“Skullduggery and Passion: Max Richter’s Film Music for Mary Queen of Scots”
(2018 Focus Features film)

By Bruce C. MacIntyre (Professor Emeritus of Music, Brooklyn College/CUNY)

Director Josie Rourke’s 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots: Bow to No One has deservedly won many awards for its fine acting (particularly Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Queens Mary and Elizabeth, Guy Pearce as Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil, and David Tennant as John Knox), brilliant cinematography, stunning costumes (Academy Award nomination), and breath-taking scenery from location shots in both Scotland and England.

The film is a fascinating, at times liberally creative, account of the dramatic mid-sixteenth-century relations between Scotland and England, with their Catholic and Protestant queens. Using only key events and persons for the complicated tale about bringing down Mary, the screenplay is by Beau Willimon and was based upon Dr. John Guy’s excellent, well documented biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (2004). The film includes many of the principal disturbing events -- from 1561, when Mary Stuart returned, as Queen, to Scotland from France after the death of her mother (Mary of Guise) the year before, to 1587 when Mary is about to beheaded for treason, at the order of her cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth. Among many rich bits of skullduggery and romantic liaisons, viewers see the two queens’ dynastic “duels,” the quarrels between Catholics (Mary) and Protestants (John Knox and Elizabeth), the failed relationship between Elizabeth and Lord Dudley, the indefatigable guidance from Elizabeth’s long-time advisor William Cecil, the cruel murder of the Mary’s musician David Rizzio (1566), Mary and the Earl of Bothwell’s Chase-about Raid (1565) against the rebelling factions of Scottish lords (including her half-brother, James the Earl of Moray), her marriage (1565) to and the shocking assassination of Lord Darnley (1567), as well as the 1566 birth of Mary’s son (Scotland’s later James VI and England’s James I). (Incidentally, historian John Guy has a cameo appearance in the film -- with full white beard, sitting at the table at Mary and Darnley’s wedding feast; see DVD 0:47:41.)

One major drawback in Rourke’s wonderful film (aside from a few concerns about its historical accuracy) is that, unless you are a trained scholar of Scotland’s history, the identities of the eighteen other characters besides the two famous queens are not always obvious. This is not to suggest that each actor should have a visible “name-tag,” however audience reception for the film might have been much improved had the producers shown us, perhaps in short, labeled tableaus during the opening titles, the names and faces of the main supporters of the “two sides” – i.e. the Scots and the English. Admittedly, at one point the film does have the Earl of Moray point out to Mary her Secretary of State Maitland and Protestant pastor John Knox, just before her formal court entrance (DVD 0:10:50). Nonetheless, viewers are advised to review some Scottish history before seeing the film. Seeing the DVD with the director’s commentary played simultaneously can also be helpful for clarifying the complicated “who’s who.”

The music for the film deserves commendations for its consistent, poignant, compelling, and often subtle and pithy support of the tense dramas behind this gripping tale of conspiracy, aristocratic factionalism, unrequited loves, royal paranoia, and regicide. The score is by the successful post-minimalist German-born, English trained composer Max Richter (b. 1966) who has become more active in film in recent years, with over 50 engaging film scores now to his credit. For Mary Queen of Scots he won the prize for Best Original Score for a Feature Film at the November 2018 Hollywood Music in Media Awards. (He also wrote the score for Never Look Away, a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards.) As Richter’s website notes: “his work embodies both the rigour of the Classical tradition and the experimentalism of contemporary electronica.” As one reviewer for The Atlantic noted: “No contemporary composer expresses the same complexity of emotion on screen as Max Richter, whose work pervades modern culture, from film to television to dance to theater.” Director Josie Rourke invited Richter to do the score after hearing his attractive “take” on Vivaldi in his “The Four Seasons Recomposed” (2012). For details on Richter’s life and incredibly rich and multifaceted musical output, see his professional website: maxrichtermusic.com.

The present review will define and examine Richter’s musical style(s) in Mary, in order to better elucidate some of the reasons for his success in creating music to “fit” people, places, stories, and moods.

