Netflix has given their biographical drama The Crown the royal treatment and it’s paying off. The show, which chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II, has been raking in award nominations and wins for everything from the costumes and the cast to the directing and cinematography.
Among The Crown’s 13 Emmy nominations, there’s one for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series for composer Rupert Gregson-Williams’ original score on Ep. 2 “Hyde Park Corner.” The award-winning UK-based composer recently scored this summer’s blockbuster film Wonder Woman, and last year he scored the Oscar-winning film Hacksaw Ridge. But not all of Gregson-Williams’ scores are of a serious nature. He also scores comedy films like The Do-Over and Grown Ups 2, and HBO’s comedy series Veep. Here Gregson-Williams talks about his approach to composing and how, through music, he helped to tell the story of one of the most pivotal moments in the life of Queen Elizabeth II [Claire Foy] in The Crown.
S&P: How did you get involved with The Crown?
Rupert Gregson-Williams (RGW): I had a talk with Hans Zimmer one day and he said there was a wonderful writer that I needed to meet named Peter Morgan, who I had heard of but had not met before. So Hans arranged for me to meet Peter. While I was in London I went to meet him, and he had Stephen Daldry in the room with him. I didn’t know that he was in the middle of a meeting with the four directors that he was going to use on The Crown. My meeting with Peter turned into a meeting with Peter and the four directors. We all got on very well and that’s how I got on board.
S&P: In talking with them about the musical direction on the show, did they ask for specific instrumentation or a specific style of music?
RGW: They didn’t ask for anything in particular. Peter and Stephen only specified that they didn’t want pomposity or regality. They felt that they didn’t need the music to guide the audience into feeling the regal quality of the characters. Really it was all about the political explosions that happened in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that The Crown walks through in a steadfast and steady way. The only thing they ever asked from me was to not be pompous. Musically, I mean. And I hope we succeeded in that.
S&P: What were some unique opportunities for you in composing for The Crown?
RGW: It’s wonderful for me to be working with Peter and Stephen, and director Philip Martin. And I got the opportunity to work with a talented young director named Benjamin Caron. Working with these big brains and these big talents has been a great opportunity for me.
Musically, the score for the show is quite broad. The show is historical and every story in it is enormous, whether we are talking about political overthrowing or losing the Empire, down to the love story between Elizabeth and Philip. So it’s a broad palette throughout the series. And the upcoming second series is just as broad for me.
S&P: Can you walk me through your workflow? Where do you like to start with a track and what software do you compose in?
RGW: I compose in Steinberg’s Cubase and I have the picture up in Pro Tools. I like to watch the film or episode quite a few times and if possible to sit with the director and the writer.
Peter was very heavily involved as the show runner. I like to talk a lot about the characters before I write anything. In fact, Peter and I start talking about the score while he was writing the scripts. As he was writing the scripts for Season 2, we were on the phone quite a lot talking about where the story goes and how the characters are feeling. That’s very important to me because I am absorbing it all the time. What’s so great about The Crown is that I am able to get involved so early on.
For melodies, I will always go to the piano first and play until I’ve found my themes and melodies. Once that is done, I will go and write a suite of themes, which I will map out on the piano first and then orchestrate them with virtual instruments in Cubase. Generally, I like to orchestrate as I go. I like to start downstairs in the bass department and work my way up, to build my foundations. I quite like to orchestrate as I go. It’s not a process that I’ve thought about; it’s just what works best for me.
S&P: The virtual instruments that you temp with, did you replace those with live players for The Crown?
RGW: Yes, we used a live orchestra for the “Hyde Park Corner” episode in Vienna. It was a nice-sized orchestra. We never wanted it to be big and symphonic for every cue. There are a few that are big and symphonic, but mainly it’s mid-sized orchestra. The largest orchestra we recorded had 22 violins (12 first violins and 10 second violins), eight violas, eight cellos, and four double basses. I don’t generally use brass on The Crown, but when I do it’s for something beefy and large, so I’ll have six French horns, three trombones, and two tubas. I don’t use many trumpets. We also recorded choir. I will do various overdubs myself, or I’ll bring in other players for the solo instruments.
Overall, the score is a hybrid of synthetic and orchestra. It’s quite a modern sound I think, although it has a basis in orchestra.
