Beren & Lúthien


Most people familiar with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s[1] works (he was the author of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’) are also familiar with his posthumous legacy shared with the world by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien[2]. The story of ‘Beren and Lúthien’ can be found therein, of which the first publication came about in ‘The Silmarillion’ – which was published in 1977 and most recently (2017) as a standalone story (and notes) simply as ‘Beren and Lúthien’. The story is also mentioned in The Lord of the Rings as a poem sung by Aragorn (Strider). The story of ‘Beren and Lúthien,’ to readers less familiar with ‘The Silmarillion,’ might echo (a Human falling in love with an Elf) that of ‘Aragorn and Arwen’ from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ in fact both Aragorn and Arwen are descendants of Beren and Lúthien. Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, both Elrond and his brother Elros are (through Elwing (granddaughter) and Dior (son)) in turn great grandchildren of Beren and Lúthien. Elros is (approx.) the 65th paternal ancestor to Aragorn[3]. But let us not dwell on such Hobbit-like trivialities. In real life, Tolkien had the name ‘Lúthien’ written on his wife’s (Edith Bratt[4]) grave after she died in 1971[5]. It appears to be the most apparently personal and, for lack of other words, deliberate autobiographical material to end up in his Middle earth legendarium.

In general Tolkien’s works have always been an inspiration for music and a great deal of music (with and without the acquisition of the appropriate rights) has been made in various genres, from folk to metal and from jazz to electronic. It is well worth the mention here that the story of Beren and Lúthien has been set to music by various artists as well. However, as I’ve said before, none as bright as Mr. Godfrey’s Silmarils. Yet I like to make mention of two more extensive works based upon this story which might have your interest. First is Ainur[6], a symphonic-(or is that progressive?)-rock group from Italy, who have put to music various stories by Tolkien; their ‘Lay of Leithian’ album could well be considerd as one of their finest works to date. And second I’d like to mention Adam Klein’s[7] ‘Leithian’, a classical operatic work, which can be found on the internet. I’ll not delve into either of them as such a venture would be besides the extent of this article which limits itself to the new Godfrey/Volante Opera recording.

Composer Paul Corfield Godfrey[8] was born in London in 1950 and after a period of residence in Ireland now lives in Wales. As a young boy Paul sung at his local church choir and performed with the school orchestra, playing oboe and timpani; he studied composition at various times with Alan Bush and David Wynne. His works, amongst many others, include four symphonies, several operas including ‘The Dialogues of Óisin and Saint Patric’ and ‘Arcturus’, both performed in Cardiff and elsewhere in South Wales; and a large body music inspired by the writings of renowned author JRR Tolkien. Other works have been performed in London and elsewhere throughout the world. His manuscript scores are lodged at the National Library of Wales[9], Aberystwyth.

Over the course of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s he composed a cycle of four operas called ‘Epic scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of JRR Tolkien.’[10] Its fourth part, ‘The Fall of Gondolin,’ was recently (2018) published as a demo recording by Prima Facie Records[11]. Each of the four operas based on these ‘epic scenes’ consists of three ‘triptychs’ (three-fold), a prologue and an epilogue. Each ‘triptych’ consists of three scenes. An earlier demo recording of the whole cycle was previously available and all the music and voices were performed by the composer on keyboards. ‘Beren and Lúthien’ is the second instalment of the cycle and also the second to be released on Prima Facie Records and that makes it the third album of the composer on that record label.

Volante Opera Productions[12] is a group of enthusiastic performers who specialise in small performances and the creation of so-called guide vocals. Over the years they have raised quite a few pounds for various charities and performed in small local communities, bringing music and entertainment to schools and churches, the elderly, the demented and the impaired. The initiative was brought about in 1999 by baritone Julian Boyce. Most, if not all, are performers with Welsh National Opera[13]. Recently they started recording projects in which they take ‘centre stage’.

Beren and Lúthien: a synopsis:

In short it is a true love story with all its tragic drama and glorious happiness. The story of ‘Beren and Lúthien’ can hold its own among the likes of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Welsh and German folktales and Norse mythology, even when those might have served as a source for inspiration.

