Home > Reviews > EMMA – Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer

EMMA – Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

What a year it has been for the Waller-Bridge sisters. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the actress and writer, won Emmys and Golden Globes and BAFTAs galore for her work on the second season of the brilliant BBC comedy series Fleabag, and also for her work as the creator of the drama series Killing Eve, before being hired to polish the screenplay for the upcoming James Bond film No Time to Die. Now Phoebe’s composer sister, Isobel Waller-Bridge, has followed up her own success writing the ironic choral music for Fleabag with this wonderful period score for a new literary adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Waller-Bridge has teamed up with another English composer, David Schweitzer, a child prodigy who has a massive amount of experience writing for documentaries and animated TV series, and contributing additional music on shows like The White Princess, Vanity Fair, Victoria, and The Crown. With the possible exception of Fleabag, this is the most high profile above-the-title score of both composers’ careers, and if the music here is anything to go by, we will be hearing lots from them in the future.

Jane Austen wrote Emma in 1815, and it was the last novel of hers published prior to her death in 1817 (the others were all published posthumously). As is usually the case it is a romantic comedy of manners set amongst the landed gentry of English society under the reign of King George III. 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse is ‘handsome, clever, and rich,’ and resides with her father in a large country estate in Surrey. Emma considers herself to be an excellent matchmaker – manipulating the romantic affections of those around her – and as the story begins she resolves to find a husband for her new friend, Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated young woman with questionable parentage. Emma moves Harriet around between various potential suitors, including the respectable farmer Robert Martin, the vicar Philip Elton, her neighbor George Knightley, and the mysterious Frank Churchill, the son of some close friends. However, as Emma continually meddles in these people’s lives, things begin to go terribly awry – not least when she fails to recognize her own potential attraction to one (or more) of these suitors. The film is directed by Autumn de Wilde, and stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma, with support from Johnny Flynn as Knightley, Callum Turner as Churchill, Mia Goth as Harriet, and Bill Nighy as Emma’s father.

Emma is a story which touches on numerous themes – early 19th century feminism, power and wealth, the importance of class and social rank – and De Wilde’s film addresses all these issues with a clear, modern sensibility. It’s also absolutely ravishing to look at; the cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt is often sunny and open but also takes time to linger on Taylor-Joy’s huge and expressive eyes, and the production design by Kave Quinn is period-perfect, while the costumes by Alexandra Byrne are stunning and should bring her a sixth Oscar nomination. The cherry on top of all this is the music, which is just glorious: its a combination of lush period orchestral English classicism á la George Fenton and Patrick Doyle, blended with some superb bel canto opera, and a healthy dose of traditional folk music. The whole thing is light, cheerful, and whimsical; full of sparkling strings, effervescent woodwinds, and jaunty pianos. There are frequent guest appearances by harpsichords, harps, and bright trumpets too, but almost no drum percussion – this score exists almost entirely in the high, treble range. Every cue is full of movement and life, vivacious and energetic, constantly moving around between the instruments, and is intensely rhythmic throughout. At times it simply bounces with joy.

Interestingly, the score is actually much more thematically complex than it seems at first glance. The composers have crafted a quintet of themes which interlock in varying combinations to illustrate the different shifting relationships as Emma’s matchmaking activities develop. The score opens with “Emma Woodhouse,” an arrangement of Emma’s theme as a divine piece of opera pastiche performed by Sara Davey and Benedict Hymas, whose cut glass tones are surrounded by dancing strings, gaily lilting pianos, harpsichords, and prancing woodwinds that leap nimbly in between the precise Italian vocal phrasing. The recurring ‘Matchmaking Theme’ that emerges for the first time in “Poor Miss Taylor” can be considered a second theme for Emma, as it tends to appear whenever the wheels of romance are turning inside her head, as she picks up on the various social cues that appear to indicate the potential for romance. It’s a mischievous and amusingly pompous melody that dances between the instruments with cheerful glee, and regularly offers some wonderful call-and-response writing where the brass shines in counterpoint.

