The 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic ‘novel of manners’ Pride and Prejudice (starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the lead roles of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy) keeps resurfacing on cable television. It still nevertheless loses none of its appeal. The timelessness of Austen’s writing and the casting and cinematography of the film are responsible for much of this, but Dario Marianelli’s atmospheric music score enriches it immeasurably. Not surprisingly, the movie soundtrack (performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, and the English Chamber Orchestra) received an Oscar nomination and two World Soundtrack Academy nominations.
Marianelli and director Joe Wright at their very first meeting apparently discussed the ‘early’ piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). This is interesting, because although Austen’s novel was published in 1813, Wright decided to set the film during the period when Austen began its first draft (1796-97), which coincides with the ‘Early’ period in Beethoven’s compositional output. This “became a point of reference” and “starting point” for Marianelli’s own original score.
Several scenes in the film have actors playing the piano, and this compelled Marianelli to write many of these pieces even before filming commenced. In an interview, he revealed, “Those pieces already contained the seeds of what I developed later on into the score, when I abandoned historical correctness for a more intimate and emotional treatment of the story.” Marianelli could not be present for the filming of these scenes due to the birth of his daughter.
There is much attention to detail, even when extraneous music is chosen in the film. For instance, the marching tune “The Militia marches in” (where one of the giddy-headed younger Bennet sisters drops her kerchief in the hope that a gallant officer might pick it up and talk to her) is based on “The British Grenadiers” which dates from the same period. The British army probably marched to this tune as they fought the colonists in the American Revolutionary War as well.
“Meryton Townhall” (played at the local assembly ball where Elizabeth and Darcy first meet) and “Another Dance” both have real dance cues that were prevalent in the late eighteenth century.
Music critic William Ruhlmann in his review for Billboard felt that Marianelli’s music had a “strong Romantic flavor to accompany the familiar romantic plot.” The spirit of Beethoven breathes through much of the piano music in the film. But one hears musical tributes to other composers not from the Romantic era as well.
In fact, one track is explicitly titled “A Postcard to Henry Purcell”. It takes a rondeau theme used by Purcell (1659-1695) as incidental music to Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge, a play by his contemporary Aphra Behn. The same theme was also used by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) as the theme for his set of variations The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Marianelli uses it as dancing music at the Netherfield ball, where Lizzy and Darcy dance for the first time. The tune is played by a solitary violin when it begins, and very sparsely orchestrated later, perhaps to bring out the verbal sparring between the protagonists. At the close, there is a slight swell in both volume and orchestral colour just as the other dancing partners momentarily “vanish” and the couple seem alone on the ballroom floor.
The main theme of the film (titled ‘Dawn’, played dreamily as a piano solo by Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the opening of the film; and ‘Mrs. Darcy’ when joined by the English Chamber Orchestra at the close) seems to somehow capture the essence of the novel, and the world in which it is set. It appears again and again in various ingenious guises. For instance, when Elizabeth is prevailed upon to play the pianoforte for Lady Catherine, she picks out this tune, but hesitantly and perfunctorily, in the manner of an étude that a middle-grade piano student would be required to learn.
In “Leaving Netherfield”, the theme acquires an Elgarian air, with more than a trace of the opening theme of his Enigma Variations encoded within. This gives it just the right dash of wistfulness and gloom to match the accompanying scene.
Although Marianelli is Italian-born, he has made England his home. And with the nods to Purcell and Elgar, the music takes on a dyed-in-the-wool British hue.
Writing a score for a classic like Pride and Prejudice is quite a daunting challenge, especially because of the high benchmark set previously by Carl Davis in the 1995 television adaptation of the novel. It has to have the element of ‘cowpat’ music, a taste of rural England; and it should have classical daintiness and elegance while still having a mix of drama and romance. Marianelli manages to pull this off in great style.
Interestingly, Carl Davis also used Beethoven as his “starting point” in the 1995 version, in particular one of his septets, but from the early 1800s, as this version chose to set the novel in the decade in which it was published.
Why Beethoven? Well, the pianoforte finds mention several times, and there are thirteen references to music in Austen’s novel. Mr. Darcy’s sister Georgiana is an accomplished pianist. And Beethoven stands like a colossus of the instrument and indeed of all music for the era depicted in the novel, and continues to cast his shadow to the present day.
Also, perhaps the scowling, brooding character of Mr. Darcy does have some similarities to that of Beethoven. Sadly unlike the novel, there was no happy ending for Beethoven and his own “Immortal Beloved”.
(An edited version of this article was published on 15 June 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)