Mary, Queen of Scots

“All I knew was the playground song Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off,” says opera singer Louise Macdonald, “until I started learning Schumann’s Maria Stuart Lieder with renowned pianist, Malcolm Martineau, OBE. I became hooked and wanted to share my vision of Mary”.

This innovative creation is not only a faithful tribute to Mary Queen of Scots, but in the hands of Macdonald and Sawer a work of exquisite beauty.

The current fulfilment of that vision is the enchanting Mary Queen of Scots concert, somewhat ironically performed amid the protestant-styled simplicity of St Mark’s Unitarian Church. The venue is ideally suited to the work and the performer. The spaciousness of the interior, with its minimal reverberation, permits the resonance of Macdonald’s pure tones to be appreciated with maximum clarity. The floor-to-ceiling, narrow tapestry on the wall behind her no doubts aids this acoustic. As the solitary adornment it also reminds us of Mary’s love of needlework, while all else proclaims the demise of the ornate catholicism that was the heart of her life.

Churchill once proclaimed that history is written by the victors. Mary did not have to die to be on the losing side. According to Macdonald, throughout her tragic life she “was vilified in a vitriolic campaign by power-thirsty religious and political rivals”. This concert in some way seeks to redress the historical balance of judgement. Macdonald believes that Mary’s “intelligence, quick wit, passion, tenderness and faith deserve to be celebrated”.

The tribute begins with Schumann’s last song cycle composed in 1852, Maria Stuart Lieder. The work covers a period of twenty-six years and uses poems written in French by Mary but which are sung in German. Hyperion Records explains that in this work “we see a young girl devoted to her adopted land of France, a young mother concerned for the legacy of her son, a proud imprisoned queen forced to write a pleading letter, the same prisoner some years later renouncing hope in life and, finally, praying before a fearful death.”The contrasting sentiments of these poems, captured in the music, are also personified by Macdonald. Her face, slight gestures and piercing eyes capture the moods of sadness as Mary contemplates leaving her beloved France and adored son, anguish at being estranged from her sister, Elizabeth I, despair as she contemplates leaving this life and piety as she prays for eternal peace and rescue from the world.

Each musical set is interspersed with a brief narrative by Ingrid Sawers who rises from her piano to the set the scene for the next. Sawer is acknowledged as one of Scotland’s finest accompanists and chamber musicians, though her repertoire extends much wider. Here she too captures Mary’s changing emotions, from the sensitivity of lyrical phrases to the emboldened statements of assertive chords.

The programme that follows is contemporary. Eddie McGuire’s three songs use stanzas the youthful Mary wrote during a time when she lost both her son and husband. He captures a sense of period by creating variations on an anthem written for the marriage of Mary’s grandmother, Margaret Tudor to James IV of Scotland. Of her own piece Judith Bingham says, “I based the music, Adieu Solace, on a popular song by Claudin de Sermisy, which Mary would doubtless have heard. The melancholy mood of the song influences the outer sections of the piece, which contrasts violently with the chaos of the murder of Rizzio”. Rizzio was Mary’s private secretary whom her jealous husband Lord Darnley conspired with others to kill. In Triptych for Mary Dee Isaacs draws out Mary’s humanity as a woman of resilience who is yet a loving, tender mother. The central song, Phoenix Rising, is a poetic text by John Donne, who was fifteen when Mary was executed.

The programme might make history feel intimate wherever it was performed, but on the doorstep of Mary’s home, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, it had a haunting vibrancy that caused goose-bumps to rise and tears to well up. This innovative creation is not only a faithful tribute to Mary Queen of Scots, but in the hands of Macdonald and Sawer a work of exquisite beauty.  

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Passion, intrigue and murder: Mary, Queen of Scots comes alive in three newly commissioned pieces from top contemporary composers, exploring in her own words, love and betrayal with inspirational nobility. 'Astounding, amazing, electric. Louise Macdonald at her most glorious' (Liz Scobie, Chairman, West End Festival, 2015).

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