Upon first viewing, the film engages us with the beautiful scenery of Scotland and England, as well as gorgeous authentic costuming and first-rate, engaging cinematography (the intimate evening chiaroscuro scenes are most effective). One is not always consciously aware, however, of the impact which Richter’s musical soundtrack is having upon one’s sensibilities. Its tones are usually very soft and slow, sometimes being almost “inaudible music” to our ears. But clearly, Richter proves to be an exceptionally gifted and dramaturgically savvy film-music artist who finds just the right chord, melody, or timbre to reflect the inner and outer actions of each scene.

For about 78 (84%) of the two-hour film’s approximately 93 scenes, there is some kind of music – from low drones or bass pedal tones to orchestral or choral numbers as well as diegetic “source” music. The soundtrack CD (Deutsche Grammophon CD B07HQ7G8RC) includes 58 ½ minutes of music in 18 tracks and has already attracted praise. As will be seen below, most of these tracks connect with specific scenes in the film.

For several scenes we hear diegetic (or source) music that is part of the setting at that point. Richter worked with William Lyons on selecting “a collection of period pieces” that would give a sense of “time and place.” For example, there is source music for a performance of an evening masque about Diana and Acteon (at DVD 0:16:26), traveling music (e.g., fiddle at DVD 0:24:57), indoors “domestic” music for evening celebrations (DVD 0:30:20), the fete announcing Mary’s pregnancy (string ensemble with gamba at DVD 1:00:32) or for a romantic serenade (lute at DVD 0:36:03), as well as military music for battle scenes (marching drumbeats and bugle calls, e.g., DVD 0:51:17). Music consultant Kirsten Errington (Right Music Ltd.) and music editor Michael Connell worked with Richter on these choices. (It should be noted that all the diegetic music is omitted from the soundtrack CD.)

A version of the well-known early seventeenth-century lute song (or ayre) “Flow my tears, fall from my springs” by John Dowland (1563-1626) is played by Queen Mary’s Italian musician (and bisexual lover) David Rizzio as a lute solo for the evening party when Queen Mary and Lord Darnley make love (DVD 0:36:03). One hears creative variations upon the tune and its chord progressions. For the film, the serenade was played by London-based lutenist Arngeir Hauksson. Originally based upon a somber pavane dance, Dowland’s tune effectively “paints” and unifies that romantic scene. However, the sad song, with its text “Flow my tears, fall from your springs! Exiled for ever, let me mourn . . . “ ominously fits both the soon-to-be exiled Queen Mary as well as the dark future for Lord Darnley after their son James is born.

Curiously, in a few instances the background music appears to be diegetic when it’s not really so. For example, early in the film, as Queen Elizabeth makes a formal entrance and walks toward her Privy Council meeting in the company of her beloved Robert Dudley, we hear the opening phrases of Thomas Tallis’s beloved motet “If Ye Love Me” (F major) (CD track 4; film DVD 0:11:36). However, the scene is not in a church and no choir is visible; the motet is a background for the queen. However, amusingly, the motet’s second line is most fit for this scene where the queen also greets her frustrated, unrequited lover Dudley: “If ye love me, keep my commandments, And I will pray the Father, And he shall give you another comforter. . . . “ In other words, the text is apropos because of Elizabeth’s chronic hesitation to commit to marriage. (Delightfully, this scene has followed – as a dramatic “parallel” -- Queen Mary’s first formal appearance before her smaller, less formal Scottish court, attended by her four Marys [DVD 0:11:22].) In his commentary, Richter admits that he really wanted to include “this wonderful piece from the period” and also “attach” its text to Elizabeth.

