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THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT – Carlos Rafael Rivera

November 11, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix mini-series directed by Scott Frank, based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. It stars the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a young girl growing up in an orphanage in the mid-1950s, where she has lived since her parents died in a car crash. Beth discovers an extraordinary aptitude for chess, and the series charts her life from then on, as she starts competing in and winning games, becoming more famous in the chess world, but simultaneously becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol in order to cope with the high pressure environment. The series co-stars Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and was an enormous critical hit when it debuted in October 2020, with special praise bestowed on Taylor-Joy’s lead performance, as well as the period style and design.

The score for The Queen’s Gambit is by the brilliant Florida-based composer Carlos Rafael Rivera. A former protégé of Randy Newman, and an experienced working classical guitarist, this is only the third feature score of Rivera’s career, with the others being the 2014 movie A Walk Among the Tombstones, and the 2017 Netflix mini-series Godless, both of which were also directed and/or created by Scott Frank. Rivera won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music for Godless (and was nominated Original Dramatic Score), and it wouldn’t surprise me if The Queen’s Gambit offers him another shot at some silverware, because it’s absolutely superb.

Rivera’s score is wonderfully, unapologetically classical, and is rich in sparkling violin performances, infectious piano lines, and beautiful statements and passages for the full orchestra. The structure of the score is interesting, because Rivera said that, considering that Beth is such a complex protagonist, he tried to avoid writing a single ‘Beth Theme’. Instead, Rivera concentrated on the different emotional aspects of her character – addiction, genius, mischief, growth – and applied the different thematic ideas to the different stages of her life as the show develops. There are also specific instrumental colors associated with different time periods in Beth’s life; her early years in the orphanage are characterized mostly by solo piano and cello, and then as Beth’s world view becomes wider and more vivid, the instrumentation is slowly increased, so that by the time she arrives in the USSR in the final episode the music is fully developed for the entire orchestra.

The chess matches themselves – over twenty of them over the course of the seven episodes – unfold mostly without dialogue, which means that Rivera’s score does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of capturing the emotion of the players and the progressions of each game. As such, the chess matches become rollercoasters of texture and emotion, following the highs and lows, the wins and losses, with expressive musical statements.

Everything builds from the magnificent “Main Title,” which is easily one of the best cues of 2020, a mass of swirling classical strings, rich and powerful brass, and pounding timpani. It’s just stunning, like the most passionate dance, and perfectly captures the essence of the story, the opulence of the locations where the Grand Masters play, and the feverish will to win that Beth displays. I also love the way Rivera inserted the sound of a ticking chess clock way down in the percussive mix, further enhancing the intensity of the piece, while making a clear allusion to chess tournament play.

The first half dozen or so cues are mostly reflective pieces for softly intimate pianos and cellos, illustrating Beth’s early years in the orphanage, and her eventual discovery of the game that would go on to dominate her life. “Beth’s Story” and “Methuen Home for Children 1957” are very much like this, whereas “The Scholar’s Mate” has some subtle allusions to the main title, some light choral embellishments, and a more rhythmic core. Things really change with “Training With Mr. Schaibel,” which contains a number of warm and inquisitive piano textures, coupled with tender and emotional string harmonies, representing the first sparks of joy in Beth’s life as she discovers chess for the first time.

The real meat of the score begins in “Ceiling Games,” a sequence which illustrates the notion that Beth stares at her ceiling and imagines the movement of chess pieces in her mind. This is the first real conceptual introduction to the orchestral music that dominates the subsequent chess matches later in the score; it’s lush, florid, and full of passion and movement. From this point on, the score is led by representations of Beth’s competitive chess career, her emotions as she embarks on each tournament, as she moves from regional meetings to global tours. For example, the “Kentucky State Championship 1963” is slightly shy and restrained, but has a bubbling undercurrent of excitement and breathlessness in the endlessly moving and darting textures. Subsequent cues, when she is “Playing Townes” and “Playing Betik,” offer reprises of ideas from both the main theme and the ‘ceiling games’ sequence, with the latter having an undercurrent of latent romance as Beth develops feelings for her friend and competitor that remain unrequited due to his homosexuality.

Several of the further chess montages offer interesting instrumental tonal variations on the core ideas; for example, “Playing Benny – Las Vegas 1966” is more downbeat, and features electronic bass rumbles which give it a peculiar tone. On the other hand, “Mexico City Invitational 1966” is upbeat and energetic, and uses metallic percussion in interesting ways that gives the piece a sense of anticipation. The two cues in which Beth is “Playing Girev” contain a set of wonderful piano based variations on the main theme, thrusting, and playfully intense. Meanwhile, the cues representing Beth’s rivalry with the Russian world champion chess player Vasily Borgov are much more dramatic; “Borgov II” is especially threatening as a result of Rivera’s staccato phrasing, and the intimidating textures that shoot around between the brass and strings.

