The first season of Outlander gave me the chance to fulfill a life-long dream of incorporating Scottish folk music and instrumentation into an original score. The second season, debuting this weekend on Starz, presented an immensely challenging shift in tone. Our protagonists move from the rolling hills of the Scottish highlands, to the gilded halls of Parisian courts during the opulent reign of King Louis XV. I enthusiastically embraced this dramatic journey by reinventing the sound of my score.
A NEW MAIN TITLE
The most obvious musical change this season is that my arrangement of the main title theme has changed. Altering a series main title is a risky move. The entire point of a main title is to be consistent from episode to episode, building a relationship with the audience. My arrangement of “The Skye Boat Song,” functioning as the Outlander Main Title Theme, accomplished this goal beyond my wildest dreams. Fans have thrown their arms around me, raving about how much the theme song means to them. I have seen our unique variation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic text tattooed into flesh! So, Ron and I approached very conservatively the notion of altering something so beloved by fans. Still, we felt a distinctly Scottish musical tone would be at odds with the French baroque imagery of the second season.
Something in the main title theme had to change. But, what? And by how much?
Answering these questions took the better part of three months. My starting point was a complete rearrangement of the theme, from the ground up. I stripped the group down to a baroque chamber ensemble: viola da gamba, harpsichord, chamber strings. We commissioned a translation of Stevenson’s famous text into French. (Special thanks are due to our translators Florie-Anne Virgile, Marie-Pierre Jeancard Coast, Sally Pane, Erik Nesse, and Ester Zago, and our performance consultants Perrine Virgile and Joanna Pane). To complete the transformation, returning vocalist Raya Yarbrough learned to sing the complete song in French.
I was striving for the all-French version to sound different, and I succeeded. Discussing the new theme with the studio and network, however, Ron and I suspected we pushed it too far. Yes, the theme sounded utterly gorgeous in this new context, but we had sacrificed the familiarity and nostalgic connection to the audience we had built over the course of season one. We also had concerns when we looked to the future. Our characters will not spend the entire season in Paris, which means our main title may change again before the season is done. I feared these drastic changes in the main title would be too jarring to the audience, who are already being asked to follow the series through diverse narrative tones.
Ron and I decided to split the difference. In this new take, Raya’s vocal begins as it did before, in English. Instead of being joined by a Scottish fiddle and bodhran, however, she is joined by the baroque viola da gamba. The track builds momentum into the final chorus, and Raya switches into French, as the familiar bagpipes and Scottish snares enter. The end result is a hybrid of the purely Scottish and French versions. This accomplished our goal of representing Paris in the main title theme, without feeling like a completely different show. This hybrid approach is the ideal version for broadcast, yet I’m hopeful fans will have an opportunity one day to hear the fully French version that began our creative process.
The musical sounds of baroque Paris will define my score for much of the season. This first episode largely tells a different story, however, opening with a forty-minute prologue set in the 1940’s, similar to the series premiere. Claire and Jamie do not arrive in Paris until the second episode. My exploration of French musical culture, and my process implementing it into my own score, will be the subject of future blog entries. This one will focus on the musical challenges unique to the season premiere, “Through a Glass, Darkly.”
THE FRANK SYMPHONY
SPOILERS AHEAD: The majority of the episode takes place in 1948. Claire has mysteriously reemerged from the stones and reunites with Frank. After the first scene, the story is told primarily from Frank’s point of view. We witness Claire as he does, from a distance. We are alienated from her, and we feel his confusion, heartbreak and sorrow. I knew from the beginning I would develop all my musical material for this portion of the story from The Frank Theme:
The Frank Theme dates back to the first episode, and is usually played on a solo clarinet, evoking the English folk music arrangements of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Over the course of season one, I drew upon the Frank Theme occasionally, during the sequences where he is on camera, or those moments when Claire is thinking about him. This theme was a useful tool in my musical toolbox, even though its appearances were brief.
The Frank Theme started off modestly in season one, but here evolves into something else entirely. In “Through a Glass, Darkly,” I had the opportunity to develop the Frank Theme far beyond my wildest dreams. The score to this episode is practically a Frank Symphony! The solo clarinet is featured prominently, yes, but I also placed his melody in all registers throughout the orchestra. From the restrained plucks of a solo harp, to the rich baritone of the celli and basses, to soaring string lines, Frank’s melody takes center stage.
Structurally, the story feels symphonic as well: the music starts off restrained and hesitant as Frank reunites with his estranged wife, grows darker and more turbulent as he processes her unbelievable tale, and soars to an epic finale as he takes her away to Boston. This story has its own three-act structure, working like a short film within the episode, and it is accompanied by some of my most thematically-developed symphonic writing to date.
For the 1948 story, I removed the Scottish instrumentation entirely, relying on the pure, warm sound of the orchestra. On rare occasions, I snuck in a solo fiddle or penny whistle solo, representing the ghost of Jamie, for the moments when Claire is overwhelmed by her longing for him. But, the score is essentially lacking Scottish influence, to subtly drive home the notion that Claire has left Jamie behind for good.
