Her Majesty Mrs. Brown OST Liner Notes
The winners write history. All that exists to chronicle the relationship between Scottish stableman John Brown and his sovereign, Queen Victoria are some old English newspapers from the 1860s, questioning the Scot’s growing influence on the world’s most powerful monarch. John Madden’s film Mrs. Brown captures this largely unknown bit of English history.
“He was effectively expunged from history,” Madden agrees, “even though his significance to her continued right on through to her death. She was buried with a photograph of him in her hand.”
Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, died perhaps four years previously as the film begins, in 1864. Victoria still deeply mourns his passing. She has withdrawn from public life, and England has started to call her “The Widow of Windsor,” because she rarely leaves the palace grounds. In an attempt to draw the queen out, Sir Henry Ponsonby has her favorite pony sent from the royal estate in Balmoral, Scotland. With the pony comes the horse’s caretaker, John Brown. He proves the one servant who does not cater to the grieving monarch’s whims but instead does what he feels is right for her. He becomes her trusted confidant. They spend so much time together, the queen becomes known in the press and Parliament as Mrs. Brown.
The richly evocative story of this unusual episode in the life of Victoria Regina gets captured on film by Madden, no stranger to modern cinema based on this era. Not only did he direct the 1992 version of Edith Wharton’s “Ethane Frome” (“the same period, but a different world,” he notes), but also the BBC television drama “Poppyland” and even a couple of episodes from the acclaimed Thames TV productions of “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”
Composer Steven Warbeck sought to carefully maintain the evocative nature of the film in his score, which The Hollywood Reporter described as “lush and stirring" when they reviewed the film’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival.. “I don’t approach the music in terms of making something they might have been listening to in 1870,” he asserts. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to introduce an electric guitar for this particular project. I wanted the music to feel completely of another era, though not slavishly sticking to the idea of music that they might have had in 1864.”
1 ”You can break the music down into four or five thematic elements,” Madden adds. “The main is the title music. The music that the film begins with, whenever you see them marching around the house, that goes back to the title music. I said I was looking for music that had a slightly narcotic, hypnotic effect. I wanted music that was formal, but absolutely not funereal and slow. I wanted a quality to the music that conveyed anxiety and agitation, as well as somberness and pain. It was unresolved, it wouldn’t resolve, it was a tune that wouldn’t arrive properly, yet it was a place that you wanted to go back to, and felt drawn to and sucked into when you heard it. It has the added, useful bonus of being something that gives the film enormous momentum. That’s Victoria’s theme.”
“It’s almost as if the wheel carries on,” Warbeck appends, “the machinery of state carries on. You have this music of the court, which is this wheel turning and turning and turning.”
Music for the rustic Brown proved a challenge of a different sort. “It’s the other extreme,” says Madden, “the world of the Highlands. These cues were built around Celtic melodic fragments. We decided to go with a particular instrument for him, a Tarogato.”
“I often approach things looking for a particular sound which appeals to the specific project,” Warbeck notes, explaining the choice of this unusual Eastern European instrument. “I wanted something strong, rustic, lonely and not completely anachronistic. There’s a musician, Martin Robinson, who plays on the film soundtrack. He’s somebody I collaborate with a lot. I knew he played the tarogato and invited him around and asked him to bring one with him. I thought it had a beautiful quality. Working with the strings, it would be a valuable texture, something that people wouldn’t immediately place, like the French horn or bagpipes. The lovely thing about the instrument, especially in the hands of Martin, is that the quality of it is a cross between a flute, a cor anglais and a soprano saxophone. It’s quite an open, woody quality, like a wooden flute. We talked about playing it -- not exactly sentimentally, but emotionally, so that the strings weren’t necessarily always emotional. At times they could be played quite cold, without a huge amount of vibrato. The tarogato was always played with emotion.”
Ironically, with all these musical themes and with all the thought that went into them, the film itself uses silence nearly as effectively as music. Between Madden and Warbeck, they figure that perhaps 40 of the films 103 minutes have actual musical cues (though Warbeck has extended some of these themes for this recording).
“Obviously, you approach different material in different ways,” Madden holds forth. “You wouldn’t dream of having an intimate scene that was not completely underscored from start to finish. This film was about what people couldn’t say to one another and the spaces between the words rather than the words themselves. Also, the elements, the world that they were living in and the rawness of the highland atmosphere was a tremendously important element of the film. God knows we had to suffer it when we were shooting it. I figured if it was on film, we might as well give a sense of it. Music insulates you from all of that. It takes you into a magical world, a world that is one stage removed from ‘reality.’ Therefore, I feel it needs to be used sparingly.”
“It is subtle,” Warbeck concurs.. “It’s almost as if, since their passion and love has to be kept under control, the score has to be kept under control, also.”