Composing Jane Austen: The Soundtracks

In Volume II, Chapter VIII of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine intrudes on a conversation with Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam on music. Delighted by the subject (or simply the chance to monopolize the conversation), she replies, “Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient...I often tell young ladies, that no excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice.”   

Of course, this scene largely convinces the reader that she has absolutely no taste or understanding of music, and that she is far keener to give advice than take it herself. Yet it also underlines the importance of music in Jane Austen’s society: music brought young people together (as it does today), and was a necessary backdrop for all the dances and card playing that gave life to an endless round of social engagements. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone knew something about music, or at least thought it was worth knowing about. Elizabeth herself plays—though very ill, as she informs all her acquaintance—and Darcy complements both her and her sister’s abilities, and takes great pleasure in their performances. In a world without the ability to play pre-recorded music, one had to provide one’s own entertainment, and a skilled musician in the family must have shortened many a long winter’s night. In a famous letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen is willing to take the burden of entertainment on herself, writing, “Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good as one can be got for 30 guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company” (1808). 

Austen cites “country dances” here, which would have been charming little jigs and quadrilles, some with eccentric names such as Stingo, or the Oyle of Barley and Mr. Beveridges’ Magot. Of course, when not dancing, more civilized music held sway, much of it long-forgotten by time and memory. Yet Austen would have listened to a few composers whose music comes down to us, notably Mozart—his piano sonatas and other piano pieces were widely circulated—as well as sonatas and songs by Haydn, and arrangements from operas by Gluck, Handel, Mozart, and J.C. Bach (one of J.S. Bach’s sons). She might also have known the early Nocturnes of John Field, the Irish composer who made his career in Russia: these pieces, which would inspire the more famous Nocturnes of Chopin, are the perfect backdrop to Austen’s world, and one can imagine Elizabeth—if perhaps not Mary Bennet—practicing them at home. Sadly, she didn’t live long enough to hear the explosion of Romantic music that would soon follow—one wonders what she would have made of Berlioz and Liszt! 

The topic of Austen and music becomes even more interesting when it comes to film adaptations. How should Austen’s stories “sound”? The easy way out would be to simply use a soundtrack with Mozart, Haydn, and company, and round it out with some of the quaint English country dances. However, a movie isn’t a museum piece, and it’s not even an Austen novel. It’s a modern work of art that tells a story through the translation of film, which means we need to see the past through the lens of the present. For that reason, a skilled film composer is called in to capture the emotional feel of an Austen novel, while still imparting some sense of historical accuracy. So far, no composer has been too anachronistic and used pop songs to score Darcy’s letter scene (though that could be intriguing), yet composers draw a fine line between what Austen would have known and what we expect to hear. The soundtracks below are all attempts to bring that crucial element to Austen’s conversation—the feel of a modern reader wading through a lost world, which still crackles with human warmth and regret.

Pride and Prejudice
There are two amazing soundtracks for Pride and Prejudice, each one solving the problem in a unique way and sounding utterly unlike one another.  We’ll start with the more modern one, the 2005 version by Dario Marianelli, which also features the famous French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in a concertante role throughout. In many ways, this is the Austen score, which is all the more surprising since I find the film rather flat and lacking in humor (though it tries very hard to make the work seem alive and modern). The score, however, far transcends the film through the sheer beauty and memorability of its themes. The opening is gorgeous, with no attempt to marry itself to the period, but simply evoking the simmering passions of Elizabeth and Darcy. The delicate piano melody, much referenced throughout the score, is at turns romantic and humorous, until it fades away like a lullaby. One of my favorite moments is the third piece, “The Living Sculptures of Pemberley,” when Elizabeth is examining the beauty of Darcy’s estate, and reflecting that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” This is one of the best scenes in the film as well, as she silently glides through the virtual museum which she might have been mistress of. It’s the first time she ‘sees’ Darcy as a man, and the piece underlines this beautifully—a meeting of two artistic minds in one harmonious sensibility. Another standout is the Mendelssohnian “Georgiana,” which conjures up the bright salon-world of that master’s Songs Without Words. You’ll be humming that theme for days, and it perfectly captures wide-eyed innocence and the dawn of adolescent love. A nice concession to period detail comes in the aptly named “A Postcard to Henry Purcell,” where the composer uses the famous theme from Purcell’s Abeldazer, which Benjamin Britten used as the basis for variations in A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This becomes a solo violin dance at a ball until the orchestra comes in, underlining its essential melancholy. A few more country dances, as well as a perfunctory military march, rounds out the score, which more than most scores exists as a work of art in its own right.

