Outlander: Season 3 – After Culloden

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I don’t believe I’ve tackled a season of television as richly rewarding as Outlander’s Season Three. Separated by centuries in Season Two’s heart-wrenching finale, Jamie and Claire spend the first five episodes isolated in their own timelines, a narrative journey that spans two decades. This season allowed me to further develop familiar themes, and introduce new melodies, instrumentation, and nuance to the score.

A new season of Outlander would not be complete without a distinct variation of “The Skye Boat Song” for its main title. I introduced the tune in Season One, combining Scottish folk instrumentation, orchestra and the voice of Raya Yarbrough. At the start of Season Two, I rearranged it for baroque instrumentation, while Raya performed certain passages in French. That was followed up by a patriotic rendition, emphasizing Scottish snare drums and bagpipes, underscoring the build up to the Battle of Culloden.

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After Culloden, the theme has changed once again, and my hope is that “The Skye Boat Song” feels more dramatic and introspective. In place of rousing drums, folk percussion, or viola da gamba, Raya’s voice is supported by ethereal orchestral strings and Celtic harp. At the climax, I stripped out the percussion and great highland bagpipes, to represent the Scots crushing defeat at Culloden and foreshadow future travels.

My process changing the title was not only subtractive, however. At its emotional peak, the Season Three title has an added warmth that was achieved by introducing a new color to the Outlander score: orchestral brass. A brass chorale of 4 French horns, 5 trombones, and 2 tubas, adds scale and subliminally modernizes the orchestral sound. Brass will later play a major role in an important new theme.

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The changes I made to the main title at the top of the season are relatively subtle, although fans seems to have immediately picked up on the absence of the bagpipes more than anything else! The change is subtle by design, because… well, it just might change again in the near future.

* * * “The Battle Joined” * * *

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: The first episode begins with a brilliantly constructed war sequence, depicting the Battle of Culloden through a series of flashbacks as Jamie lies dying in the moor. There is no music whatsoever for ten minutes, a decision that made the inevitable entrance of score all the more impactful. Orchestral strings and dreamy, reverberated bagpipes emerge from of the chaos at the moment that Jamie sees Black Jack on the field.

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My score for the sequence that follows was inspired by the scene’s dramatic staging. Orchestral lines weave with increasingly complexity, building up to Jamie’s final, fatal stab. Eventually, the score drops down to Raya’s solo voice: an ethereal, airy accompaniment to their exhausted movements. Later, as Jamie lies dying beneath Black Jack’s cold corpse, he has a vision of Claire approaching him, for which I used a choral arrangement of the Stones Theme.

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Originating with the first episode’s memorable Druid dance sequence, this theme has represented many things throughout the series, including magic, mysticism, journeys, and longing. I used it a great deal in Season Three, to imply Jamie and Claire have an unexplainable connection across time and space. In fact, I composed two new variations of it for the end credits of 301 and 302, each reflecting the distinct emotions of each episode’s closing moments. (The Stones Theme will continue to evolve as the season progresses, ultimately in a fairly surprising direction.)

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“The Battle Joined,” like the next four episodes, jumps back and forth between Jamie and Claire’s stories, a narrative structure that presents a challenge for music. I had already tackled this with the Season Two finale, where I chose to ignore the differences in time and space, and instead strove to unify the two narratives with musical consistency.

In Season Three, I altered the tones of their respective music a bit more. For Jamie’s story, I leaned on Scottish folk instrumentation, especially the small Scottish bagpipes and fiddle. Claire’s storyline features more traditional orchestral instruments, and the occasional piece of 1960’s popular music to root her story in its era.

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Over the course of the first three episodes, we follow Claire’s life in Boston in the 1960’s, living with Frank. We witness their marriage strain, and eventually dissolve. For these increasingly heartbreaking sequences, I relied heavily on the Frank Theme:

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The Frank Theme goes all the way back to the first episode and has been a major theme ever since. Inspired by the English folk song variations of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten, I used the orchestral clarinet to represent Frank, because it evokes a gentrified sensibility that could stand apart from the rugged, reedy textures of Scottish folk instruments. There is a gentle quality to Frank’s theme that I think encapsulates his charm.