The theme for “Mr. Knightley” is initially more masculine, a fanfare-like motif for brass that initially sounds like a foxhunters horn, but grows more fanciful as it develops; he too is, of course, an English gentleman, and prone to the affectations of the period. The way Knightley’s theme combines with Emma’s theme at the end of the cue is quite excellent. Harriet’s Theme, as introduced in “Harriet Smith,” is usually carried by cellos, and is a see-sawing little motif that tries to capture her character: good natured, sweet, but a little gullible, as expressed by the slightly comedic tone to the woodwinds that dominates the background of the piece. Churchill’s Theme is the least prominent one as it doesn’t appear until the seventeenth cue, “Frank Churchill Arrives at Hartfield,” and his theme is the most restrained of them all; the cello-and-flute duet which carries the melody feature a noticeable pause, alluding to his aloof nature, while the pizzicato strings add a touch of mystery and intrigue.

The rest of the score is, essentially, a series of plays on those five main themes, each of them recurring with pleasing regularity. The Matchmaking Theme features prominently, and actually dominates much of the middle section of the score, for this is where Emma conducts most of her love-struck scheming and plotting. It receives especially operatic statements in both “Walk to Mrs. Goddard’s School” and “Supper Party at the Coles,” while in “Christmas Dinner at the Weston’s” the overall sound is a richer arrangement, and contains some curiously entertaining woodwind scales. Perhaps the most satisfying statement of all comes in “We Shall Have Our Ball,” which is lush and buoyant and almost celebratory, as Emma realizes that the ball will be the perfect place for all her plans to come to fruition

Harriet’s Theme gets a workout in “Harriet Smith and Robert Martin Meet on the Road,” with phrasing that’s all a-twitter to illustrate how flustered she gets in male company. Later, in “Harriet Smith and Robert Martin Meet in the Rain,” the instrumentation of the theme is a little more velvety and romantic, and is anchored around cellos and piano, as the naïve young girl thoroughly enjoys her first proper kiss. Knightley’s Theme features prominently in “Mr. Knightley is Destroyed,” in which the melody is first transposed to strings, and then to a haunting, soaring version for voice and harpsichord that captures the character’s desperate reaction to some desperate news. Later, “Badly Done, Emma” features a dour version of Knightley’s Theme for solo piano, which is heard as he sternly admonishes his friend for her thoughtless insult of Miss Bates. The most prominent and notable subsequent statement of Emma’s Theme comes in “Emma is Lost,” which moves the theme to haunted voices and whispery strings as Emma – thanks to Knightley’s admonishment – recognizes her error and fears she has irretrievably harmed her many friendships.

The finale of the score rightly concentrates on the relationship between Emma and Knightley, as they finally realize that despite Emma’s matchmaking, it is actually one another that they love after all. “Mr. Knightley Chases After Emma” sets his theme at a slower pace, a little resigned, a little downcast, but with gorgeous female vocals, and brief flash of Emma’s Theme in the final seconds. “The Proposal (Under the Horse Chestnut Tree)” is a very clever setting of both themes together, as Knightley finally confesses his love and Emma responds in her own particular way. His theme is deconstructed and arranged for cello and harpsichord, hesitant but romantic; it switches to Emma’s theme, similarly deconstructed with set with the same orchestrations and same tone, and then back and forth between them. The cue becomes quite frantic and a little flustered in the finale, as the instrumental textures continue to play off each other but turn into a bit of a cacophony, cleverly echoing Emma’s mental state.

After a mischievous statement of the Matchmaking Theme in “A Chill Draft About The Knees,” as Emma and Knightley realize that the final match is their own, the score ends with “Emma and Mr. Knightley (A Kiss Before They Wed),” in which both their themes are played consecutively on pretty pianos and romantic strings, then contrapuntally with her theme on cello offset with his theme on brass, before concluding with an adorable, vocally enhanced, beautifully operatic finale. The conclusive 6-minute “Emma Suite” provides a gorgeous run through of all the main themes for the full orchestra over the end credits, with Emma’s theme beginning at 0:22, a fulsome statement of Knightley’s theme beginning at 1:02, the Matchmaking theme beginning at 2:17, Harriet’s theme beginning at 3:24, and then back to Emma’s theme beginning at 4:47, which closes the album.