Back to the film score. For the musical palette of his underscoring Richter uses essentially six basic musical styles. All the styles are quite simple and straightforward, but their timing, placement, orchestration, and combinations are essential to the success of Richter’s score. They can be described as follows:
    a) For scenes with underlying tension, a soft, sustained drone (perfect fifth), often with a dissonant tritone above the bass pedal that clashes against the upper tone (the fifth). It can be rendered by acoustic instruments and voices or synthesized tones, or both types of media. One example occurs in CD track 16 “Outmaneuvered” (film DVD 1:17:37) as the Earl of Moray and his fellow lords discuss Mary’s out-maneuvering the rebels.
    b) Static, slowly changing -- “oozing” -- chords of extreme tension (often with one prominent dissonant tone; sometimes blending acoustic instrumental and electronically synthesized sounds). A good example would be the ominous cue for Darnley’s wedding (CD track 8, “Wedding”; DVD 0:48:38). Here, as the male guests and the groom strut their line dance against a persistent drumbeat and growling A minor chords from the brass instruments, disturbing, dissonant D#’s and F#’s are played by high strings. On the surface, the scene is a happy evening occasion, yet Richter’s cue suggests the rebellion brewing and the bleak future for Darnley. In other films, Richter has used this style to accompany, among other things, writhing bodies making love.
    c) Philip Glass-like persistent, continuously repeated figures (often arpeggios on slowly changing and repeating chords). For example, there is the grandiose D major “coronation” (or “Zadok”) cue for Mary’s arrival as new queen upon the shores of Scotland (CD track 1; film DVD 0:02:41), over the repeating 16-tone bass ostinato (D-B-F#-G-B-A-E-F#-A-B-F#-G-B-E-A-D). Richter has dubbed this regal cue “theme of the queens.”
    d) Solemn ‘hymn’ or chorale style (slow, textless homophony) for somber, pious, nostalgic, tragic, penitent, or reflective moments. Listen to 01:20 in CD track 17 (“Assassination of Darnley”) or DVD at 1:30:35, where the haunting D minor tune f-e-f-g-e__; a-bb-a-f-g-a__ is heard). Another example of style “d” is the cantabile cello solo at the start of CD track 18 (“Finale”) as the dream-like (and fictional) meeting of the two queens nears its end. Richter has noted how he used the first of these themes at several points to reflect Mary’s recurring moments of mercy.
    e) Insistently driving, dissonant, percussive ostinato patterns (e.g., the repeating drum-like bass pattern of d d d d d d d d f f f f f f f f along with repeated, penetrating half-step clusters [e.g, a and b-flat together against d minor chords] of CD track 17, “Assassination of Darnley”; film DVD 1:29:25). Another example of this minimalist intensifying device would be the constant 4-note string ostinatos (e.g., the “Dies irae” bb-a-bb-g and c-bb-c-g) heard in the “Claim to the Throne” cue (CD track 3; film DVD 1:16:54, and at 0:02:00 in the film’s opening execution scene) as the pregnant Mary and her husband Lord Darnley start to deal with the rebellious Scottish lords.
    f) (Related to style “a” above) A long, sustained, sometimes throbbing, minor triad, often with “foreign” pitches (usually a half- or whole-step away) pealing in and out of the held chord (e.g., CD track 9’s “John Knox”; DVD 1:07:00; see example 3’s discussion below).

Aspects of these separate “styles” are frequently combined in Richter’s scores, often subtly blending electronic and acoustic instruments. Sometimes a single style (or alternation of styles) underscores two successive scenes, thereby serving as a seamless unifying “transition” between the first and second scene (and reducing the “blur” from the multiple, intensifying quick crosscuts between scenes).

At least one reviewer of Mary has noted the clear resemblance between the style in CD track 1 (“The Shores of Scotland”) and Handel’s stirringly pompous Coronation Anthem no. 1 (HWV 258) “Zadok the Priest” for George II in 1727 (cf. CD tracks 10 and 14 where it recurs). This “coronation” cue – Richter’s “theme of the two queens” -- is also in D major (i.e. the key of “Re,” the popular “royal” key for many centuries). See the discussion of examples 1, 2, and 7 below for the evolving ways in which Richter uses this cue to support scenes involving Mary and her rival queen.

One must also commend how this film uses drumbeat patterns to add tension, terror, or a haunting “military” quality to the cues in certain scenes (e.g., CD track 8 “The Wedding” of Mary and Darnley). As Richter notes (DVD commentary 0:44:00), “The drums [usually tabors] are a big sonic image in the whole score” – being used both indoors and outdoors, for “ritual moments” like the wedding, execution, funeral, and battles. Director Rourke observes how “the drum was the basic unit of tragedy.” The militaristic ambience from the drums is particularly important since no bagpipes are heard in the film, although, as style “a” makes clear, Richter often gives us sustained pipe-ish “drones” in many of his cues.