Some of my favorite musical moments in the series are his. In the Season Two premiere, I wrote a wildly lyrical version of this theme for the montage where Claire decides to join him in Boston, watching her old clothes burn. That passage was on my mind as I scored Season Three, not because I was trying to match it, but because I was drifting further away from it. The solo clarinet statements become gradually slower, and are supported by thinning orchestral accompaniment. Over the course of three episodes, the Frank Theme slowly devolves down to its barest possible musical representation, representing his crumbling relationship with Claire.

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Though “The Battle Joined” emphasizes Claire and Jamie, my strongest memory is of scoring Rupert’s death. I was inspired by his willingness to forgive Jamie, and by the bravery with which he faced his demise. Rupert was one of the last survivors of Season One’s memorable cadre of highland warriors, so I felt like we were saying goodbye not only to him, but to our more innocent days at Castle Leoch.

Perhaps it was that nostalgia for those early episodes that inspired me to underscore his final moments with “The Highland Widow’s Lament.”  I have used this traditional Scottish folk song a number of times, associating it with the sacrifices made by Scots in their battles for freedom. I first used it in 105, “Rent,” when Claire and her compatriots discover and bury crucified Highland warriors by the side of a road. I used it again in 201, “Through a Glass Darkly,” when Jamie shows his scars to Jared, to convince him that his belief in the Jacobite cause is genuine. The song was last heard in the Season Two finale, when a melancholy solo fiddle undercut Bonnie Prince Charlie’s boastful claims of impending victory, reminding us of Jamie’s foreboding knowledge of a grim future.

The moment I used this song that seared my memory more than any other was in 210, “Prestonpans.” Rupert awoke to see Angus had just died, and clutched his sword to his chest in grief. I quoted “The Highland Widow’s Lament” there, and never forgot it.

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In the Season Three premiere, Rupert is again surrounded by bleeding compatriots, but it is his turn to face death. A solo fiddle introduces “The Highland Widow’s Lament” once Rupert tells the English officer he wishes to be killed next. As Rupert rises, gives his name, and steps outside, the fiddle is accompanied by airy, suspenseful orchestral strings. Only after we hear the off-screen gunshot does the orchestral arrangement expand, adding deep celli and basses to support the melody’s beautiful chord progression.

* * * “Surrender” * * *

While Scottish songs have always been a major part of my Outlander score, there is one well-known tune I have always loved that never felt appropriate to include: “Scotland the Brave.” Most well-known melodies I quote in Outlander date back hundreds of years, with melodies often pre-dating their lyrics. “Scotland the Brave,” however, is different. The earliest known version only dates back to 1911, and it didn’t solidify as a patriotic song until the early 1950’s, when lyrics were penned by a Scottish journalist named Cliff Hanley. I always felt it couldn’t exist in the score for Outlander because no character in the show could have ever heard it.

That changed in the season’s second episode, “Surrender.” Now in the late 1960’s, Claire encounters a solitary bagpipe player in the park playing this song; by that time it had come to be Scotland’s unofficial national anthem. While I was not on set when they shot this scene, I did have a hand in re-recording this bagpipe performance and selecting the song, and was thrilled to finally include “Scotland the Brave” in Outlander.

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“Surrender” also gave me the chance to explore Scottish instrumentation in other ways. In the episode, Jamie lives out in the woods beyond Lallybroch, becoming a feral version of his former self. I represented this change by leaning on the rustic instrumentation that has always been a part of the score. I asked my performers to play with looser interpretation, to let strings and bows get scratchier, and less polished. I pulled back on the use of orchestra for Jamie’s arc here, except for a few essential moments towards the end.

* * * “All Debts Paid” * * *

One of my absolute favorite episodes of the series to date, “All Debts Paid” gave me the rare chance to support an epic story with a new character theme. I pushed the ever-expanding boundaries of the score’s instrumentation, and, as if that weren’t enough, also wrote the final, definitive statement on one of my favorite Outlander themes.