My harmonic language here is also very different. The season one score is rooted in the harmonies of Scottish folk music, but the Frank arc here is underscored with distinctly twentieth century harmonies. Whole tone scales, half-diminished chords, and ethereal added harmonies evoke the writing of Debussy, Ravel and Shostakovich. These modern orchestral touches give dialog scenes between Claire and Frank an exciting forward momentum. The tone feels modern and new, creating tension and suspense. With every chord, the score tells us that Claire’s life with Jamie is truly over, and that her future lies with Frank, in our modern time.
Ultimately, the conflict between Frank and Claire is resolved in his favor. Frank convinces her to give up her fruitless pursuit of Jamie’s ghost, to come away with him to America. This is a devastating outcome for the audience to process. Still, Ron and I felt it was essential that the audience relate to Frank, and accept this outcome as a bittersweet victory for both of them. We knew music could help set that tone.
The most striking visual image in this story is the moment when Claire looks out the window to see Frank burning her eighteenth century clothing, destroying her only remaining physical connection to Jamie. The moment is tragic and heartbreaking from Claire’s perspective, resolved and uplifting from Frank’s. With no dialogue, it was up to the score to guide the audience’s experience through this essential moment. With darker music, one could easily convey a sense of failure, perhaps even entrapment. Yet, the score here assures us that Claire is making the right move, that Frank is genuine in his offer. The score is uplifting and romantic, a victory for Frank, which makes our heartbreak over the loss of Jamie even more crushing.
(I was a guest on The Television Academy’s Outlander panel. Watch the first two minutes for my live performance of the theme song with Raya Yarbrough and cellist Noah Hoffeld)
As Claire steps off the plane in New York City to take Frank’s hand, the music builds suspense in the upper strings before we transition unexpectedly to Jamie and Claire, arriving on the shores of France in the 1740’s. At Jamie’s reveal, the score bursts into a soaring statement of the Jamie and Claire theme, full orchestra accompanied by bagpipes and penny whistle:
I had the honor of performing live at the world premiere screening in New York City last week (with vocalist Raya Yarbrough, percussionist Bruce Carver and fiddle maestro Paul Cartwright), and I must say this moment with the audience was unforgettable: the packed theater absolutely erupted into elated cheers and applause.
A TASTE OF FRANCE
The final act of “Through a Glass, Darkly” chronicles Jamie and Claire’s arrival in France, setting in motion the story to follow. We are technically in France, but we are not yet in the opulent courts, so I held back on those new musical elements, instead falling back on the familiar instruments of season one: bagpipes, penny whistle, fiddle, bodhran. The familiarity of these instruments help connect these scenes with our first season, before the score is completely rebooted in the next episode.
Shortly after arriving in France, Claire crosses paths with a corrupt merchant and courtier, the Comte de Saint-Germain. The Comte’s frilly, extravagant costume is at odds with his hawk-like menacing gaze. The character stands out from the gritty sailors and merchants in the warehouse where he makes his memorable entrance. The Comte ignited my imagination, because he provides our first glimpse into the gilded, often ostentatious, world of the Parisian courts.
Doing some quick research on the character, I learned he was inspired by a real-life historical figure. The true Comte de Saint-Germain was a prominent figure in European high society during the mid-1700’s, and was known to dabble in the arts, sciences and music, having composed, among other pieces, many sonatas and arias.
Wait? This intriguing character was a composer in real life?! I had to take advantage of this rare opportunity.
I called up my music historian, Adam Knight Gilbert, and we discussed the Comte and his surviving musical output. I asked Adam if he could dig up a handful of the Comte’s most famous and memorable melodies, with hopes I could incorporate one into my score.
“When do you need it?” Adam asked.
“Could you get it by 1pm?” I replied. (It was 11:30am.)
I am very fortunate to be working with a historian who could pull music by an obscure European baroque composer with ninety minutes notice. Adam ran to the USC Music Library and sent me a few examples of the Comte’s writing. I was struck by one theme in particular, a melody drawn from a composition by the Comte, called “Se mai riviene.” For the purposes of the series, I would use this melody as The Comte Theme:
As the character makes his entrance, his theme is performed by an ornamented duet of viola da gamba and harpsichord. The sound is instantly distinct against the Scottish folk instruments and orchestra that have predominately defined my score to this point. More importantly, I can safely say that the Comte de Saint-Germain composed his own villainous theme! (Hopefully I’m building up good karma here. Perhaps, in 250 years, I will be a villainous side character in a historical drama TV series, and the composer of that show will dig through old archives for a melody of mine that can be my theme!)
The episode concludes on an ominous note, as Claire and Jamie depart for Paris, and the Comte witnesses his ship and cargo burning in the harbor. I continued this mood into the End Credits, for which I wrote an aggressive arrangement of the Comte Theme, in all its baroque glory. The theme is stated first in the viola da gamba above a pounding orchestral ostinato, and then moves to an elegant, dancing gamba countermelody as the orchestral violins take over the tune. These End Credits are the most baroque sound I’ve yet achieved for the show, but they are still just a taste of what is in store for the coming episodes, where we will be fully immersed in that world.
“Through a Glass, Darkly” is one of the most crushingly beautiful stories I have had the privilege to score. I strove to write music that is worthy of it, and hope that my efforts helped heighten the audience’s emotional experience.
I know I speak for everyone involved in making this show when I say we look forward to Outlander fans around the world finally experiencing the end result of all our efforts.
Je suis prest.