Musical Metadata, or “That reminds me of. . . .”

Yesterday, M and I enjoyed the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Pride and Prejudice, which I (as a read-it-once kind of fellow) thought faithful and intriguing and good. As I walked away, what I found myself most thinking of was a single musical moment from early in the play, a moment that has got me thinking about how music is particularly well suited to remind us of other times and places.

First, a background: one of our most-listened-to CDs is Dario Marianelli’s oscar-nominated soundtrack to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film (with Keira Knightley). (A happy accident was when my brother, meaning to buy us the soundtrack online, bought us the piano sheet music instead, which had the effect of driving its beautiful-ness into our brains even deeper as we practiced playing it.)

During one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Elizabeth and Darcy trade barbs  during a dance, but then the other dancers literally disappear, reflecting the intensity of focus the two have for each other (starting at about 2:35 in the below clip).

The music here is “A Postcard to Henry Purcell” on the soundtrack, and for me, it’s come to have a quite particular meaning, wrapped up in associations with flirtatious banter, the surprising beginnings of attraction, the erasure of surroundings because of focus on another person, and all that. But at one moment in the play we saw yesterday, this track played during a plain old dance scene–with little more meaning than as simple diegetic music to support the dancing of the characters. To me, it means more than that, so the sudden normalness of it here felt a bit shocking.

M noticed the track too, of course, and she wasn’t sure what she thought about it either. But she reminded me of a crucial point: that the track wasn’t originally scored just by Marianelli–as its title implies, it’s a reworking of the Rondo from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer. Here’s a random YouTube clip of the original; notice how much its character changes with the thicker instrumentation and quicker tempo:

Wikipedia tells me that this track was also used by Benjamin Britten in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and as the theme for a BBC miniseries, The First Churchills. Think of that: just as the use of Marianelli’s adaptation in the play felt “off” to me, like a mischaracterization of the piece’s essential personal meaning to me, others who were familiar with the Purcell track in other settings might have felt just as much dissonance when hearing it in the 2005 film!

So what? It’s a reminder of one way that the emotional content of music works. I mean, we say all the time that “music communicates emotions,” but that’s kind of vague; it’s much stronger to say, “One way that music communicates emotions is by reminding listeners of their previous exposure to it–either to particular instances of pieces played in other settings or to general qualities of the music that it shares with other pieces (i.e. genre).” And this kind of communication is both communal and personal, in that two people can be exposed to all the same settings of the music, as M and I did when we learned the 2005 soundtrack together and saw the play together, but still have different personal meanings attached to the emotions brought about when hearing the old piece in new settings.

Questions I’m left with: To what extent did the play producers mean for the 2005 score to “mean something” in the play–was it a lazy, “This will do!” or a purposeful statement? (That’s M’s question, by the way.) When is this kind of uncertain, tenuous, different-for-everyone kind of musical meaning not worth bothering with at all? In other words, if everyone is going to have different personal experiences when reminded of previous music, how can a composer or director hope to “say something” at all?

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