The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and Netflix are producing multi-season programs about two of England’s three queens–Victoria (PBS) and Elizabeth II (Netflix). Perhaps an early clue to what each series is “about” comes in the titles: the episodes about Victoria are called “Victoria,” while the 6-year commitment from Netflix is called “The Crown.” One centers around a first name while the other focuses on the symbol of office. As someone fascinated both by how women act when given major political power and by the history of the English monarchy, I am an avid watcher of both series. The writing seems crisp and often moving while the productions themselves evidence careful research into the periods being filmed.
So much do I admire the acting in both cases, that I’ve watched the first two seasons of “The Crown” twice and have taped each episode of the two seasons of “Victoria” so that I have been able to re-view them. Anyone who is watching knows that “The Crown” stresses how Elizabeth chose to deny or contort some of her own personal feelings because, as the queen, she had to behave in accordance with custom and Parliamentary law. Contrarily, “Victoria” is showing us Victoria’s refusal to deny her humanity as wife and mother even as she moves more deeply into her position as monarch. One example in each case will illustrate this powerful difference in emphasis. The night before a very young Elizabeth is to be anointed as Queen, her husband whom she clearly loves passionately asks her not to ask him to kneel during the coronation. He says he will willingly speak obedience to her as his sovereign but that, as her husband, he recoils at kneeling. The actor playing Elizabeth shows us through facial language just how much she wants to make the exception and just how clearly she realizes what it may mean to their intimacy if she refuses. But she finally tells a pained Phillip that he must kneel. In contrast, when Albert speaks to an equally very young Victoria about feeling useless, she figures out how to change that by asking him to sit beside her at her writing desk and handle many of the documents facing her that have to do with subjects about which Albert knows more than she.
Because the plot lines are so familiar to me, I have grown sharply aware of how each director is using the theme music to reinforce this central distinction in the stories of these two long-reigning women. The signature music is arresting at the beginning of each episode. For “The Crown,” we watch mesmerized as the sound begins almost inaudibly while shimmering metal shapes move slowly but inexorably to form the crown spelled out on the screen. The volume increases as the shape emerges and what has begun as declarative major chords subtly changes to a minor key that sounds a loneliness painful to listen to. As each episode of “Victoria” is introduced, the “Coronation Alleluia” also begins very quietly as we see a late teen-aged girl whom we take to be the future queen. Her image changes until her hair has been trained into place and a small tiara rests on her head. This visual alternation takes place as the voices declaring the alleluias rise to musical heights that give me aesthetic goose bumps.
What’s happening as the episodes continue is this: Periodically Elizabeth II “hears” her theme music as she faces difficult decisions such as whether to let her much-loved sister Margaret marry the love of her life–something forbidden by stale English custom that forbids royalty to marry divorcees. What I notice as I witness these overlays of the theme music action in is that being reminded of her “place” as queen causes Elizabeth to turn away from her own values and feelings, thus ceding to the crown that hovers over the entire production. Watching Victoria in similar moments reveals quite a different relationship between monarch and music. On several occasions Victoria is shown alone as she ponders what to do about a given political matter, e.g., learning of the potato famine in Ireland or watching a little African girl experience homesickness amid the kindness extended to her by the white English lady. As we hear the theme music surrounding her in her quandary, it surely is not accidental that Victoria’s connecting to her “place” as queen prompts her to act directly and powerfully to defy customary laws, expectations and behaviors. For her the crown carries with it an obligation to a common good rather than a duty to continue along a time-honored but time-worn tradition that hurts both the queen and those around her.
So, as I wait impatiently for season three of these ambitious and moving programs, I think about the subtle role the theme music has played and, I trust, will continue to play as these two remarkable women mature as human beings and rulers.