Counterbalancing all this are a few cues which illustrate the darker side of Beth’s personality – the drinking, the drug abuse, the mental illness, and the flirtatious relationships that turn into bad casual sex. “The Green Pills” is a little downcast, and features a little more obvious electronic sound under the orchestra, which seeks to capture the pressures and vices Beth succumbs to in her quest for chess perfection. “The Lake – Cincinnati” is elegant and pretty, and written in waltz-time. “Beth Alone” is a lonely-sounding variation on the main theme for heavy pianos. “Training With Benny” features some enthusiastic brass flutters set against playful, prancing pizzicato ideas that are just lovely. “Jolene!” finishes with a magnificent flourish.

The finale of the score underscores the finale of the show, wherein Beth travels to the Soviet Union to face off against Vasily Borgov for a third and final time. Rivera introduces an appropriate hint of Russian classicism into the phrasing of the lush and sweeping “USSR”. The 7-minute “Moscow Invitational 1968” offers Prokofievian stylistics, and is a musical rollercoaster, moving through numerous emotional peaks and troughs – vivid excitement tempered with something approaching sorrowful reflection – as the ebbs and flows of the match unfold. The conclusion of the cue is elaborate and grandiose, but then the subsequent “Close Your Eyes” showcases dark, bitter cello lines, and a version of the main theme on low, earnest pianos. Clearly things are not going well at this point in the story.

Everything comes to a head in the conclusive sequence comprising “Borgov III” and “The Final Game,” which Rivera likens to a chess version of Rocky or Rudy. This is Beth’s moment of triumph, and the score reflects that music that is energetic, lively, and at times euphoric. There are allusions to the main theme throughout, and as the sequence develops Rivera brings a sense of joy and freedom to his writing. The clock ticks from the main title return – this is a chess game after all – and the as second cue climaxes the music releases in a rush of exhilaration. It’s quite stunning. The final two cues – “Take It, It’s Yours” and “Sygrayem (Let’s Play)” are more low key, like a calm breath of relief, offering sentimental statements of the main title theme, joyous orchestral accompaniment, and wry, playful piano syncopations.

It’s fascinating to me how movies about chess – which is, to be frank, not the most stimulating sport in the world – often result in spectacularly entertaining scores. My mind immediately goes to things like James Horner’s Searching for Bobby Fischer, James Newton Howard’s Pawn Sacrifice, and Alexandre Desplat’s The Luzhin Defense, and now Carlos Rafael Rivera’s The Queen’s Gambit joins that illustrious list.

Rivera is now three-for-three in terms of outstanding scores; both A Walk Among the Tombstones and Godless were wonderful, but for me The Queen’s Gambit is the pinnacle of his career to date. Rivera splits his time as a working composer with being an assistant professor and Director of the Media Writing and Production Program at the acclaimed Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, so it remains to be seen whether Hollywood or musical academia will be his main focus in years to come; whichever one he chooses, the other will be disappointed to miss out on his talent and expertise. Personally, I hope film music wins. I hope someone other than Scott Frank hires him, and I hope he is offered two or three major assignments per year going forward – his talent and excellence needs to heard more than it is, as this score proves unreservedly. Checkmate.

Buy the Queen’s Gambit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:49)
  • Beth’s Story (2:07)
  • Methuen Home for Children 1957 (1:14)
  • The Scholar’s Mate (1:18)
  • You’re Gloating (1:06)
  • Training With Mr. Schaibel (3:04)
  • Am I Good Enough Now? (1:18)
  • Playing Mr. Ganz (1:36)
  • Ceiling Games (2:17)
  • First Day at School (1:12)
  • The Green Pills (1:30)
  • Kentucky State Championship 1963 (1:12)
  • Top Boards (1:01)
  • Playing Townes (3:45)
  • Playing Beltik (3:10)
  • The Lake – Cincinnati (1:48)
  • Playing Benny – Las Vegas 1966 (4:28)
  • Two Sides of the Same Coin (2:47)
  • Mexico City Invitational 1966 (2:21)
  • Playing Girev I (2:01)
  • Playing Girev II (2:23)
  • Borgov I (3:37)
  • Beth Alone (2:02)
  • Ohio US Championship 1967 (1:40)
  • New York (1:09)
  • Training With Benny (2:15)
  • Paris Tournament 1967 (2:26)
  • Borgov II (2:27)
  • Jolene! (1:55)
  • Returning to Methuen (1:10)
  • Turning Point (2:05)
  • USSR (1:06)
  • Moscow Invitational 1968 (7:27)
  • Close Your Eyes (2:31)
  • Borgov III (3:09)
  • The Final Game (7:23)
  • Take It, It’s Yours (2:07)
  • Sygrayem (Let’s Play) (2:11)

Running Time: 90 minutes 28 seconds

Maisie Music (2020)

Music composed by Carlos Rafael Rivera. Orchestrations by Jeremy Levy. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by Tom Kramer. Album produced by Carlos Rafael Rivera.

  1. November 30, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    Congratulations to Carlos Rivera for a magnificent score for Queen’s Gambit. I listened with astonishment to his reference to Satie in Episode 1 being brought to the fore with the piano sequence of Gnossienes. Colorisation of the score leaving piano into orchestra was astounding.

  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

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