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WOLF HALL – Debbie Wiseman

wolfhallOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The name Cromwell is a notorious one in British history. Oliver Cromwell briefly turned the monarchy into a republic when he overthrew King Charles I in 1649, and he and his son Richard Cromwell ruled the country for six years during the so-called ‘Interregnum’ period, before Charles II was restored to the throne. Less well-known, but no less important, was Oliver’s ancestor Thomas Cromwell, who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII for eight years in the 1530s. Cromwell played a pivotal role in the formation of the Church of England, which was initiated by Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, due to her failure to provide him with a male heir, and instead marry the apparently more fertile Anne Boleyn; Pope Clement VII would not allow the divorce, forcing Henry to break away and form his own church. Unfortunately, Cromwell proved to be a controversial and divisive figure who made many powerful enemies, and he was eventually arrested and executed on a litany of trumped-up charges in 1540. The BBC TV costume drama Wolf Hall, based on the historical novel by Hilary Mantel, chronicles the rise and fall of Cromwell through the corridors of power.

The BBC have been world-leaders at making this sort of television series for decades, continually gathering together stellar casts and teams of extraordinary directors, writers and technicians to bring the stories to life. Wolf Hall is directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Peter Kosminsky, stars Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, along with a host of English character actors in supporting roles, and has a score by the massively talented Debbie Wiseman, who has collaborated with Kosminsky before on projects such as The Dying of the Light, Warriors, and The Promise.

Wiseman’s score for Wolf Hall walks that fine line between the classically-oriented BBC costume drama scores that so many people know and love, more contemporary political thriller music, and a depiction of the traditional music of the period. The fact that Wiseman is able to weave these three elements together into something fresh and interesting is testament to her skill. The main theme, “Wolf Hall,” is the theme for Cromwell, and is a propulsive, energetic piece for strings, overlaid with a number of ‘old’ instruments, including a harpsichord, a cor anglais, a theorbo lute, and a vielle, a type of medieval violin. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Wiseman said that, in an attempt to make the score sound relevant to modern audiences, she “decided it shouldn’t sound like a pastiche of Tudor music. There’s no sense of looking at the characters through some stained-glass window,” and Wiseman achieves that balance. While some of the instrumentation is clearly period specific, and while some of the rhythmic ideas could have come from the quill of Tudor composers like John Taverner or Thomas Tallis, the emotional application is very modern.

The theme, or at very least its prominent rhythmic element, is present throughout much of the score, cleverly illustrating Cromwell’s increasingly important and influential role in British politics. The whole thing has a sly, insidious, slightly sneaky feel, perfectly capturing the nature of a man who most historians agree was a master politician, but Wiseman’s different settings of the theme allow it to convey more emotion than one might anticipate. It features strongly in the second half of “Prophecies and Dreams,” is showcased in a beautiful trio with the cor anglais, theorbo, and harp, in the first half of “Devil’s Spit,” is juxtaposed against a morose solo recorder in “Monstrous Servant,” and is reprised in its entirety in the final cue, “Entirely Beloved”.

Conversely, cues like “Beginnings,” the second half of “Devil’s Spit,” and “Austin Friars,” are quite harsh, pitting a ghostly choral effect against stark string chords, insistent knocking drumbeats, and moments of severely anguished orchestral discord. These are complemented by “Master of Phantoms,” which builds from an executioner’s drum cadence and groaning basses into something like a tortured vocal lament, and the penultimate “Just Words,” which has a sense of impending doom and a singular inevitability, especially when Wiseman throws a bank of throat singers into the mix.

The darkness is counterbalanced by several moments of tenderness, like the lovely violin and harp duet which opens “Prophecies and Dreams,” the gorgeous solo piano performances of Anne Boleyn’s theme in “Forgive Me” and “Crows,” the equally pretty variation on Cromwell’s theme in “The Unicorn’s Horn,” or the haunting unadorned performances in “The Scholar,” which circle through the recorder, the vielle, and the harpsichord in turn. “Anna Regina” is one of the most upbeat and sprightly pieces, full of period airs and graces and classical pageantry, but somehow containing a slight touch of melancholy, especially when the more reflective string-based version of Anne Boleyn’s theme enters in the cue’s second half. It seems to know her ultimate fate.

If one was to offer a single criticism of Wolf Hall, it would be to state that, for a large part of its running time, it is rather dour. It matches Cromwell’s personality – he was apparently a quite humorless man – and fits the tone of the show, with all its political machinations, unhappy marriages, stillborn children, and beheadings, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into especially stimulating listening. You have to be comfortable with a generally serious tone, deliberate pacing, a fairly small ensemble of performers, and simply-stated Renaissance-style orchestrations to have a connection with the score, and those who don’t may find it to be a little repetitive or, worse still, boring. Thankfully, I don’t find it to be either of those things. I find the clear instrumental lines to be refreshingly honest, the thematic ideas to be well conceived throughout the score, and the whole tone to be quite captivating.

I have been championing Debbie Wiseman’s music for almost 20 years, through scores as magnificent as Haunted, Wilde, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Arsène Lupin, and Lesbian Vampire Killers, but still I find myself wanting to use terms like ‘underrated’ and ‘undiscovered’ to describe her, and the fact that I do this annoys me. The truth is she’s not underrated or undiscovered, at least in the UK, where she regularly composes the music for acclaimed, prestigious TV series, and is a familiar face on television arts shows and popular radio programming. I just wish that everyone outside the UK knew what a fantastic composer she is too, and that in amongst everything else she does, she got to score a Hollywood blockbuster once in a while as well.

Buy the Wolf Hall soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wolf Hall (3:18)
  • Beginnings (2:46)
  • Prophecies and Dreams (3:50)
  • Devil’s Spit (1:53)
  • Monstrous Servant (3:01)
  • Forgive Me (2:09)
  • The Scholar (2:31)
  • Master of Phantoms (3:15)
  • Anna Regina (4:17)
  • Still I Love Him (4:37)
  • The Smallest Compliment (2:51)
  • The Unicorn’s Horn (2:25)
  • Whom the Lord Loves (2:35)
  • Austin Friars (4:47)
  • Crows (2:16)
  • Angel Wings (2:23)
  • Just Words (2:57)
  • Entirely Beloved (3:09)

Running Time: 55 minutes 09 seconds

BBC Music/Silva Screen SILCD-1472 (2015)

Music composed and conducted by Debbie Wiseman. Performed by The Locrian Ensemble. Orchestrations by Debbie Wiseman. Recorded and mixed by Steve Price. Score produced by Debbie Wiseman.

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