Home > Reviews > MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – Max Richter

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – Max Richter

December 19, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The rivalry that existed between Mary Stuart, the daughter of King James V of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn, came to be one of the defining elements of British political and royal life. Various complicated legal issues regarding legitimacy and succession meant that the two cousins had valid claims to the British throne, but it was Elizabeth who eventually took it, becoming queen in 1558. Within a year Mary had married King Francis II of France, but following his death just two years later she returned to Scotland to take up her throne there. Tragedy and death dogged Mary’s life – her first husband was murdered, and her second husband eventually fled to Scandinavia – and by 1567 she had been forced to abdicate her throne in favor of her one year old son. Seeking the help of her cousin, she left for London, but the increasingly paranoid Elizabeth saw her as a threat, and had her imprisoned for plotting to assassinate her; Mary was eventually executed in 1586. This story has been told many times on screen, most famously in a popular 1971 film starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. This version of the story stars Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as the two queens, and is directed by Josie Rourke from a screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon.

I love historical costume dramas, especially when they are filled with this sort of political intrigue and skullduggery. They are sumptuously designed, with beautiful art direction and wardrobe, and this story especially gives meaty roles that great actresses can really sink their teeth into. Musically, the films also give an opportunity for a composer to stretch their classical legs and write music that is boldly orchestral and emotional, but with period sensibilities and trappings; case in point, John Barry’s wonderful score for the 1971 version. For this film, the director turned to British composer Max Richter, who was already a star in the contemporary classical music scene before he started dabbling in film just over a decade ago. Although I have enjoyed some of his previous scores – Waltz with Bashir, parts of Disconnect, parts of The Leftovers – I have often found Richter’s music to be too cold, too sterile, and too clinical for my tastes. It’s music that I admire more than I like, closer to mathematics than the emotional elements I connect with. This is why I am so happy to state that Mary Queen of Scots is the best score of Richter’s career to date, and by quite a significant margin.

Richter is an intellectual composer and so a lot of the detail in the score is very deeply thought out. It was recorded in London with a 110-piece orchestra, plus choral parts performed by the London Voices Choir and a solo female vocalist. However, a lot of the lead instrumental ideas are based around the ancient sound of the renaissance. The main theme is performed by both a cor anglais bass oboe and a viol, a period string instrument which Richter processed in post-production to give it a richer, more expansive sound. Drums also play a major part in the score, which Richter says are intended to be a foreshadowing of Mary’s fate – the drums he uses often feel like a militaristic tattoo, appropriate for war, but also have a funereal sound, like a final death march accompanying one of the condemned as they climb the steps to the executioner’s block. Finally, as a textural acknowledgment of Mary’s Scottish heritage, Richter makes frequent use of a clàrsach, a Celtic harp which was in common use at the time.

In terms of the composition itself, Richter says he intentionally used gestures which come from Renaissance music, and anyone familiar with period composers like Thomas Tallis or William Byrd will immediately recognize the chord progressions and structural stylistics associated with their music in Richter’s work. However, this is not to say that the score is merely Tudor pastiche; in fact, the score is at times gloriously cinematic, regal, but with a warmth to it, and a times it has a real emotional kick.

The main theme is introduced in the first cue, “The Shores of Scotland,” and contains a gorgeous rendering on cor anglais beginning at 0:54 that is stunningly beautiful. As a frame of reference for film music fans, the closest comparison I can make is when Michael Nyman really goes for broke and writes at his most romantic and emotional – the minimalist tendencies are still present in the rhythms and the underlying counterpoint, but the melody soars. The theme returns frequently throughout the score; for example, in “Darnley’s Visit” it is softer, slower, more hesitant, and features slightly orgasmic-sounding female vocals which explain exactly what Mr. Darnley is doing with Mary on his visit. Later, in “The Hilltop,” the performance of the theme is expansive, almost celebratory, and is given a new timbre through the addition of a percussion accompaniment, while the performance in “A New Generation” is quite stunning, especially when the choir comes in.

