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Finding ‘Great’-ness in ‘Catherine’ Scores: How Composers Took On Serious, Comic Treatments of Russian Empress’ Story

Elle Fanning The Great
Ollie Upton/Hulu

Viewers were treated to two different takes on an 18th century Russian empress this season: HBO’s four-part “Catherine the Great,” starring Helen Mirren, and Hulu’s 10-part satirical “The Great,” starring Elle Fanning.

The aims were very different, and so were the musical approaches by English composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, who undertook HBO’s serious dramatic adaptation, and American composer Nathan Barr, who tackled Hulu’s comedic flight of fancy.

Gregson-Williams — reunited with director Philip Martin, with whom he had done two seasons of “The Crown” –– started early, writing a song that Catherine’s lover Potemkin (Jason Clarke) would sing on screen. “I’m a great fan of Russian music,” the composer says, “but when I looked at that period, the classical music felt to me that it didn’t have that Russian passion that one recognizes in later eras.”

Turning to church and folk music from the region for inspiration, Gregson-Williams wrote a choral and orchestral score that “hopefully feels like it’s from the passionate, emotional side of Russian culture.”

The choral material, sung by a 30-voice ensemble, permeates the entire score. Inspired by the scripts, he wrote several pieces before he even saw a cut of the film, and then processed the sounds electronically for greater dramatic effect.

The story “was really about two things: about building an empire, and about [Catherine and Potemkin’s] deep love for each other. I wanted to make the audience feel that Russian passion, the size and scope of the empire.” He spent about eight months writing four hours of music (played by a 55-piece orchestra), about two and a half hours of which is in the final version.

As for “The Great,” the fictionalized comedy-drama version of Catherine’s rise to power, “the show was funny before there was any score under it,” says Barr. Music needed to “gently support the moment. We definitely wanted to avoid any overtly comic sounding music, and just play more to the place or the emotional underpinnings of what was going on.”

Demo-ing for the job, music supervisor Maggie Phillips urged Barr to be musically daring, even outrageous. “I did a super-’70s synth track for the opening scene,” the composer says, and while he won the job, Hulu urged him to “pull back a bit from being too contemporary — although the showrunners were constantly saying, ‘more synth!'”

“Something about the synth sounds plugged into the fact that Catherine was so forward-thinking as a leader, so ahead of her time,” Barr notes.

But, in a nod to more conventionally classical sounds, Barr employed a 35-to-40-piece London string section, although with “synth underpinning to a lot of cues, moving it a little bit left of center.” Back in L.A., Barr added acoustic guitar and the traditional Russian balalaika for authentic Russian color.

The pandemic interrupted the process, however, as Barr had only completed six episodes when the lockdown came in March. The remaining four were largely finished with synths, although previously recorded orchestral cues were repurposed for moments in some later episodes; “it was a bit of a challenge,” Barr reports.