• Ben Erickson

Mary Queen of Scots

There is no end to the love for British period dramas that remind audiences of the nobility and virtue of England's upbringing and the blood that has been left behind. One would think there were other movies to be made about lesser known histories than another go with Mary Queen of Scots. Then again, maybe now we can say Josie Rourke's 2018 picture is the definitive telling. Regardless, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie gave it their all, making a fierce show of rival Queens struggling against the patriarchy. Max Richter was hired on to score the film, adding the title to a modest slate of screen credits he has accumulated alongside his prolific output of concert works. The German-born British composer has been an influential voice in post-minimalist music, combining classical music with alternative pop. His 2004 solo album, The Blue Notebooks, has been deemed one of the most influential contemporary music albums of the twenty-first century, with the stunning piece "On the Nature of Daylight" used in several films, including Stranger Than Fiction, Shutter Island, and Arrival. Richter's work on Mary is quite pretty, but little else can be said for the composer's efforts here. Rarely does the score escape the tonic triad of any particular cue, choosing to inhabit muddied, minor keys through most of the film that evoke a bland, impenetrable glumness, taking no account of the small victories won by Mary Stuart. Of the more intriguing ideas Richter used was a twelve-voice women's choir as a symbolic medium for Mary and Elizabeth ("Knox"). Electronic viols were featured as throwbacks to early music practices, and a Celtic harp known as a clàrsach was performed on several occasions for the Scottish queen; most notably as a courtly minuet striking the A aeolian, "white-key" mode ("The Poem"). Field drums were also used for a gallows drum roll, emerging invariably throughout the film to foreshadow Mary's execution ("Claim to the Throne"). Said Richter, “The instrumental music is based on a kind of geometry and a set of gestures which come from Renaissance music [...] So it’s a kind of wandering border between the contemporary and period authenticity.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but to personify Richter's score as in any way authentic in the light of Renaissance repertoire is troublesome. Fortunately for us early music expert William Lyons was called in to handle some of the historical material, including a surprising amount of chamber music, and it was assuredly his counsel which led to the use of Thomas Tallis' "If Ye Love Me". The a cappella, English anthem motet was written in the time of Queen Elizabeth I by Tallis shortly following the protestant reformation, which brought about a significant shift in composition styles. One of those changes involved replacing Latin liturgical texts with Vernacular scripture, as was the case here with the English text. The anthem is generally homophonic, with some light, imitative counterpoint, done purposely so as to avoid compromising the text with dense counterpoint as species counterpoint had been growing in unrestrained complexity up to this point. All of this would have been a no-brainer for Lyons when selecting the piece because it is so representative of the stylistic change experienced during this time. Ironically, none of these features are present in Richter's score, making Tallis' contribution the most authentic (nevermind technically demanding) piece of music in the entire film. Even the most fundamental features of Renaissance counterpoint, those of trading consonances and dissonances with weak-beat suspensions, are absent. So yes, to call it anything remotely like Renaissance music instead of the post-minimalist exploit it was is troublesome. Mary's theme is the one beacon of joy to be experienced in the score, taking advantage of the 100-piece orchestra used to record, with a returning harmonic progression in D major. The progression in question (I - vi - IV - V) is a common turnaround in popular music, arising in the era of '50s rock and maintaining popularity for its ease of access. A few music aficionados have made a comparison to Pachelbel's Canon, but in truth it has a greater connection to Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major (the two composers were alive in the ensuing Baroque era) where the second "Air" movement opens with nearly the same progression. The cor anglais, elsewise known as the English horn and originating in Silesia roughly 120 years after the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, takes up the melody above arpeggiating strings, quacking through smooth steps and leaps with a dull delicacy.

Mary's Theme

Much like Richter to compose something stunning, albeit repetitious, while the remainder of the score remains analogous. It does not seem to matter if he is writing for film or the concert hall, his music all sounds very much the same. In the case of Mary we are given all the pomp and elegance of English Renaissance music without any of the technical command to back it. Is it too much to ask for a little polyphony when a glaring opportunity like this opens up? On watching the film I was reminded of a recent seminar I had the pleasure to attend wherein Simon Carrington gave a presentation on Renaissance choral music. When the subject of Tallis' "If Ye Love Me" was brought up and weighed against the extensive and glorious number of alternative pieces produced in this time, his only comment was "it's fine". To echo Mister Carrington's sentiment, Richter's score for Mary was neither remarkable nor a misstep. It was fine.