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Composer Max Richter Juggles Period Details and Modern Techniques for ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Score

Period films always pose a musical challenge: How authentic should a composer be?  For “Mary Queen of Scots” with Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I, composer Max Richter created a fairly modern score to sit alongside 16th-century music. Early-music expert William Lyons was called in to handle the historical material, leaving Richter free to tackle the dramatic score.

“I wanted women’s voices to be really important in the film,” Richter says from London, “and I decided to try a cor anglais [English horn] for Mary’s voice.” Early experiments with the viol (a stringed instrument of the time) led to Richter processing the sound into “a sort of electronic cloud of viols for some of the more coloristic sequences with the voices.”

“The instrumental music is based on a kind of geometry and a set of gestures which come from Renaissance music,” Richter explains. “So it’s a kind of wandering border between the contemporary and period authenticity.”

The constant beat of field drums also foreshadows Mary’s eventual fate. “There’s going to be a funeral drum,” Richter says. “The other side of that is the marching drums of war. They came to symbolize Mary and Elizabeth’s shared antagonism for this world of male government. They were rivals and cousins, but they were also, in a way, allies against the male universe they inhabited.”

A string-rich, 100-piece orchestra and 12-voice women’s choir are heard throughout. Yet curiously for a film largely set in Scotland (and despite Richter having studied in Edinburgh) there are no bagpipes. Instead, he employs a clàrsach, a Celtic harp common to the place and time. “We tried to evoke those sorts of colors without resorting to the touristy,” he says.

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