and Extreme Makeover. But I do not think they will ever equal or surpass the success of LotR. In all honesty I can say that the first piece I ever composed has completely changed my life. It continues to give me joy, every single day.
By Anthony Fiumara