POLDARK – Anne Dudley
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Poldark is one of those British period romantic dramas that the BBC does so well. Based on the series of historical novels by Winston Graham, this is actually the second adaptation of the story made by Auntie Beeb, following the massively popular and successful series starring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees which first began airing in 1975. The stories follow the fortunes of Ross Poldark, a British Army officer who returns to his home in Cornwall from the American Revolutionary War only to find that his fiancée, Elizabeth Chynoweth, having believed him dead, is about to marry his cousin Francis. Ross attempts to restore his own fortunes by reopening one of his family’s long-derelict tin mines, and after several years he marries Demelza Carne, a poor servant girl, and gradually comes to terms with the loss of Elizabeth’s love. However, as is always the case with stories such as these, the course of true love never runs smooth, and the dramatic saga of the Poldark family continues across the generations. The show stars Aidan Turner as Poldark, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Heida Reid as Elizabeth, and Kyler Soller as Francis.
The score for Poldark is by the Oscar-winning British composer Anne Dudley, who has been largely absent from mainstream scoring work for what feels like years – although she acted as musical producer and wrote additional music for the 2012 Hugh Jackman version of Les Misérables, her last high profile international projects were almost a decade ago in 2006, when she wrote scores like Tristan + Isolde, and the critically acclaimed Dutch WWII drama Black Book. Since then, Dudley has been working mainly on British TV projects, and although Poldark is still a British TV project, the scope and international profile of the show may finally draw her back into the mainstream. It’s been 18 years since The Full Monty, when she became the second (and, to date) last female composer to win an Oscar, and it’s time she reclaimed her spot in the limelight.
Her score is classically rich, with emphasis on strings and piano, and highlighting specifically Chris Garrick’s gorgeous violin solos. It would have been very easy for Dudley to use the score for the original 1970s Poldark, which was composed by the veteran Welsh composer Kenyon Emrys-Roberts, as inspiration, such was its popularity at the time, but thankfully Dudley chose to forge her own path with a score which is much more contemporary in its tone, but still retains that rich, passionate feel, and even incorporates some inflections from traditional Cornish and Celtic music, in which the region of Cornwall is steeped.
The score’s main theme is actually the sixth cue, the appropriately titled “Theme from Poldark,” and is centered around a virtuoso solo violin melody which emerges from a lovely, rolling piano motif. Other cues feature snippets of it here and there, but it never really plays in full anywhere else in the score, at least not to that extent. Brief hints of it appear in “The Bal Maidens,” where it is accompanied by a dancing cimbalom and with a light percussion beat, and “Resurgam,” which takes the theme and re-works it as a somber, dirge-like piece full of loss and regret. Later, the dramatic “Working the Quillet” takes the two-note opening salvo from the theme and uses it to add a sense of driving urgency, before Chris Garrick’s expressive solo violin takes the idea off in a more determined, slightly frenzied direction. Some of these cues remind me a little of the music Dario Marianelli wrote for his period pieces like Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre, and will undoubtedly appeal to listeners who appreciate that sort of writing.
Much of the rest of the score is built around textures and instrumental combinations which play off each other to convey the mood, which is usually one of brooding angst or romantic longing. Harps and strings, and then cellos and piano, combine in “The Crossroads”. A gorgeous romantic theme emerges in “The Longest Walk”. An unsettling synth texture, metallic and insistent, accompanies the despondent orchestral lines in “An Army Against One Man”. A solo piano anchors the reflective, wistful “Love of My Life,” while Garrick’s violin returns in “The Red Dress,” and the penultimate “Copper and Tin,” a wonderfully dynamic piece.
The score’s only action sequence is “Liberty of Tyranny,” which builds on the instrumental ideas heard earlier in “An Army Against One Man,” but adds a propulsive string ostinato to bring the piece to life. Elsewhere, “Where the Land Meets the Sea” and “A Seam of Ironstone” are very bold indeed, with Dudley pitting Garrick’s violin and variations on the main theme against an anachronistic synth pulse that at times creates a mood of anticipatory dread. The subsequent “A Blood Red Moon” almost enters horror music territory with its creepy-beautiful harp textures and sinister-sounding tremolo violin writing, while the final cue, “Luck of the Devil,” ends on a similarly dark and intense note with its searching string writing, mysterious and almost subliminal glockenspiel, and threatening chords.
The song “Medhel an Gwyns,” which is sung on-screen by actress Eleanor Tomlinson in-character as Demelza, translates from the original Cornish as “Soft is the Wind,” and is a beautiful piece that is part lullaby, part folk song, and speaks to the romance of Cornwall: the copper and tin mines, its castles, its rugged coastline, and the equally rugged people who live there. For those who don’t know, Cornish is one of the so-called Brittonic Celtic languages, similar to Welsh and the Breton language of northwestern France, and was once the predominant language of the county until the mid 19th century, but has just 600 or so native speakers in the UK today.
If there’s one criticism to give to the score for Poldark it’s that, without the context of the show to give it some framework, some listeners may find it to be a little anonymous. The main theme is not present enough in the body of the score to be really memorable, while the violin textures – although undeniably lovely – are just that: textures, absent of any standout element beyond the excellence of the actual performance. The secondary themes are certainly present, but it takes some digging and some familiarity with the story arc to pick them out, while the brief allusions to Cornish folk music are nice, but don’t really develop far enough down that road for those who want a strong representation of the traditional music of the setting. With these caveats in mind, I still give Poldark a recommendation to those who enjoy scores that revel in wild and turbulent romance, and because I’m personally pleased to see Anne Dudley receiving some international press after several years away.
Buy the Poldark soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Crossroads (2:05)
- Medhel an Gwyns (written by Anne Dudley and Mike O’Connor, performed by Eleanor Tomlinson) (2:14)
- The Longest Walk (2:43)
- The Bal Maidens (1:19)
- An Army Against One Man (3:45)
- Theme from Poldark (0:45)
- Love of My Life (2:00)
- The Blue Dress (2:03)
- Resurgam (3:24)
- Liberty or Tyranny (2:33)
- Daring to Hope (1:38)
- Working the Quillet (2:31)
- Truth and Consequence (4:36)
- Where the Land Meets the Sea (2:52)
- The Carnmore Copper Company (3:07)
- Becoming Porcelain (2:43)
- A Seam of Ironstone (1:31)
- A Blood Red Moon (3:49)
- Copper and Tin (2:34)
- Luck of the Devil (4:11)
Running Time: 51 minutes 42 seconds
Sony Music 8887509679-2 (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Anne Dudley. Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London. Orchestrations by Anne Dudley. Featured musical soloists Chris Garrick, Peter Schoeman, David Cohen, David Daniels, Lucy Wakefield, Skaila Kanga and Anne Dudley. Recorded and mixed by Mat Bartram. Album produced by Anne Dudley.