The story tells of the human Beren, son of Barahir. After the Battle of Sudden Flame, a battle against the forces of Morgoth the enemy, in which Morgoth (Vala) conquered much of Northern Middle-Earth, Beren ends up in the forests of the Elvish realm known as Doriath. There he meets Lúthien (Elf), the lovely daughter of King Thingol (Elf) and Queen Melian (Maia), and falls in love with her. After Beren meets King Thingol, Thingol sends Beren on a quest for one of the lost Silmarils (which by now all three reside in the iron crown of Morgoth) hoping never to see Beren again. Beren departs and goes to his friend King Finrod (Elf) (one of the nephews of Fëanor, whose sons are bound by an oath to recover the Silmarils[14]) and together they set out on the seemingly impossible quest to obtain the Silmarils from Morgoth – whom is the Dark Lord of these times. On their quest they meet wolves and end up in Sauron’s[15] (Maia) captivity – Sauron serves Morgoth and is not yet associated with any rings. Eventually Finrod dies and Lúthien comes to seek and rescue Beren. Lúthien and Beren end up being captives to Morgoth, but Lúthien enchants the enemy and Beren takes one of the Silmarils. During their escape they are attacked by a great wolf, and the wolf bites of the hand of Beren – which is still holding on to the Silmaril. When coming before Thingol again, the King accepts the quest as fulfilled. When Beren dies of his battle wounds Lúthien travels to the Halls of Mandos (Vala) (the place all souls gather after they die) to plead for Beren’s release back to life.

Additional note:
In other versions of the story Beren sets out to recover the Silmaril from the wolf, hands the Silmaril to Thingol, but dies in the process. Tolkien left many versions of many stories to his, now late, son Christopher Tolkien, who published some of that material in the Silmarillion and later much more in the ‘History of Middle earth’ series. As a composer, as much as any dramatic artist (be it film director, radio play writer, or anything else), one has to make choices based on the dramatic storytelling, available material and take an artistic freedom that might not always ‘agree’ with the most immersed fans or scholars. This is something anyone trying to recreate Tolkien’s world, whether you are Peter Jackson, Brian Sibley or Rankin & Bass or anybody else, encounters. I feel it is important to note this, the composer granted special access to (at the time) unpublished material by the young Mr. (Chr.) Tolkien for the whole of his Tolkien related oeuvre. It might be fair to say here that even the young Mr. Tolkien re-wrote, or perhaps edited would be more friendly, parts (or sections) of the material published in ‘The Silmarillion,’ which I think he later regretted. I know ‘fans’ of the works of the Professor can have heated debates about how true an adaptor has stayed to the source material and whether or not Tolkien would have agreed with it. I’ve seen (online) bullying of people for saying they like the Jackson movies or have not (yet) read the books. The truth is that we will never know, Tolkien died in 1973. Adopting for dramatic arts always involves making choices and in Tolkien’s case there is such a wide variety of material published both during his life and posthumously, and perhaps some material that still remains unpublished, that any opinion on the choices made in reality would only be a mere private opinion and not worthy of fandom segregation. If you don’t like what other people do (or don’t) stay away from it and enjoy your own ‘things,’ if you do like what other people do (don’t) go and enjoy it. Isn’t enjoyment the true meaning of Tolkien’s writings?

Beren and Lúthien: The recording:

This review is long overdue [2023], published in 2019, just before the Corona outbreak and I got to struggle once more with my recurring depressive episodes which prevented me from writing about this work in the way I now am.

The wonderful album art is once again, with permittion, by Ted Nasmith.

The Prologue opens with a powerful male choral statement “Dagor Bragollach, the Battle of Sudden Flame,” which tells the moment in time at which we have arrived by, by now. These words are three bars unaccompanied by any instruments. We are not left any time to reflect on the previous series of events and are sucked into the war from there. While the full chorus sings about the battle, on stage the battle is played out.

The first lead role we encounter is Finrod (which calls for a lyric tenor), the Elf king of Nargothrond (here portrayed by Simon Crosby Buttle) who pledges an oath of friendship to Beren – for coming to his aid. A lyric tenor is a warm graceful voice with a bright, full timbre that is strong but not heavy and can be heard over an orchestra. Crosby Buttle, in 2018, sung the role of Tuor in the Volante demo recording of The Fall of Gondolin (the 4th part of the opera cycle), which was also a lyric tenor role. Other roles that ask for such a specific type of voice include Roméo (Roméo et Juliette by Gounod), David (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Wagner) or Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly by Puccini) – to name just a few.

