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Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)
commissioned by Scottish Opera
Text Writer
Thea Musgrave, based on work by Amalia Elguera
Novello & Co Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
2 Hours 12 Minutes
chorus (min. 32)
3 Sopranos, Mezzo Soprano, Contralto, 3 Tenors, 2 Baritones, Bass Baritone, Bass
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Programme Note
Thea Musgrave Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)

Mary, Catholic Queen of Scotland and widowed Queen of France, has been invited by the Protestant Lords to return and assume the Scottish crown. The opera concentrates on halfbrother, James Stewart. Mary’s personality is expressed through the different situations in which she finds herself – her marriage to Darnley; her stormy relationship with Bothwell; and her confrontation with her brother. In each she vies with the other to win the favour of the Lords of the Council and the allegiance of the people so as to have ultimate power and control. It is a struggle to the death.


It is 1561 and Mary, Catholic Queen of Scotland and widowed Queen of France, has been invited by the Protestant Lords to return and assume the Scottish crown. James, Earl of Moray, half-brother of Mary and bastard son of James V of Scotland, imprisons the Catholic Cardinal Beaton who exposes James’s ambition for the crown which cannot be his and who has written to Mary urging her to place her trust in the Earl of Bothwell. In a cold and misty dawn, Mary arrives at the Port of Leith after sorrowfully bidding farewell to her beloved France. She is met by the rival Earls of Moray and Bothwell who confront each other with political and ambitious recriminations. Mary skilfully avoids showing one more favour than the other and the procession moves forward to Edinburgh where she is welcomed warmly by her people. A year later, the Lord Gordon unsuccessfully urges the people to rise against James for his part in the death of Cardinal Beaton. He is warned by the Earl of Morton, a satellite of James, that his words would be treasonable if they had not fallen on such deaf ears. Scotland now follows Knox and the Protestant faith and Mary’s brother James stands at her side to advise her. Mary welcomes Henry, Lord Darnley, cousin to herself and to Elizabeth of England, at a court ball where Riccio, his Italian friend, is acting as master of ceremonies. Mary appears to be fascinated by the youthful and cultivated Englishman, much to James’s disgust. He regards Darnley, who is all too clearly paying court to Mary, as an unsuitable consort and as an obstacle to his own position as her sole adviser. Bothwell, also fascinated by Mary, is equally mistrustful of the effect Darnley is having upon her. Mary soliloquizes on the rivals to her hand, heart and throne; she is clearly anxious to consolidate her position in Scotland and marriage to Darnley could well effect this since he is heir to both Scottish and English thrones. After averting disaster when Bothwell and his men seek to disrupt the "foreign" dances with a lewd and lusty reel by joining in it herself, Mary is forced to reprove both Bothwell and her brother and to banish the former when he insults Darnley. James’s pleasure is shortlived when Mary displays her intentions towards Darnley. James too leaves the court.

Mary has married Darnley and both James and Bothwell have left the Court. The Lords of the Council are contemptuous of Riccio’s appointment as the Queen’s secretary and outspoken concerning the drunken Darnley’s obvious unsuitability as Mary’s consort. Darnley continues to press Mary, who is now pregnant with his child, to make him King, but the Lords are adamant in their determination that this shall never be. Mary, aware that she needs a strong man to help her govern and that Darnley is unsuitable, has sent for James to return and appease the Lords of the Council. Morton and Ruthven, at James’s instigation, incite Darnley into demanding the Crown; they persuade him that Mary prefers James to him and even that Riccio, Darnley’s old friend, has wormed his way into her affections and should be stamped out. James returns, determined to assume de facto power. Mary begs him to support her and her child but is not prepared to accede to his demands for power. Finally her eyes are opened and she condemns him for his duplicity and for his part in the death of Beaton. They are irrevocably estranged. Gradually Mary, out of orbit among her three stars, James, Henry and Bothwell, realizes that she must stand entirely alone and that therein lies her strength. James puts his plan into effect. Darnley, brought to a pitch of drunken paranoia by Morton and Ruthven, disrupts a peaceful domestic scene in Mary’s supper-room where Riccio and the Four Maries (her faithful childhood friends and ladies-in-waiting) entertain her with music. Darnley murders Riccio at Mary’s feet: he is led away in a stupor leaving James to relish the success of his stratagem. The Council are now divided as to whether James should be given their official support as Regent and their deliberations are interrupted by the news that Mary has fled. James goes to the restless people and accuses Mary of complicity in Riccio’s murder and desertion of her realm. Gordon defies him. James is about to overwhelm him when Mary appears among the crowd; she accuses James of arranging the murder in order to discredit Darnley and herself and to gratify his own ambition. She banishes him for life and her people stand with her.