Carl Davis’ score for the famous 1995 miniseries (perhaps the best adaptation of them all) takes the opposite track: while it exists less as music apart from the score, it re-creates Austen’s world and sounds unlike any other adaptation. Indeed, Davis’ inspiration was Beethoven’s early Septet, composed between 1799 and 1802, while Austen was not only alive but around the time she composed Pride and Prejudice (when it was called First Impressions, that is). The entire score is written for a chamber orchestra, but with the important addition of a fortepiano (the precursor to the modern piano, which sounds even more like a harpsichord) played by the wonderful artist, Melvin Tan. Unlike Marianelli’s score, Davis’ is full of wit and humor, particularly in the opening theme, which is tongue-in-cheek Romantic, as if to say “everyone’s going to get married in the end, but you’ll never believe how it happens.” The love theme for Elizabeth and Darcy is a model of restraint, just a yearning theme with delicate piano embroidery—chaste, and without any Hollywood embellishment. Other highlights include Collins’ buffoonish theme on the bassoon, an imposing Baroque inspired theme for Lady Catherine (as if to suggest her age—she’s from another period!), and a lot of busy dance-like episodes, often for piano alone, as if to echo the accompaniment to the balls and salons in Meryton. It’s a glittering, delightful score, maybe less of a piece than the later soundtrack, but it comes closest to the music I hear when I read the book. 

Sense and Sensibility
Perhaps one of the best soundtracks in Austenland is Patrick Doyle’s 1995 score for Sense and Sensibility, which effortlessly blends the demands of Hollywood with the naive sentiment of the early 19th century. It opens with a kind of overture: a stand-alone concert setting of “Weep You No More, Sad Fountains,” sung by the soprano Jane Eaglen. It’s a gorgeous, folk-song inspired work which captures the fresh-eyed sensibility of Marianne who is waiting to be swept off her feet by love—or the sublimity of nature. The ensuing pieces strike a Mozartian grace, complete with piano accompaniment, as in the gentle “My Father’s Favorite.” This piece has a wistful theme which conjures up the slow movements of Mozart’s Piano Concertos or the Nocturnes of Chopin. The use of the piano throughout not only reminds us of Marianne (who plays), but of the importance of the piano in the musical literature of Romanticism. “Not a Beau for Miles” is a standout piece, opening in desolation until the light of the sun shines through a few minutes in with the flute, oboe, and clarinet. Doyle is a master orchestrator, always sparing in his orchestral colors, but able to conjure a Romantic feel without making it sound dated. Percy Grainger seems to make an appearance in the jolly “Steam Engine,” a wind-band piece which sounds like a forgotten work by that eccentric Australian. The score takes a darker turn as the drama does, and Doyle underlines the pathos quite convincingly, even managing the necessary reprise of “Not a Beau for Miles” in a major key for the happy ending. The score is rounded out by another stand-alone orchestral song, this time based on Donne’s “The Dream,” which is less Romantic, and more world-weary and experienced.

There are two great scores for Emma, one in the 90’s by Rachel Portman, which is difficult to find, and one made in 2009 by Samuel Sim for the recent BBC production. I’ll focus on the latter not only because of its accessibility, but because it’s one of the greatest of the modern Austen scores. It opens with a gorgeous melody which seems to hint at the potential romance between Emma and Knightley, capped off by a bell—a wedding bell? The score is chamber-light in its scoring, allowing the harp to shine through in many pieces, as well as the piano. Like Davis’ score, the music is mostly coy and light; yet sample a piece like “A Ball,” which is almost a harp solo, evoking the tinkling of a music box with miniature dancers flitting to and fro. While another piece, “Knightley’s Walk,” does a beautiful variation on the main theme with a solo cello, hinting at unseen emotional depths in the man and the movie. The piece rarely sounds very period, choosing to sound like a modern film score winking at the early 19th century, especially in a piece like “Walk of Shame” which evokes Glass-like scoring and syncopations. However, it does incorporate a bona fide country dance in “The Ship’s Cook,” a reel complete with piccolo and orchestral foot-stomping. In sum, a very gentle, satisfying score which captures the romance and humor of Austen’s greatest (?) novel.

Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, etc.
There are scores for recent versions of all of these books, but they are either impossible to find or, in the case of the 90’s version of Mansfield Park, a little underwhelming. The recent BBC version of Northanger Abbey opens with a spooky, Gothic-inspired theme which represents Catherine’s reading preferences, and is a lot of fun. I enjoyed what I could glean from the score in several viewings of the film, but I can’t find the music anywhere. The 1996 film of Persuasion employs a very minimal score, with just a scrap of thematic material, and then Chopin’s Prelude No.3 (on the seashore of Lyme) and a florid Italian aria at Bath. I think this book, of all of them, invites a beautiful, nostalgia-laden score in the vein of what Michael Nyman did for The Piano. Alas, we’ll have to wait for another decade/generation to reinterpret these films.

For those of you who want to go beyond movie scores and back in time toward Austen’s own music, here are some pieces you might want to investigate to construct your own score:
* Mozart’s Piano Concertos: esp. 12, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, and 27—these all seem to breathe the air of Austen’s world
* Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: any of them, but esp. 8, 12 (the slow movement!), 13, and 18.
* Field’s Nocturnes
* Chopin’s Preludes, Nocturnes, Waltzes, Ballades, and Scherzos

* And of course, a disc of English Country Dances like the ones below: