The Desolation of Smaug may be the most recent Hobbit movie, but my music collection is lagging behind the times in this area. It's only recently that I picked up the soundtrack to the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. (The special 2-disc version of the soundtrack, in fact.)
The composer on Peter Jackson's new trilogy is Howard Shore, the same man who created the wonderful music for the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. There simply could be no one else for the job; Shore's music is as much a part of the identity of Middle-earth as John Williams' is for "a galaxy far, far away." I mention the Star Wars scores very deliberately, because as much as I love John Williams, what Howard Shore has done in the Hobbit films is superior work in the face of similar challenges.
The scores for the classic Star Wars trilogy are all-time greats in the history of film. The expanding leitmotifs of the series are as recognizable as the characters they accompany. But when it comes to the prequel trilogy? You'd have to find a true aficionado who could hum any of that music (outside of possibly The Phantom Menace's "Duel of the Fates"). You could say that the scores were a perfect match for the films, in that both were a disappointment.
Howard Shore had a similar task in writing music for The Hobbit films. He'd created a large library of themes for The Lord of the Rings that would need to be incorporated, but expanded upon. The story, set a generation earlier, used only a handful of the same characters. And any new music would need to feel like it integrated naturally with the old.
For negotiating all those challenges so skillfully, the score to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a major accomplishment. Shore is unafraid to make use of his old themes, particularly that for the Hobbits and the Shire. Phrases of Sauron's theme are deftly woven in as well, to punctuate references to "the enemy" and "the Necromancer" throughout the film. All of this fits like a well-worn shoe, and grounds the score in the familiar.
But there's a host of new music as well. And it isn't simply content to blend quietly into the whole. Radagast receives a racing, manic theme that perfectly embodies the flighty character. An intimidating male choir supports the menace of Azog and the Orcs. The Dwarves get a strong but wistful melody as well, the same melody used for the song of the Misty Mountain. This is a particularly skilled accomplishment, as any Middle-earth fan of any reasonable degree will be well familiar with the old "Misty Mountain" song from the 1977 animated version of the story. Howard Shore managed to compose a similar but different tune for Tolkien's lyrics -- even though he surely must have had the older version blaring in his mind.
I find myself listening to the soundtrack for An Unexpected Journey far more than I recall ever listening to those of the first three movies,in fact. And I generally find myself only skipping things I would likely have cut from the film itself too (such as the dopey "Blunt the Knives" song in the overlong "rude house guests" sequence). For music that plays as well on its own as it does with the film for which it was written, I give Howard Shore an A-. I expect not to be so slow in picking up the soundtrack for the latest movie.