Cues like “Elizabeth’s Portrait” and “My Crown” are positive and warm, and often feature engaging renderings of the main theme’s contrapuntal rhythms; the drums add a level of emotional depth, while the strings and soft harps are quietly intimate. Similarly, “The Poem” uses pizzicato strings, light drones, and romantic harp textures to create a mood that is a little mischievous. In a clever turnabout, the subsequent “Darnley’s Dismissal” comes across sort of like the darker cousin of “The Poem,” where the same orchestrations now sound sour, as if the relationship has become bitter. Only in this cue’s second half does Mary reflect on the memory of those more carefree times.

Much of the rest of the score is quite ominous and dark, speaking to the tumultuous political climate, and to the two queens’ deteriorating relationship. In cues like “A Claim to the Throne” Richter uses martial drums, dramatic string figures, horns, and a subtle choir to paint a tragic musical picture of the time. “The Wedding” in this story underscores possibly the least romantic nuptials in history, while “Knox” uses string ambiances, overlapping vocals, and menacing cellos to create a hypnotic mood that perfectly encapsulates the prejudice the Scottish protestant preacher John Knox held for his Catholic monarch.

“The Ambush” is a clever cue that blends the textures heard in “A Claim to the Throne” with the hypnotic vocals from “Knox” layered against them, resulting in a sound which is quite haunting. Voices play a major role in “Pray For Me” too, an ethereal lament for high strings set against ghostly voices, which culminate in a very sinister finale for chugging strings, low brass, and staccato percussion. “The Assassination” contains the biggest, boldest, darkest set of string ostinatos; forceful, muscular, and dominant.

The conclusion of the score is the “Finale,” an 8-minute exploration of the score’s main thematic and textural ideas, which is quite beautiful, but underpinned with tragedy. The slow cello rendition of the main theme’s chord progressions is sublime, and speaks to Elizabeth’s sorrow at having condemned her flesh and blood to death. The stark, percussion-driven middle section underscore’s Mary’s tragic fate, while the huge statement of the main theme at the end of the cue allows the drama to culminate with a final burst of melodic glory. The soundtrack album also contains one piece of source music, a beautiful rendition of Thomas Tallis’s classic 1565 liturgical hymn “If Ye Love Me,” performed with cut-glass precision by the London Voices Choir.

There is just something about this music that enraptured me from the first moment I heard it. Perhaps it is in the way Richter takes the classical renaissance composing style and re-frames it for contemporary audiences; perhaps it’s the beauty of the main theme, and the delicacy of the recurring cor anglais performance of it; perhaps it’s something in the drama inherent in the story of these two strong, powerful women being forced into conflict with each other in order to satisfy the egos of the men they ruled. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But whatever it is, I stand by my statement that this is Max Richter’s career high film music composition to date, which will surely appeal to anyone whose taste in scores includes richly rendered but staunchly minimalist orchestral writing, enlivened with a dash of period romance.

Buy the Mary Queen of Scots soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Shores of Scotland (1:52)
  • Elizabeth’s Portrait (3:40)
  • A Claim to the Throne (3:05)
  • If Ye Love Me (written by Thomas Tallis) (2:11)
  • My Crown (2:51)
  • The Poem (2:23)
  • Darnley’s Visit (2:05)
  • The Wedding (2:44)
  • Knox (3:14)
  • The Hilltop (1:55)
  • Rizzio’s Plea (1:48)
  • The Ambush (2:06)
  • Pray For Me (5:50)
  • A New Generation (2:48)
  • Darnley’s Dismissal (3:43)
  • Outmaneuvered (5:27)
  • The Assassination (2:29)
  • Finale (8:24)

Running Time: 58 minutes 35 seconds

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 6039 0 (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Max Richter. Orchestrations by Dave Foster. Recorded and mixed by Rupert Coulson. Edited by Michael Cornell. Album produced by Max Richter.

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  1. February 1, 2019 at 9:06 am

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