Music and the Court of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) is a complicated figure and in many ways a tragic one. After a childhood in France, Mary Stuart began her personal reign in Scotland at the age of 18 in a country that she barely knew. During her rule she showed no gift for leadership, could not gain control of the political situation, and as a ruler did very little. She was implicated in the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, through her close association with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was suspected to be behind Darnley's murder and whom Mary married three months later. Underneath this specter of conspiracy, murder, and adultery, Mary was forced to abdicate in 1567 and she escaped to England to seek assistance from her cousin Queen Elizabeth. Here in Protestant England the Catholic Mary was once again viewed with suspicion and dogged by political intrigue, causing Elizabeth to keep Mary imprisoned for nearly two decades. Mary, Queen of Scots was found guilty of treason and beheaded in 1587.

It is no wonder that the life of Mary, whose 475th birthday is today, has provided enough dramatic material to keep composers (not to mention poets, playwrights, and artists) busy up to our present times. But let's begin with Mary's own era. Mary was herself a musician and was known to have filled her court with music. Having spent her formative years in France, Mary could sing and play lute, virginal, and harp. Her court was filled with the sounds of viol, lute, recorders, reed instruments, trumpets, and cornets. The RISM online catalog has sources for two pieces called "Queen Mary's dumpe," which were short instrumental dances characteristic of the time.

Some of Mary's musicians were closely wrapped up in her life. David Rizzio (ca. 1530-1566) was a singer and instrumentalist who quickly rose to become Mary's secretary and confidant. Ultimately he was the victim of a sensational murder that took place in front of Mary and was instigated by none other than Darnley. The song "The Lass of Patie's Mill" (several editions are in RISM) and other folk-like Scottish airs were printed under Rizzio's name in the 18th century, but scholars today doubt that Rizzio actually penned these melodies. Attribution to Rizzio may simply have been the result of Mary's court entering the realm of legend. James Lauder (c. 1535-c.1595) was a composer and instrumentalist and he and his son John followed Mary to England during her escape; both of them continued to spend time with Mary throughout her imprisonment.

In the intervening centuries, composers have taken event's from Mary Stuart's life as an inspiration for musical musings on the Scottish queen. A number of the texts used are attributed to her. In RISM, Mary's departure from France is the first major event to be set to music. Some of the adieus are in French (a language she spoke fluently), some are in German, and one begins "O thou loved country where my youth was spent." Václav Jan Tomášek's piece begins with her farewell and moves into her imprisonment with a lament from captivity. The text "I sigh and lament me in vain," found in a handful of sources by Tommaso Giordani, is written from Mary's point of view "thro' the grate of my prison." Finally, we musically reach Mary's execution. The prayer "O Domine Deus speravi in te" was set by several composers. Some sources state that the prayer was written by Mary during her final hours.

The drama in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots has transferred successfully to the stage. Friedrich Schiller's play Maria Stuart (1800) has served as the basis for a number of operas, the most famous of which is probably Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (1835). Other composers who drew on Schiller's source material include Rudolf Zumsteeg (1801), Karl Rungenhagen (1817), Saverio Mercadante (1821), Friedrich Wollank (19th century), Werner Egk (1932), and Günther Könitzer (1956). Thea Musgrave's opera (1977), based on her own libretto, is not in RISM.

Sources:
Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation (London: Routledge, 1998).
D. James Ross, Musick Fyne: Robert Carver and the Art of Music in Sixteenth Century Scotland (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1993).
Jenny Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots: Politics, Passion and a Kingdom Lost (London: Tauris Parke, 2001).

Image: "Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542 - 1587. Reigned 1542 - 1567," artist unknown, about 1610 - 1615. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, PG 1073, CC-BY-NC 3.0.

 



Category: Events



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