Sounds Like the Long Eighteenth Century

A few minutes into a screening of The Favourite (2018), my partner half turned to me in the theater and whispered, transfixed, “What have you taken me to?” I would hazard that a lot of people encountered the film similarly; from its earliest moments, it feels unfamiliar. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think that one of the things that makes The Favourite so engagingly bizarre is how it sounds. The Favourite’s soundtrack uses primarily music written or published during the earlier half of the eighteenth century, around the right time for its events, though some pieces came into being after Queen Anne’s reign. We hear a lot of Bach, a healthy dose of Handel, a Vivaldi concerto written for an instrument now heard only in specialized Baroque performances, and so on. As a set of layered aural categories, the film’s soundtrack produces a jarring mix of exactly what you would expect this space to sound like: courtly, starchy-sounding orchestral harmonies (to some of us, maybe) and a lot of harpsichord—and what you wouldn’t: the deranged shouts of drunken men at an in-palace duck race, distorted by the lowered frequency of slow motion action. The Favourite’s soundscape puts an aural fisheye lens on the genre of the period soundtrack itself.

Although it is a leap—in historical context, in genre, in intended audience—I’m interested in exploring how The Favourite so successfully defamiliarizes its setting with sound by comparing it to the first season of Bridgerton (2020), a show that has generated an enormous amount of excitement over its use of musical anachronism. Bridgerton’s soundtrack is one of the things that showrunners have framed as part of its “modern” approach to a Regency television series, on top of its colorblind casting. The show uses string covers of recent pop hits performed by the Vitamin String Quartet and Duomo. These usually feature during ballroom scenes, as is the case for covers of Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” Billie Eilish’s “bad guy,” some Maroon 5, and more.

Bridgerton’s musical aesthetics sound out a transhistorical mélange. In addition to the covers, we hear original orchestral scoring by composer Kris Bowers and selections from a wide swath of music history including, occasionally, music belonging more or less to the moment the show claims as its setting (London, 1813): Mozart, Beethoven, the usual suspects. Commentary from pop media sites like Buzzfeed and Refinery29 to niche blogs like ClassicFM Radio has called attention to the show’s unorthodox mixture of “new” and “old” music, often framing its soundtrack as part of a progressive (or, at the very least, audaciously anachronistic) aesthetic agenda. For some viewers this is disorienting; it puts one foot in a general musical “back then” and another in our own musical moment without letting either cohere. For others, the soundtrack is refreshing and fun.

Soundtracks often cater to the desire not to know what a historical space actually sounded like, but instead to feel plunged into something that reads to our ears as atmospherically authentic. But while it’s far from novel for a period drama to use ahistorical music in its extra-diegetic soundtrack, it is less common for diegetic music to be brazenly historically out of place—and when a period film uses pointedly anachronistic music, we tend to get swept up in the excitement of hearing things that we didn’t expect. Take Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), with its sumptuous clash of tracks featuring post-punk and new wave bands alongside baroque selections. At one point, a reworked version of “Hong Kong Garden”by Siouxsie and the Banshees with a string orchestra opening plays for masquerading dancers at a Paris rager, a choice that underscores the film’s commitment to a particular set of aesthetic juxtapositions.

But while I think I’m not likely to be alone in remembering primarily the sounds of the 1980s when I think of Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, it uses historically appropriate music just as carefully. Marie Antoinette herself performs “Tristes Apprêts, Pâles Flambeaux,” a thoughtfully chosen aria from a Jean-Philippe Rameau opera that enjoyed popularity throughout the eighteenth century. Of course, it’s no accident that the 1980s rule the party scene in the film while period selections like a recurring movement of a Vivaldi concerto tend to reflect the tediousness of certain courtly conventions. By the time we hear a Domenico Scarlatti harpsichord sonata near the end of the film, its contrast with what has come before is more deeply felt, helping its melodic gestures to emphasize Marie Antoinette’s feeling of ennui.

The rock-baroque Marie Antoinette soundtrack takes what I’d call a high contrast approach to its musical aesthetics in order to draw attention to its intentionally flagrant anachronisms. These choices work to construct its aesthetic atmosphere, but also to draw us in to its take on the social world it depicts and to generate an affective intimacy with the character whose point of view focalizes its events. I think Bridgerton works to do something similar, but with wide appeal as its aim above all. What we miss when we fixate on these unexpected homages to the tastes of our time is how the series also offers a narrative of Regency music culture ripe for critique.