The chorus picks up again with the Interlude and Scene One and switches then to Sauron (voiced by Jasey Hall) who mentally tortures Gorlim (voiced by Michael Clifton-Thompson) for information about the whereabouts of Beren. Like the voice of Morgoth, in the other Silmarillion operas, the voice of Sauron is electrically distorted, which gives it an overwhelming depth and richness complementary to Hall’s own already deep and rich bass voice, which really gives body to Sauron but not so much that it would be too overwhelming – that is reserved for Morgoth. Sauron’s part’s deep dark passages are highlighted by some very malignant higher phrases which keep sounding very dark due to great effort by Hall supported by the amplification techniques used. Sauron plays his “nice game” with Gorlim promising freedom to Gorlim and his (already dead) wife. The use of bassoon in the music in support of Sauron I find a refreshingly beautiful contrast, almost as a light in the dark complementary material of the musical setting before going full dark with the brass section.

Gorlim, as said voiced by Clifton-Thompson, is a character tenor and as such a bit “heavier” (read. a bit more forceful and lower) then the lyrical tenor but not as much as a dramatic (or heroic) tenor and is a type of voice within tenor range all on its own – Mime in Wagner’s Siegfried could serve as another example of use of such a voice type. Gorlim’s role, with only a few lines to sing, is one of great tragedy; not only does Gorlim betrays Beren he also learns his wife is long dead from a necrotic mocking Sauron and dies by the latter’s command. That particular moment is worthy of some attention by listeners for the use of some “easter egg” effect – I’ll refrain from using the words “fun effect” in respect of the tragic scene. Gorlim, speaking musically thematic, echoes a more brighter theme, even being under such pressure and darkness from Sauron he still finds it in his heart to think of love and hope. His sections are supported by flutes which provides a bright contrast against the dark woodwinds and brass of Sauron. Though the section for Gorlim is relatively short, Clifton-Thompson does a great job providing subtle emotions to Gorlim which is much needed if we are to grasp his struggle as a listener.

Making this the first scene was necessary to set Sauron not only as an enemy to the protagonists of this story but as an enemy to all the free peoples of the world – which will be even more firmly stated in the upcoming 5th opera of the Silmarillion cycle ‘The War of Wrath,’ which promises to be a spectacular ending to the cycle.

The first time we meet Beren is in Interlude and Scene Two after the choir introduce us to a new setting. The cut from scene 1 to the next interlude on the CD cut is a bit shifted from what I would expect from the full score (page 44 of the score) but only starts within track 3 at 18 seconds in instead of at the beginning of the track (which I assume was done for editing purposes) but starts with a oboe and clarinet theme that on the sly preludes itself the later interlude for flute (track 8) and here set the stage for a misty grey woodland described by the choir – which at the end of this track (3) sound very tranquil and pleasant.

For Beren the composer requires a ‘lyric baritone’, which, according to wiki: is a sweeter, milder sounding baritone voice, lacking in harshness; lighter and perhaps mellower than the dramatic baritone with a higher comfort pitch range. Also according to wiki this type of voice is most commonly required for more ‘comic’ roles. The composer clearly breaks with that last tradition for of Beren much can be said, but he is no jester. However, much can be said about such classification of the voice type as in the past such parts were noted for a bass voice, e.g. in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ for the part of Papageno in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe noted as bass while in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Betsy Schwarm) notes it is for baritone – but over time the range or classification of the voices shifted. I think it is fair to say for any baritone to fulfil these requirements and classifications one needs to practise quite a bit as it is beyond the normal comfort zone of the ‘regular’ baritone spectrum.

At the end of Scene Two Beren vows ‘Thy death I will avenge’ after receiving ‘the news of Gorlim’s passing’ by his spirit who confesses his betrayal just moments before. The beauty of this moment is that (what I would describe as) the romantic hero theme which opens this section instrumentally and carefully forbodes what is coming. Then Beren (voiced by Julian Boyce, who – throughout the recording – keeps a constant quality) vows his revenge for Gorlim’s death and torture, a tour de force no doubt, but as Beren finishes his sentence the choir comes in and takes Beren out of this scene and into the next, which is an especially powerful moment, almost as if he is recued. The choir carries Beren into the interlude and scene three and then the magic happens…

An interlude for flute, is perhaps one of the most beautiful moments in the whole of the Silmarillion opera cycle by Godfrey and is far too short at a whopping ± 1:50 mintues (track 8). Followed by choral singing, which is here both lovely and romantic and is followed by an ‘entranced’ Lúthien (voiced by Angharad Morgan) singing of the moon and stars (‘Ir Ithil ammon Eruchim …’) in a short aria while wandering dancing through the forest. What follows is a game of attract and subtract, perhaps the only ’true’ love scene of the whole of the cycle.