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The episode’s Main Title card hints at the new sound to come, as a solo French horn quotes the final refrain of “The Skye Boat Song.” This marks the first prominent use of a brass instrument in the score, but it is just a herald of what is to come. The French horn is the primary instrument for the episode’s most important theme, the John Grey Theme:

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I was inspired by the central conflict between John Grey and Jamie, which evolves over the course of the story. The uniqueness of this relationship, and my fondness for the character told me that John Grey would require his own theme. I wrote for solo horn because it brings nobility and honor. Furthermore, simply using a brass instrument at all makes John Grey’s theme instantly stand out, because it is the first theme in the series to do so.

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John’s scenes with Jamie were powered by a rolling 12/8 orchestra pattern, a riff I call the John Grey Ostinato:

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This texture was useful, because it is more subtle than the horn, and added intrigue and mystery to underscore the subplot about the treasure on Silkies’ Isle. The John Grey Theme culminates as John releases Jamie, cementing their relationship and mutual respect. I wanted to support this episode with a sense of grandeur, and help underscore the weighty themes of defiance, trust, and honor. This theme, I hope, succeeded in that regard.

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To contrast those weighty orchestral passages, I followed Claire’s storyline with an increasingly sparse sound. Here, her relationship with Frank has devolved to its breaking point. I supported their emotional distance by using the smallest amount of musical information possible. I didn’t feel the need to add drama to the scenes, in part because of the stunning performances by Caitriona and Tobias. So instead, I often used little more than a solo clarinet playing Frank’s theme to subtly reinforce the idea that these two well-meaning people were heading towards an emotional calamity.

That calamity ultimately manifests itself at the episode’s conclusion, when Claire is told without warning that Frank has died in a car accident. For the scene in which she visits his body, I decided to take the Frank Theme in a new creative direction. This melody had been so closely associated with their marital struggles that it felt inappropriate here to just suddenly revert back to the way it sounded before.

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Instead, I experimented with a more modern harmonic language, to give the scene a sense of timelessness. I used a piano (an instrument that, to date, has only been heard on the theme for Faith) to create slow, uplifting chords. When I had laid a foundation of strings and piano, I added the solo clarinet and upper violins, on a mournful statement of the Frank Theme. This Frank Theme statement serves as the musical bookend to for the two-season “Boston” story arc, making musical reference to that favorite cue of mine in 201 when he burns her clothes and they move to Boston.

The episode’s end credits feature the solo clarinet getting one final statement of the Frank Theme. Knowing this was the end of my journey with this melody, I gave it everything I could. Where it is usually voiced down in the instrument’s deep, reedy register, here I let the player perform an octave higher, with a gentle, angelic tone. When I wrote this cue, I did not even realize I had tears streaming down my face for hours. It was difficult to say goodbye to a character I loved, and to a theme that had been with me since the first episode.

* * * Onwards * * *

Season Three continues to evolve, and so too does the use of music. The producers and I enjoyed the opportunity to use period music for the few remaining episodes set in the 1960’s, including a memorable use of Neal Hefti’s iconic “Batman Theme.” I was also charmed by Ron Moore’s choice to use Walk Off The Earth’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” because it marked the second time I can recall a contemporary Dylan cover ended up in a show he had written.

In the last two episodes set in the 1960’s, I developed more musical material for Roger and Bri, though I have still never cemented a solid theme for their relationship. I am confident that they will end up with a distinct musical theme eventually, but the right moment has yet to arrive to introduce it.

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In recent episodes, I’ve introduced a theme for Willie Ransom, always performed on a solo oboe. I picked the oboe, and wrote for it in its upper register, because its reedy texture is similar to that of the Uilleann pipes that frequently represent Jamie, but smaller and more child-like.

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Willie will not be the last new character to get a theme this season. Fergus will get a new theme soon, to support his relationship with a particular character. In fact, we will quickly meet many new supporting players, several of whom end up with distinct musical themes.

When writing for Outlander, I have the privilege of composing themes for memorable characters I adore.  When they experience joy, I experience it in my writing. When they die, I feel a personal emptiness, knowing that my time developing their themes is at an end. My score evolves along with their dramatic journey. Thus far, Season Three has allowed me to push the boundaries of the score, but the biggest musical change yet is still around the corner. That blog I will save for another day.

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As always, thank you so much for watching, listening, and reading. Special thanks to all the fans who joined in the conversation on social media yesterday. Your answers were very insightful, and helped me write this blog.  Sharing this journey you all is a joy.

-Bear