Richter’s commentary on the DVD is reflective of his highly sensitive compositional approach of thinking simultaneously in multiple dramaturgical dimensions (e.g., inner and outer events). On the quiet women’s voices heard when we first see Elizabeth and her court (DVD 0:06:10) Richter says: “I wanted there to be a kind of cosmic background radiation of female voices . . . [as a] kind of landscape onto which the rest of the score is painted as the foreground object.” Director Josie Rourke notes (DVD 1:02:02) how such cues with high voices often “help suggest that one queen is in the mind of the other.” Also, often suggesting that the queen should take action (e.g., to have a child), such vocal cues are, for Rourke, equivalent to the Sirens who lured men toward the “rocks” of their destruction.

To better understand how Richter’s “styles” and deceivingly simple sounding cues function in the soundtrack , we shall examine closely seven examples from Mary Queen of Scots.

    1. The second scene of the film shows Mary’s 1561 return, as new queen, to the shores of Scotland with her retinue and Lord Bothwell. After kissing the sand of her native land and mounting her horse, Mary leads the procession to Edinburgh. We hear Richter’s majestic “coronation” cue – what he terms “theme of the queens” -- (CD track 1, “Shores of Scotland”; film 0:02:41-04:53), which combines styles “b” and “c.” It is in the “royal” key of D major. With its repeated 16-tone ground-bass ostinato (D-B-F#-G-B-A-E-F#-A-B-F#-G-B-E-A-D) over rising waves of arpeggios, the music reflects the onward driving journey ahead for the queen. As the cue continues, the scene has stirring aerial drone views of the barren hillsides nearby and then shows Mary’s half brother (“Mon frère”) James, the Earl of Moray, greeting her peaceably at Holyrood, by presenting his sword and kissing her ring. In striking contrast with the seaside and castle scenes shown, the coronation-anthem style immediately sets the proper tone, telling us that this lady “just off the boat” is no ordinary person, but indeed a strongminded queen to be reckoned with. A poignant English horn appoggiatura figure (C#-D) enters to vary the rich D major music as Mary arrives at the castle of Holyrood. In his DVD commentary, Richter calls this figure “Mary’s theme” (DVD 0:40:50).

    2.This same “coronation” music returns slightly varied in several later scenes. It dramatically reappears more boldly and grandly in “The Hilltop” cue (CD track 10; DVD 0:40:40) during a panoramic mountain view of Lord Darnley and Queen Mary on horseback. Against this awe-inspiring music, Darnley formally proposes marriage to Mary, as the scene is crosscut with Queen Elizabeth’s storming out of her Privy Council meeting after she has been urged to forbid that very marriage.

    3.John Knox’s virulent, puritanical sermon against Mary in an Edinburgh Kirk is a good example of Richter’s style “f,” here with its throbbing, reiterated F minor chord, at times pitted against an ominous, crushingly held low bass G (CD track 9; film DVD 1:07:00). The minor chord and the tenacious, low major-second dissonance clearly lets us know that this famous theologian, who publicly and brazenly calls Mary a “servant of Satan” and “fornicator,” was indeed up to no good.

    4.There is an effectively calculated concatenation (or chain) of music for the evening scene when Lord Darnley and Queen Mary make love. It opens with diegetic music as the musician/confidante David Rizzio plays them a soft, sad lute serenade derived, as noted above, from John Dowland’s “Flow, my tears” -- certainly, given its implied text, a bad omen for Darnley’s future and reflective of Mary’s “isolation” (film DVD 0:35:58-0:39-00). Although the lutenist plays not an exact, full rendition of Dowland’s tune, we hear its most prominent motifs (e.g., tetrachord descent A-G-F-E, and the climactic leap up to high E followed by a descent to G#). This is soon followed directly (DVD 0:37:47) by Richter’s music from the “Darnley’s Visit” cue of CD track 7. This is a G major variant of the 16-tone bass ostinato first heard for Mary’s arrival on the Scottish shores (Ex. 1 above), with the oboe now providing a repeating, “rocking” F#-G appoggiatura figure to mirror the couple’s passionate embraces – this track ending with, as Richter has noted, a prominent, ominous, and diabolical tritone (C# above G) as the scene ends.