It’s also worth mentioning the quite extensive amount of source music that features on the album. Famed English folk musician Maddy Prior is featured performing several traditional songs – “How Firm A Foundation,” “Hark! Hark What News,” and “The Game of Cards” – while actress Amber Anderson performs several selections of classical music herself on a pianoforte by way of the cues “Jane Fairfax Plays Mozart Sonata in F,” “Donwell Abbey (Haydn’s Farewell Symphony),” and “Jane Fairfax Plays Beethoven Sonata No. 23”. “O Waly Waly” is a traditional Scottish folk tune, performed here by The Cambridge Singers conducted by John Rutter, but which film music fans are likely to recognize as ‘The Water is Wide,’ which Jerry Goldsmith used as the main title melody for his 1994 score The River Wild. “Mr. Turner’s Waltz” is a formal dance tune specific to the period, anchored by a solo fiddle melody, while “Queen Bee” is an original piece written and performed by Knightley actor Johnny Flynn, and is excellently authentic.

It’s now been 24 years since Rachel Portman became the first woman to win a composing Oscar for writing the score for that year’s version of this story. I’m not suggesting that Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer will follow in her footsteps, but Emma is certainly up there as one of the most accomplished and enjoyable comedy scores in quite some time. The music has that quintessential English period sound so beloved of the BBC, and of films based on works by Austen and the Bronte sisters. The orchestrations are beautiful, ranging from the effortlessly charming combination of strings and woodwinds, to the operatic vocals that soar. And the technical content of the score is outstanding too, with a strongly thematic approach. Fans of Patrick Doyle and George Fenton’s period scores, early Stephen Warbeck, or classic Rachel Portman, will love it – just like Austen’s heroine herself, Emma the music is handsome, clever, and rich, and well worth exploring.

Buy the Emma soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Emma Woodhouse (1:48)
  • Poor Miss Taylor (1:42)
  • Mr. Knightley (1:40)
  • Emma is Bored (0:44)
  • Harriet Smith (1:16)
  • Country Life (traditional, performed by The Watersons) (2:03)
  • Harriet Smith and Robert Martin Meet on the Road (1:10)
  • How Firm A Foundation (traditional, performed by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band) (2:52)
  • Mr. Elton Reveals the Portrait (0:52)
  • Hark! Hark What News (traditional, performed by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band) (1:44)
  • Walk to Mrs. Goddard’s School (0:37)
  • Christmas Dinner at the Weston’s (1:23)
  • O Waly, Waly (traditional, performed by The Cambridge Singers cond. John Rutter) (2:46)
  • You Must Sample the Tart (0:43)
  • Jane Fairfax Plays Mozart Sonata in F (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Amber Anderson) (1:46)
  • Harriet Smith and Robert Martin Meet in the Rain (1:51)
  • Frank Churchill Arrives at Hartfield (1:43)
  • We Cannot Do Without Dancing (0:55)
  • Supper Party at the Coles (1:02)
  • Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax Duet – Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes (traditional, performed by Johnny Flynn and Amber Anderson) (1:33)
  • Mrs. Elton Arrives at Hartfield (1:30)
  • We Shall Have Our Ball (1:22)
  • Mr. Turner’s Waltz (traditional, arr. William Lyons) (2:09)
  • Mr. Knightley Chases After Emma (1:11)
  • Mr. Knightley is Destroyed (0:56)
  • Donwell Abbey (Haydn’s Farewell Symphony) (written by Joseph Haydn, performed by Amber Anderson) (1:42)
  • Badly Done, Emma (1:00)
  • Jane Fairfax Plays Beethoven Sonata No. 23 (written by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Amber Anderson) (0:58)
  • Emma is Lost (1:07)
  • The Proposal (Under the Horse Chestnut Tree) (3:36)
  • The Game of Cards (traditional, performed by Maddy Prior and June Tabor) (3:21)
  • A Chill Draft About The Knees (1:05)
  • Emma and Mr. Knightley (A Kiss Before They Wed) (3:07)
  • Queen Bee (written and performed by Johnny Flynn) (3:36)
  • Emma Suite (6:08)

Running Time: 62 minutes 57 seconds

Back Lot Music (2020)

Music composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer. Conducted by Alastair King. Orchestrations by Alastair King and Alec Roberts. Special vocal performances by Sara Davey and Benedict Hymas. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson. Edited by Mark Willsher. Album produced by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer.

  1. July 10, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    This review was very informative for someone who is not a music expert. I love this soundtrack and often play it on walks. I shared this review on the Jane Austen Society of North America Eastern Washington -Northern Idaho Region Facebook page. Michele

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