The part of Lúthien requires a light and ethereal soprano voice that is still capable of dramatic confrontations with the dark and powerful voices of Sauron and Morgoth; also some duets with Beren (scenes 6 and 8) keep building with very little time for the singer for relief or recovery. Morgan does a great job with her part which no doubt will have many a soprano struggle before eventual success.

The composer writes in his orchestral score [15] on the ‘interlude for flute’ ’the solo flute is to be played behind the stage.’ Mind you, this has a function. The flute is not just any mere flute playing a support line, it represents the character of Daeron, minstrel of Doriath.

In the original story – as published in The Silmarillion (I cannot speak for the later History of Middle earth editions or the stand-alone story (as I’ve not finished reading them yet – my bad and don’t I know it…)); Daeron betrays Beren to Lúthien’s father Thingol. The opera however leaves the reason for why Beren appears before Thingol in the next scene open, and Lúthien answers her father’s question (scene four) ‘who are you that come hither as a thief, and unbidden dare to approach my throne?’ simply by introducing him. Omitting this reason makes the story stronger and doesn’t hurt the story as this has no consequences for the outcome of the story or its further development.

Daeron’s character is not even seen in this opera cycle, but it is commonly accepted that Lúthien danced often to his music and that he ‘fancied’ her for himself. The choir seems to confirm this by singing ‘dancing there to music of a pipe unseen,’ unseen but not unheard which means someone must produce that sound and who better to hide in the shadows of the forest than her secret admirer Daeron? Sometimes less is more, and by not presenting Daeron as a character on stage he has become the star of the scene lifting up and making stronger the presence of Lúthien. Does the lack of such information hurt people who are not familiar with the story of Beren and Lúthien? I think not (though it might have been fun to name the off stage flute player ‘Daeron’ in the score and notes), as said it is of little consequence for the development or outcome, but to those familiar with the story it adds an extra layer of understanding why the flute music comes from the forest and off stage.

It is worthy here to mention that Op. 45 ‘Daeron’ appeared on the album ‘Akallabêth and other Tolkien works’ also released on Prima Facie (PFCD059) and was wonderfully performed by Nicola Loten (flute) and Immanuel Carl Maria Vogt (piano); the composer created that piece incorporating parts from the ‘interlude for flute’ in this opera. Of the ‘Daeron’ piece I wrote “the performance of the work is excellent, Nicola Loten (on flute) really breathes life into this wonderful piece,” my full review of that album can be found here.[16]

Creating a work such as this for performance on stage means making choices between sources (as Mr. Godfrey had access to then unpublished works during the time he composed his opera cycle, kindly provided by the late Christopher Tolkien who was his father’s literary executive) and the need to cut or edit to make it dramatically function. Someone once remarked to me (I forgot who said it), and I agree with that to an extent, that “it was a ‘lack of daring to choose’ on the part of Mr. Klein that he did not cut that many story elements from his opera version” (if any at all, because in his score preface he rather demands of directors and designers to stay close to the Tolkien-original mentioning, paraphrased by me, the hierarchy should be story first, music second and staging third) which might have resulted in overly long sections. Such choices, however, are of course their respective composers and adaptors own to make with each for their own reasoning and I can hardly comment on them and I’ll not delve further into Klein’s opera in this article, however I found it a noticeable difference, especially on the part of Daeron, which I wanted to stipulate here and it is one of the few works to which a comparison could be made at all, story-wise that is. Musically they are totally different in the way you don’t go and compare two random operas of Mozart and Wagner. Perhaps somebody else should take up a pen and compare the two ‘Lúthien’s’, at least I would read it with interest.