A few things make the long eighteenth century an especially interesting setting for film soundtracks. One is that, lacking recordings entirely, we have no way of actually encountering its sounds. The ephemerality of pre-phonograph sound is incredibly alluring, especially given our proclivity to associate the aural with intimacy and immediacy. This has partly to do with our awareness of the physical behavior of soundwaves, which became subject to increasingly popular scientific scrutiny during the eighteenth century, and the fleeting temporality of sonic events. Even more, the sensation of hearing through the ears of a given character is enormously powerful since, as Jonathan Sterne puts it in The Audible Past, we tend to “idealize” hearing “as manifesting a kind of pure interiority.”

But beyond the appeal of recovering a soundscape that lies out of our reach, this is an interesting period to depict on film because of the particular centrality of music to the slices of life that tend to be represented in Western historical dramas. Eighteenth-century developments in keyboard instruments and their increasing ubiquity in wealthy and eventually middle-class British and European homes mean that they can do a lot of visual world-building and characterization on top of the periodizing potential of their specific timbres. And between balls and amateur performances by young women, opportunities for diegetic music abound. Filmmakers may make the drifts into and out of an extra-diegetic soundtrack—and thus the distance between our moviegoing auditory encounters and those experienced by the characters—more or less distinct. Often those boundaries have been blurred. Take for example Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005). Nearly the entire aural space of the film is dominated by a keyboard theme loosely modeled (by the composer’s telling) after early Beethoven sonatas, and the score slips in and out of the film’s diegetic space.

Considering popular recent period films set in the long eighteenth century, this kind of aural homogeneity seems to have become passé. Music is increasingly treated as more than a frothy aesthetic choice, and in the last few years, approaches to sound have striven to maximize narrative and thematic payoffs with conspicuous choices to either adhere to music history or not. Folk music has begun to play a bigger role in the depiction of the Regency on the grounds of its popularity in entertainment settings of the period, as in Sanditon (2019) and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (2020). Soundscapes have also received careful treatment, with audio engineering that makes sure that we notice ambient noise. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), for example, treats the soundscape as a central feature of the world and story it depicts. It takes auditory diegesis extremely seriously, involving music in a few major plot points and focusing attention on the sounds produced by characters’ slightest actions (as in the stroke of a paintbrush or the rustle of a skirt) and by the spaces they inhabit. Portrait of a Lady on Fire reveals so much sound in what might otherwise seem to be silence. Though what we hear is digitally engineered, we don’t hear anything its characters don’t, and this works to implicate us in their aural encounters with stunning intensity.

de Wilde’s Emma offers a great example of a sophisticated soundscape as well, layering the quiet din of Emma’s domestic life—chiming clocks, creaking furniture—with heavily stylized musical storytelling inspired by Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936). Major characters have signature themes and instruments, and exaggerated musical gestures emphasize impulses and judgments on Emma’s part especially (though occasionally these are conspicuously absent). Austen’s Emma is a novel in which musical performances and a pianoforte play important roles, and de Wilde duly uses historically apt music and real musical talent in the film’s musical action, even featuring performances on a period instrument without replacing the audio.

This brings me back to Bridgerton. To be honest, I find the use of the pop covers to be the least interesting part of what the show does with music. (I actually think they make sense in ballroom scenes; the Regency’s fashionable set was listening to its own version of pop music at parties, the show seems to say, why not evoke that atmosphere with the sounds of ours?) Instead, what feels incongruous about music in Bridgerton is its representation of Regency music culture. The show takes some pains to include historically-informed details in the depiction of musical characters, and it gets more right than I suspect it even intended to.