    5.A compelling concatenation of two alternating, parallel scenes over a single cue occurs for the birth of Mary’s child (CD track 14, “A New Generation”; film DVD 1:21:38—1:24.22). After Mary has just informed her half-brother James that she will christen her boy with his name, we see (a) Queen Elizabeth working on her quilling (filigree rolled paper art) of a floral portrait to send Mary and (b) Mary in painful labor, giving birth to James VI. There is a dramatic varied return of Richter’s solemn D major “coronation” music with the repeating 16-tone ground bass. The persistent bass progression now reflects both the ongoing labor of Elizabeth’s quilling and Mary’s child-bearing, as well as the voice-over reading the correspondence between Mary and Elizabeth (about the latter’s agreeing to be godmother and the former’s readiness for him to become England’s king). At the moment of James’ birth (CD track 14 at 01:48; DVD 1:23:00) the cue hits its dynamic climax and textless voices (Rourke’s “sirens”) enter to enrich the sound with a “human” touch. Beautifully, as the two queens appear to have come to an agreement on what will happen, for the first time we hear Richter’s “coronation” music accompanying both queens simultaneously. For the sustained chord at the scene’s end, there are the uncannily parallel yet ghastly contrasting images of both queens sitting upon the floor with legs outstretched – one around her infant and the crimson afterbirth, and the other around the piles of red papers for her quilling.

    6.The 10 February 1567 violent murder of Lord Darnley at Kirk o’Field (on the outskirts of Edinburgh) by Mary’s Scottish enemies presents another gripping musical sequence along with fine examples of Richter’s styles “a,” “e,” and “d” described above. These cues occur in CD track 17 (“Assassination”) and start at 1:29:01 in the film’s DVD. They capture compellingly the terror Mary experienced that fateful evening. As Darnley escapes from the burning building where the explosion had occurred, he is strangled by a gang of lords. One hears a sustained soft drone (D-A; style “a”) against a louder, accented, persistent “drumming” bass ostinato that alternates between D and F (style “e”), while strings sustain dissonant G#’s and Bb’s against the implied D minor chord. Things are clearly not right; skullduggery is afoot. The ostinato continues and intensifies as Mary awakens and, holding her wailing newborn, hurries along the castle hallways amidst the chaotic tumult. Lord Bothwell gives her the bad news about Darnley’s death. As the scene changes to Mary’s departure the next morning with Lord Bothwell, leaving her child behind (DVD 1:30:31) and with the Earl of Moray watching, the music continues. We hear Richter’s sad, slow “chorale” tune of Mary’s “mercy” and “forgiveness” (style “d”), still in D minor. The pathos of the hymn is appropriate for her farewell to Edinburgh, as it appears to be the last time Mary ever saw her son James, the future king of both Scotland and England. Just before this sad “chorale” cue ends (1:31:15) we see Mary and Bothwell arrive at the castle that became her new hiding place, where their own affair can begin.

    7.The film’s last dozen or so scene changes are accompanied by another stunning sequence of Richter cues, entitled “Finale” in CD track 18. Essentially, there are three elements of action, some shown with dramatic juxtapositions through filmic cross-cutting: i) the momentous, long-awaited face-to-face meeting of the two queens (that never happened) in a small thatched country house (DVD 1:41:10), ii) Mary’s praying in her prison cell and then being led to her execution on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle (1:51:32), and iii) Queen Elizabeth’s appearance before her Council and signing Mary’s death warrant on 1 February (1:52:30). This eight-and-a-half-minute sequence follows the seven minutes of musical silence during the start of the two queens’ intense and frank imagined conversation. (Incidentally, in the DVD commentary [1:41:10] director Rourke makes a fine case for her and screenwriter Beau Willimon’s creating this scene as a fictional representation of the two queens’ long, extensive correspondence in their many letters – many still preserved.) Musically the sequence has five basic “sections”: A) First, as Elizabeth removes her wig and tiara (to reveal her true coiffure), we hear a very soft, lush, nostalgic cello solo (style “d”; in D major, with several repetitions of D E F# A and a leap down to B; DVD 1:48:40). B) Then, as the still frustrated Elizabeth leaves the house, urging her aides to take Mary “somewhere you can guard her well,” we hear another return of the “coronation” music (style “a”; examples 1 & 2 discussed above; DVD 1:50:47) – suggesting, at least musically, the power of Elizabeth that will eventually be exerted fatally upon Mary. Against this continuing 16-tone ground bass, the scene shifts to the condemned Mary in her prison cell (DVD 1:51:32). C) Next, in London’s Council Chamber and in a tense moment of absolute silence (except for her quill’s pen strokes), Elizabeth, having received notice of Mary’s conviction of treason based on “credible evidence,” signs the execution warrant, as her Council looks on (1:52:58; CD track 18 at 4:00). Against funereal drumbeats, a very slowly descending D major scale in the bass (A G F# E D) leads into the next section. D) This is perhaps the strongest, most assertive return of the regal “coronation” music (DVD 1:53:23; CD track 18 at 5:20), now “confirming” Elizabeth’s irrevocable execution decision. At this point one hears the voice-over of Elizabeth’s regretful, resigned final (and imaginary) letter to the condemned Mary, as we see the latter escorted through the castle to the execution chamber. For added energy, the cue now is regularly punctuated by stressed woodwind chords on weak beats. E) The “coronation” music is then further amplified and intensified with muffled drums and the sighing English horn’s rising half steps (C#-D: “Mary’s motif”), as Mary enters the Great Hall for her execution (DVD 1:54:17), hearing Privy Council clerk Robert Beale publicly read her execution warrant. As the “coronation” music winds down, she ascends the platform, shockingly reveals a bright crimson dress, and, to the richly sustained final D-major chord, Mary lays her head, in prayer, upon the chopping block, saying “And we shall have peace.”