Mary is weak and ill after the birth of her son and her determination to stand alone has dissolved. Gordon brings the news that James has raised an army against her and has rallied the people to take his side. She must now take refuge in the castle of Stirling; whatever happens to her, it is vital that her son, the future James VI of Scotland (and James I of England) shall be preserved. She refuses; she has already sent for Bothwell who will protect her and her son. Gordon is appalled; on no account must she trust Bothwell. His fears are justified when Bothwell later returns and seduces her as the price for his protection. They are discovered by James who has by now infiltrated his men into the palace. When Gordon returns to announce Darnley’s murder he sees that Mary is irrevocably compromised. James and Bothwell confront each other; Bothwell is outnumbered and subsequently wounded and defeated. Incited by James, the people demand Mary’s abdication in favour of her infant son. She obstinately refuses to leave while there is still time to save herself and turns once more to the people for their support. She is overwhelmed by the ferocity of their accusations that she is her husband’s murderer. Gordon has already sent her son into safety and she is tricked into fleeing alone. As she crosses into England where she faces imprisonment for the rest of her life, Gordon murders James, Earl of Moray, and her son is proclaimed King of Scotland.

Preview the score

Or go to Act 3.

  • Ensemble
    Virginia Opera
    Peter Mark
    Novello Records:
★★★★ Musgrave’s lyrical libretto sits well, set off by her spiky, harmonically pungent, and entirely unsentimental musical language. Act III finds Mary, ever the self-aware pragmatist, desperate to find a solution to her political impasse. Caught between her ineffectual drunken husband Darnley, her ambitious brother James, and the equally ambitious Bothwell, Mary miscalculates to disastrous effect leading to a series of charged one-on-one encounters. - (Opera Dell'arte opera scenes; Extract Act 3 with piano only)
Clive Paget, Limelight Magazine,24/08/2019
With its evocative, atmospheric orchestrations, Musgrave’s thrilling score is rooted in the rough-hewn, elemental Scotland of Elizabethan times.
Joanne Sydney Lessner , Opera News,01/12/2018
Fast-moving, gripping ... radiant melodies ... vibrant set pieces ... a compelling plot ...
Guy Rickards, Gramophone,01/11/2018
... drama on a grand scale ... crammed with power, treachery, passion and murder from start to finish ... Musgrave puts this considerable drama under a musical magnifying glass: her word-setting amplifies all the intensity and the voices shine out against a deftly details orchestral background that is strong yet transparent, responsive to the ongoing torrent of conflicting emotions.
Jessica Duchen, BBC Music Magazine,01/10/2018
The score's fierce energy crackles with conflict while offering moments of musical titillation by the deployment of well-integrated Scottish consort and dance music.
Clive Paget, Limelight,13/09/2018
Whenever I have been bowled over, carried away, by a Musgrave composition – as I was by Mary, Queen of Scots – it has nearly always been at second and subsequent hearings, once first-encounter admiration of her sheer competence, her effortless matching of means to ends and of demands to the executants for whom she wrote, has been registered and can be taken for granted. A first hearing of Mary was enough to make it apparent how profitably Musgrave has pondered the problems of writing contemporary opera and found her solutions to them… At a second hearing, I found myself forgetting about the careful planning, the parallels, the influences and instead caring very much about Mary herself – move by move, event by event – and being at the same time rapt in the music, intent on the movement of melodic lines, calmed or excited by the shifting patterns of harmonic tensions, and stirred by the colours of the score. There is a visionary quality in Mary.
Andrew Porter, The New Yorker,01/01/0001
This is Thea Musgrave's fourth opera and by far her most successful; indeed her complete mastery of the operatic medium and the skill with which she marshals the whole complex apparatus with which an opera composer is confronted, mark her out as one of the most successful composers for the lyric theatre today. Rarely since Peter Grimes have I been as impressed by the first hearing of a contemporary stage work. Thea Musgrave has that rare gift of being able to create characters who are musically as well as dramatically viable; to create and maintain dramatic tension; and to write music that is at once original and at the same time easily accessible.
Harold Rosenthal, Opera,01/01/0001
The bull's-eye is Scottish Opera's Mary, Queen of Scots...Against all known odds it has a better chance of becoming established in the repertory than any new work seen here in the last ten years...Musgrave's musical language, vaguely post-Britten, eschews the angular declamation that has been so depressing a characteristic of contemporary opera. Her writing for voice is as satisfying to listen to as it must be to sing...this a twentieth century grand opera, and it works.
Rodney Milnes, The Spectator,01/01/0001
There is more theatrical red blood in this Mary than in most of the new operas that reach the contemporary stage. Miss Musgrave is a lively, inventive, accomplished composer, who has shown dramatic gifts not only in three earlier operas, but in a whole sequence of concert works that are mainly cast in quasi-dramatic form. The composer...has written the libretto herself; and an admirable text it is, clear and straightforward in language, well moulded for the stage, and full of musical possibilities that should strike us as we read it in advance...All in all it was a gripping and inspiring occasion.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Sunday Times,01/01/0001
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