Amateur musicianship, for example, is identified as a potentially repressive force in upper-class women’s lives, a part of the acquisition of ornamental “accomplishments” that Mary Wollstonecraft condemned. This is something that Bridgerton is eager to note. Musical proficiency comes up repeatedly in the show’s narration and in discussions of female eligibility on the marriage market. The younger sister of romantic heroine Daphne Bridgerton, Eloise, who, as Helen Thompson recently noted, appears as a sort of boiled down Wollstonecraft mini-me, repeatedly expresses irritation not only at the idea that she must play this game but even at the sounds of her sister’s musicianship, which she sees as capitulation. In Episode 2, Eloise’s tirade against “accomplishment” as the antithesis of her dream of a liberal education is followed by a cut to Daphne playing the fortepiano somewhat automatically while holding conversation with her mother and siblings. I’m not sure whether the showrunners were aware of the widespread anxiety during the period over the need for women to practice enough to be accomplished musicians without going overboard and becoming automata, but this detail pretty successfully invokes that context.

And yet, the show traces an arc in Daphne’s musical life that I have also located in fiction of the period. In Jane Austen’s novels, for example, music sometimes exceeds its usefulness as a self-marketing tool for eligible single women, offering certain characters moments of solitude, self-expression (even catharsis), and introspection. In Bridgerton, we are clearly meant to understand music as a central part of Daphne’s sexual awakening and as a form of expressive agency; she even composes a piece herself. Not coincidentally, the (in)famous pop covers tend to be aligned with affectively charged moments in Daphne’s narrative—Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is a memorable backdrop for Episode 6’s, um, honeymoon montage. But I’m most interested in an appearance of a period musical piece that hasn’t been adapted, when Daphne plays Beethoven’s keyboard Sonata No. 21 in C Major, “Waldstein” (1804). This is a popular selection for musically accomplished women of the period on film; Jane Fairfax plays it in the miniseries adaptation of Emma (BBC, 2009). Daphne weaponizes her instrument when she plays angrily and loudly but also very well, successfully distracting her husband from his recreational shooting in the midst of their marital conflict. Her musical practice is a deliberate and empowering choice even when she feels most trapped (for the record, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) realizes this as well, and departs from the text to have Colonel Brandon gift Marianne Dashwood a fortepiano in a bid to make their marriage plot a less ambivalent conclusion than the novel is willing to allow).

Meanwhile, Bridgerton also features a professional musician: Siena, an operatic soprano who is framed as simultaneously sexually liberated and socioeconomically precarious. Placing Daphne’s musical narrative next to the heavy-handed portrayal of social stigmas surrounding Siena’s profession, we might find a somewhat garbled point about the socioeconomic delimitations of musical excellence as a proto-feminist tool in Regency England. Further complicating the show’s approach to music as a feminine profession, ballroom orchestras throughout the season also feature anonymous women performers, cheerily suggesting more egalitarian opportunities for instrumentalists.

As a result, Bridgerton’s representation of music culture seems to oscillate between what it sees as ahistorical revision versus a faithful portrayal of historical realities. Perhaps this is the point. Maybe Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and the others are intended to punctuate a happy, though naïve, feminist ending to the musical lives we see coexisting uneasily in the show: now women can be professional musicians who are both socially liberated and financially autonomous. But because Bridgerton winds up so confused about what it’s trying to critique and how it wants to do so in its representation of Regency music culture, particularly via the contrast between Siena and Daphne, it focuses us instead on the veneer of freshness created by the pop covers and Daphne’s musical Bildung, while Siena fades into a tired trope. And that veneer is one that upholds histories of music culture and contemporary pop musical production that center conventional femininity, whiteness, and socioeconomic privilege. Ultimately, in spite of its bid to revise it, Bridgerton perpetuates a familiar approach to the period soundtrack by slipping us into a musical world and asking us to enjoy the atmosphere without raising too many questions about the strains of institutionalized power undergirding the things we hear.

Returning to The Favourite, we find an aural space that sounds historically grounded but turns back on itself to remind us that the affects we associate with certain musical traditions are very often our own projections. My obvious take is that its approach is the edgier one; it asks us to sit with the affective discomposure its soundscape generates instead of resolving it into aural pleasure. If soundtracks in period films are increasingly asking what aural authenticity is in the first place and what, actually, the worlds they depict might or should sound like to us, what relationships to the aural past do we want to encounter?

Elizabeth Weybright recently defended her doctoral dissertation in literature at the City University of New York. Her research positions women writers as key interlocutors in discourses surrounding acoustic science and musical aesthetics from the late eighteenth century to the 1870s. She plays the cello, and confirms that contrary to popular eighteenth-century opinion, one can indeed do that in a dress.

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