S&P: Which libraries of virtual instruments did you use?
RGW: I really love Spitfire Audio for orchestral instruments. It’s run by a dear old friend of mine, Christian Henson. I bought the first samples that he did, which was about 15 years ago. And now I have everything that he’s produced because it is all fantastic stuff. I also use others, like CineBrass from Cinesamples. For ethnic instruments, I like samples from Eduardo Tarilonte. He has some fantastic ethnic instruments.
S&P: In the “Hyde Park Corner” episode, there is a lot of emotion. In Nairobi, Princess Elizabeth has a close encounter with nature. Can you talk about the score there? What did you want the audience to feel?
RGW: At that point, it’s the moment of Princess Elizabeth’s most relaxed happiness. That is the simplest that her life is ever going to be. She is on her honeymoon with Philip. They are very much in love and she at that point had no responsibilities. They are on vacation, on their honeymoon, and it’s just prior to when the King dies. It’s right before everything in her life changes.
The music wanted to be simple and innocent, to make the audience feel relaxed before the world comes crashing down around her ears.
For the section where she first meets the giraffes, I have some ethnic flutes and percussion. At that point, I’m playing her theme but I’m giving it a little African twist, with the low African flute and some percussion. When the elephant comes out and scares everyone, Philip protects Elizabeth. Interestingly, at the end of the episode before this one, the King says to Philip that his job is now to protect her. And so the elephant is his first occasion to do so. With the music there I brought in some brass to help Philip with his bravery.
S&P: Following the Nairobi scenes where we have this sense of wonderment, the show gets very grim. It’s morning in the King’s chamber and his servants discover that he had died. Can you talk about your score there?
RGW: Once we’re in his chambers, the instrumentation there is very specific to The Crown. We have four bass clarinets. They become The Crown’s main theme really, throughout the series. They recapitulate in various guises at different points in the story. This is the second time you’ve heard this theme. The first time was when the King sat in the punt with Philip at the end of Episode 1 and told him that his job was looking after Elizabeth. So the second time we hear that theme is when we realize that he has died. There is something simple and regal about those clarinets, without sounding pompous. There is some richness about it.
So that’s the first time you hear that theme being played out in its entirety, and it travels from the King in his deathbed over the oceans through Nairobi to the young couple. That takes about six or seven minutes of the episode. You realize that this is the end of it all for her. It’s wonderful directing by Stephen Daldry.
S&P: As more people find out about the King’s death, the track grows bigger and bigger until we get to Winston Churchill [John Lithgow]. There the bottom drops out and we’re left with just one small suspended string note playing very low. Why does that happen on Churchill?
RGW: The music drops but the feeling is still quite tense. We build and build and then we go out to London and it’s at that point that Churchill uses the phrase, “Hyde Park Corner,” which is code for “the King is dead.” At that point, we chose to hold the score back because the next scene is really more important. That’s when we find Elizabeth and Philip in the morning. Philip is asleep and those are the last few moments that Elizabeth is going to have without the burden of the crown on her head.
We wanted to pause there, and yet be tense, so Churchill’s moment was more about leading us into the next scene where we rejoin the young couple. The news is on its way. “Hyde Park Corner” really starts the ball rolling for the news to reach Elizabeth.
S&P: Did you have a favorite track for “Hyde Park Corner?”
RGW: The piece that I was most pleased with was a two cello duet that comes first when Elizabeth hears the news of the King’s death and it follows Princess Margaret [Vanessa Kirby] into her father’s bedroom where she sees him dead. And that also plays when Elizabeth visits him. The track is very simple and emotional and it’s played by two cellos.
S&P: Of all the episodes in the season, why did you choose the score on “Hyde Park Corner” for Emmy consideration?
RGW: It wasn’t about the music. For me, this episode is a standout in terms of story. This is the beginning of where Elizabeth takes the crown. I loved writing the music for this and in fact, it was the very first episode that I composed music for and was the first part that was ready to be scored. Stephen did a wonderful job directing on it, and there is such an arc in the story. From here, this is where the season really starts for me. Elizabeth is in the lodge and her secretary says, “Long live the Queen.” At that point, for me, that was the beginning of the series.
Images courtesy of Netflix