Saturday, May 3, 2014

Creating Metaphors for Creation and Creators

During our discussion about the Music of Creation, we spent a great deal of time considering the roles played by Eru Ilúvatar and the “offspring of his thought,” [1] the Ainur during the creation of Arda. Tolkien altered the details of this creation over the course of many drafts of the Ainulindalë: In an early draft (The ‘B’ Draft cited in HME 10), the world is given being by Eru as the Ainur sing, but in subsequent drafts and the final version of the Silmarillion, the Ainur are shown a vision of their song, and then sent to create it. Tolkien also appeared to struggle with how much characterization to give the Valar during the creation story—in some drafts, their characteristics and relationships are included in the Ainulindalë, while in other drafts these details are missing, or moved to a separate section dealing with the Valar more specifically. To me, this shows a fluctuating conception of just how much autonomy, ability, and importance the Ainur have in Eru’s grand scheme: Are they the key players, worthy of a biography in the creation story? Do they create the world by their song, or with their (metaphorical) hands? Just how much independence do they truly have from the theme of Eru?
In order to gain a bit of traction on these questions, it may be beneficial to instead find a passage that remains constant throughout decades of editing to use as a sort of constant bedrock, even if other details (and therefore interpretations) vary.  A passage which survives almost intact from the Ainulindalë in HME 5, HME 10, and the Silmarillion concerns Eru’s instruction to the Ainur near the very beginning of the legend. At the beginning of The Music of the Ainur, the Ainur sing by themselves or in small harmonic groups until Ilúvatar shows them a great theme of his own creation, asking the Ainur that they “make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show for the your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices…” [1] And indeed they do, and in every draft their voices are likened to musical instruments, choirs, and the harmony is described as growing more and more beautiful and complex until the Ainu Melkor begins to strive for mastery of the music.
In class, we attempted to gain insight into this passage and the process of deepening harmony by listening to music by Holst, Beethoven, and Smetana. While this  music provided a good jumping-off point for picturing the complexity of the Music of Creation, it doesn’t quite take into account the agency the Ainur seem to possess in shaping their own songs, as each piece we heard is a work created by one man, with notation to be adhered to by later interpreters. One metaphor which incorporates the Ainur’s “thoughts and devices” into the symphonic metaphor, is to relate this conserved passage, and later passages relating the tasteless machinations of Melkor, to any musical concerto I’ve ever had the pleasure (or on occasion, frustration) of accompanying, presenting, or hearing. 
Very simply, a concerto often proceeds in the following way: The whole orchestra will introduce a primary theme, before fading to allow a soloist to take up the theme in their own voice, supported by the rest of the group, not unlike Eru’s presentation of the Great Theme to the Ainur. While the soloist begins very near in character to the original, it does tend to develop and grow more complicated in its own right as well as in its relation to the rest of the orchestra as the concerto progresses—much like each individual Ainu gains familiarity with the others and slowly deepens their singing. Perhaps the most crucial part of the concerto, however, falls near the end at the cadenza, where the soloist plays a section without accompaniment—and indeed often without any specific music at all.
A cadenza is a sort of “subcomposition” rarely written out on the page for the convenience of the soloist. It may be vaguely sketched and the composer may offer a few suggestions, but it remains a minute or two of music that is the responsibility of the soloist alone. While a soloist can certainly adopt someone else’s cadenza and replicate it, the proper procedure is to compose your own, drawing upon your knowledge of the theme, the structure and arc of the concerto as a whole, the composer’s intent and your own creativity. Not surprisingly, an enormous variation in character and quality occurs in this section. Indeed, some cadenzas (unfortunately, including many of my own early efforts) are positively Melkorian: they are unsubtle, clash with the style of the rest of the piece, embellish the theme in only a rote fashion, or wander so far away from the theme that the audience (and perhaps the accompanying orchestra) is left wondering just what happened. The cadenza usually makes or breaks a performance: A superior soloist will somehow make the composer’s work something entirely new and fascinating, but a tactless one will effectively ruin the music that had been previously constructed by soloist and orchestra. 
The same creative process found in the construction of a cadenza, in which a unique player takes on the responsibility of combining the theme with one’s own creativity (to good and ill) is also on display during the song of the Ainur. Each Ainu is charged with embellishing Eru’s theme to their own taste whilst remaining true to the whole. Melkor halts the Music and confuses his fellow singers with his violent compositions, their own songs “foundered in a sea of turbulent sound” until Ilúvatar silences the raging storm with a wave of his hand before starting another theme anew. If we take the liberty of a few noun changes, this section perfectly depicts an orchestra falling apart at the seams before being pulled together by the conductor has been written, I have not read it.
So if we are to look at the passages in which the Ainur sing together through the lens of an orchestra performance, two roles for Eru appear, and two roles for the Ainur as well. As the creator of the original theme and as someone who salvages the chaos of a failed subcomposition, Eru is both composer and conductor of the music of the Ainur. The Ainur create their own subcompositions with the guidance of the rest of the work, but they also act as choir and orchestra as they blend their own voices with those of the others. Obviously the metaphor is not an exact one: Every Ainu cadenzas and embellishes and creates simultaneously, which in an orchestral context would play out as an entire orchestra of subcomposing soloists. Even the most skilled improvisational jazz combos fall far short of achieving this feat, but the fact that this chaos appears to be what the Ainur are intended to do says something very important about the abilities and role of Eru.
For a long while, “Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws.” [1] How is it holding together? In the orchestral metaphor, there are a few routes which can be employed, besides simply listening to one’s neighbor. First, one can latch on to the composer and adhere carefully to the notes printed on the page. But we’ve already seen that this is insufficient for an approximation of the Ainulindalë—the Ainur are not adhering to a prewritten scheme, but rather forging their own from the great Theme. Another option for keeping the music together is to submit to the guidance of the conductor, who can maintain communication with each member of the orchestra and guide the various voices as they execute the piece. However, this too seems to be insufficient, as much of the time Eru is a step removed from the Music, and he is not seen in these passages as directly influencing one Ainu or another’s sound. Neither the role of Composer nor Conductor fully describe Ilúvatar.
That this metaphor isn’t wholly satisfying is hardly surprising. Flieger addresses the challenge of describing the complex creative process and the participants of the Ainulindalë by describing the Ainur as powerful “demiurgic” creators of the world but also as splinters of Eru, the One[2]. This is crucial—how can one describe or begin to understand a being who encompasses everything? One answer is to do as humans do when confronted with things beyond their comprehension, which is to break it down into the comprehensible, much as Eru is imperfectly represented in the physical world by the Valar, who have readily-definable characteristics and personalities. Flieger employs the metaphor of a pure white light, broken by a prism into specific colors that are sharper and easier to comprehend than the enormity of the White whole of Eru. The metaphor of a concerto performance functions in a similar way. Undoubtedly, it is flawed, but it offers an avenue for comprehension of the subcreative power of the Ainur that also takes into account their reliance upon Eru.
A concerto is just one of infinitely many metaphors we could dream up for the Music of Creation, which, though none (not even Christian creation myth, as we discussed in class) are sufficient to fully explain the Ainulindalë, I submit is not a fruitless enterprise. The account of Pengolod in HME 10 makes me wonder if the accounts of singing the world into being aren’t an example of elvish thinkers who create metaphors attempting to make sense of the enormity of the formation of Arda. To generate our own lenses through which to peer at the design of Eru is to perhaps embroider the story a bit ourselves in the hopes of understanding the whole, which only draws us deeper into the secondary reality of Tolkien’s world.