For Sccene Four (the opening of the second triptych) we find Beren (as said) before Thingol (voiced by Martin Lloyd) asking ‘who are you that come hither as a thief, and unbidden dare to approach my throne?’ Like a grumpy old man Thingol sits on his throne and reluctantly listens to his daughter (Lúthien) who introduces Beren, carefully choosing her words. Thingol demands Beren speaks for himself – which he does to a point of almost insulting Thingol by stating ‘neither rock nor steel, nor the fires of Morgoth, nor all the powers of the Elvenkingdoms, shall keep me from the treasure [Lúthien] I desire’.  Thingol and Beren feud a bit and Thingol judges Beren to be proud, overconfident and arogant. Before Thingol could make a judgement in haste Melian (his wife) (voiced by Helen Jarmany) intervenes and warns him of their interwound destinies;, thereupon Thingol demands a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth in the hand of Beren, a jewel for a jewel so to speak, and Beren accepts saying (more or less in reprise of Sauron’s remark to Gorlim) ‘for little price do Elvenkings sell their daughters’. Lloyd performs a sad Thingol with a longing for the past, he provides him with a deep but semi-bright bass voice, and angry when appropriate. Jarmany’s mezzo Melian is portrayed with a cold (or perhaps distant), but with hints of a warm, voice. The final duet of Melian and Thingol is quite a lovely piece in which either demonstrates they still have love in their hearts for each other as Melian expresses her honest concern for her daughter and husband, but Thingol talks of Beren’s doom thinking he outsmarted him and he surely will die on his quest for the Silmaril. It is a wonderful conclusion to the scene which (again for those who know Tolkien’s works) forbode what is going to happen, for Thingol and Melian are a couple of mixed races (Elf and Maia) and the love Beren, a human, feels for Lúthien, an Elf, echoes that marriage perfectly with all its consequences through the ages (as said in the introduction) all the way to Aragorn and Arwen (from The Lord of the Rings).

After Lúthien and Beren escape Sauron’s captivity they continue their search for the Silmaril and enter Morgoth’s halls in Angband in Scene Seven. It is here that perhaps the most iconic scene from the whole of ‘The Silmarillion’ takes place – Lúthien’s dance before Morgoth. It is here we first encounter Morgoth (deeply and warmly voiced by Laurence Cole). In ‘Shadow, descend!’ Morgoth challenges Lúthien and the two engage in a word feud before Lúthien starts her famous dance scene. As the fires fade the choir takes us through the events that follow. Then Beren takes a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown and both Beren and Lúthien flee the scene. But as they flee, they once again must face the wolf they encountered upon entering Angband and Beren loses the Silmaril and his hand to the creature before they can make their escape.

Once returned to Thingol’s realm, in Scene Eight, Beren presents his success to Thingol and dies. Lúthien journeys towards the end of the world and beyond to the Halls of Mandos, where all souls go to await the end of time – and pleads with Mandos for a change of life for Beren and sings to him. In the Epilogue the chorus tells us what happens thereafter – all’s well that ends well, at least for the time being.

One of the things that catches the ear is the quality of the synthetic orchestration of the East/West Quantum Leap software, which is already a better quality then the first production (The Fall of Gondolin). Conducting both the singers and the software is none other than Simon Crosby Buttle himself, a feat not to be underestimated. Each note of the orchestration needs to be inputted into the software by hand and each effect needs to be chosen or created – requiring a orchestral total of 96 instruments (yes, some parts are doubled). Both voices and instruments must be balanced together and mixed and mastered in order to be reproduced on compact disk. All that and still trying to make it sound as realistic as humanly (or is that artificially…?) possible.

Overall, a fantastic production, mind you it is a demo still, and perhaps together with ‘Children of Húrin’ the most complete story of the cycle, giving listeners the best of both worlds an opera (unlike how the composer himself views it in his notes “…perhaps best viewed as a sort of secular cantata which could be given a semi-staged performance…”) that continues the adventures of ‘The Silmarillion’ but just as easily could be a stand-alone operatic work, providing a conceptual whole as a dramatic work (a clear beginning, middle and ending), that is worthy of being placed in the annals of great (dramatic/romantic) operatic masterpieces – such as ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (Wagner) and ‘Roméo et Juliette’ (Gounod).

[5] Photo taken by and used by kind permission of Nathalie Kuijpers
[10] which was receintly extended with a fifth opera (The War of Wrath)
[11] A review can be found here:
[14] Fëanor was the craftsman who made the three Silmaril jewels and Morgoth stole them. Fëanor and his sons are bound by an oath they swore to recover the Silmarils, leaving a trail of war and destruction in order to fulfil their quest. The book ‘The Silmarillion’ was named after these jewels.
[15] Here Sauron is a servant of Morgoth, he only got to rise to power after Morgoth was banished to the void. The latter event of which is told in the story ‘of the Voyage of Eärendil and War of Wrath’.

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