Usually Richter’s underscoring is quite subtle and sometimes nearly secretive. Oftentimes his cues can be so quiet that we are not absolutely sure we are hearing them. They then seem to take on a more “subjective” or subliminal quality. The historically based film’s closing titles include the usual disclaimer that “some of the material has been fictionalized.” So historians should not and must not be upset by the film’s changes to what actually happened. The film tells a great story about two famous, dynamic women and the men advising (and often fighting) them.


In sum, Richter’s score for Mary Queen of Scots is successful because of its impressive sensitivity, unity, and subtlety. Much of the time, viewers are probably not aware that music is playing, especially when the plot, the acting and the scenery are so engaging. When audible, the generally quiet themes, motifs, keys, and timbres recur with pleasing logic. Restricting himself to some six basic style types, Richter adds an attractive integrative element to the film. Clearly sensitive to the film’s “big” moments and turning points, the composer makes splendid use of luxuriant, beautiful sonorities, oftentimes presenting simple melodies of expressive lyricism. Engaging, forward-driving bass ostinatos appear frequently, memorably in the recurring “coronation” cue, and keep the action moving inexorably toward the future (as well as bringing out the parallels between the two queens). Just as an oil painter or a cinematographer uses chiaroscuro lighting effects with sharp contrasts between light and dark, so too Richter carefully evaluates each scene and then chooses and subtly shifts his various styles to generate cues that enhance the mood and atmosphere before us.

At times, Richter’s score also accentuates the many interesting “parallels” between the two queens, starting with the D major “coronation” music that Richter associates with both Mary and Elizabeth. Similarly, the composer is sensitive to “parallel” scenes that “mirror” earlier events, often using the same or similar musical styles and themes to reflect the situational similarities. There are also timbral parallels to be heard. In the DVD commentary (at 1:20:30) Richter says he used a standard classical harp for underscoring the powerful Queen Elizabeth as opposed to a smaller, “feisty” celtic harp for the vulnerable Queen Mary.

It is nearly impossible to put these musical effects into words, but it is hoped that some of the above descriptions and analysis help articulate, to some degree, the magical aspects and techniques of Richter’s film-scoring art.


John Guy. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Mariner Books Edition, 2005.

*DVD video, Mary Queen of Scots: Bow to No One. Focus Features 62198733 [released February 2019) 124 minutes.

CD sound recording, Mary Queen of Scots, soundtrack by Max Richter, Deutsche Grammophon B07HQ7G8RC, released 12/8/2018.

*Besides the 124-minute film, the DVD release includes three short subjects as a bonus: “An Epic Confrontation,” “Tudor Feminism,” and “Something about Marys.” One may also watch the film with a running commentary by director Josie Rourke and composer Max Richter.

If any reader should like a copy of this reviewer’s detailed time-line for the film, please contact bcmacintyre@aol.com.