[1] JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion

[2] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light



  1. This is the best description I have ever read of what Tolkien seems to be describing in the Music of the Ainur! --RLFB

  2. This post was really lovely, and as a fellow musician who has also played many concertos I thought your comparisons between the Ainulindalë and the composition/conducting of a concerto were excellent. I completely agree that a composer’s cadenza will never turn out the way he/she expects it to, and comparing a songs cadenza to the task of the Ainur definitely was a clear way to describe creation through music.
    I’d like to bring up the idea of free will and allowing the Ainur free will, especially in the case of creation. As we have read, allowing messengers to go on their own with their own instructions does not always have positive effects, just as you explained with the Ainu Melkor. When I read that comment, all I could think of was a soloist performing in a grand hall and playing all the wrong notes of a piece, but on purpose if only to take away power from the conductor. Most often we know this is not the case and the soloist just forgot the notes. If that should happen, one wonders what the conductor would do. Most likely try to continue with piece, just as Eru attempted to introduce new themes into the music of creation to overtake Melkor’s theme. But just as you pointed out, Iluvatar is not the conductor, but more the composer, and just like the composer Iluvatar can only attempt to control the players, but giving such power and free will to the messengers can result in catastrophe. Great metaphor!

  3. Echoing what others have said, this was an excellent post. It's been difficult to craft a response, as I've been too busy listening to concerto's since I've read it. I'm especially interested in your grappling with how to place Eru within this metaphor of a concerto. When you say that Eru seems a step too removed from the actual progression of the music to be regarded as a conductor, I had the impulse to assert the exact opposite. To my eyes, Eru seems almost too deeply intertwined with the music to be considered a conductor or a composer. I think especially of the Third Theme, and the sort of swelling upwards of the music (forgive my inexactness in musical terminology) when Eru finally completes the theme and ends the discord of Melkor. The music seems to be not simply a reflection of Eru's plan but a fundamental reflection of who Eru *is*. It may be that I'm simply importing too much medieval philosophy, however, either way it's simply one of the extremely interesting aspects of the Ainulindale that you touch on, and I think your understanding here is a great way to help plumb these.