Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The great English author Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield in 1849, and it is considered by many respected authorities to be one of his finest works. It is one of the few Dickens novels that is considered semi-autobiographical; it follows the life and adventures of the titular David, who is forced to spend time as a child in a London workhouse, and eventually grows up to become a writer. It charts everything about David’s life: his relationships with his gentle mother and his domineering stepfather, his affection for the optimistic and affable Mr. Micawber and his slightly daffy but loving Aunt Betsey, his life-long rivalry with the bitter and duplicitous Uriah Heep, and of course his many romantic dalliances. It is also a wonderfully rich reflection of life and society in Victorian England, and its legacy continues to inspire art to this day. There have been several cinematic and televisual adaptations of the story, but this latest one – The Personal History of David Copperfield – is directed by Armando Iannucci and stars Dev Patel in the title role, with support from an array of British character actors including Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw.

The score for The Personal History of David Copperfield is by Christopher Willis, who in my view is one of the most exciting young composers to emerge into film music in many years. After receiving his doctorate from the University of Cambridge Willis moved to the United States, and now lives and works in the Los Angeles area. He first came to prominence working with the Gregson-Williams brothers, writing additional music for scores like You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Wolverine, Shrek Forever After, Gulliver’s Travels, and X-Men: First Class, before eventually contributing significant amounts of music to the acclaimed HBO comedy series Veep. In recent years Willis has also written a great deal of music for Disney, notably on the reboot of the classic Mickey Mouse animated TV series, for which he has been nominated (and won) multiple Emmy and Annie Awards.

The first time he appeared on my radar was in 2017, when he wrote the score for the blistering political satire The Death of Stalin, which was also directed by Armando Iannucci. Willis’s music for that film was staggeringly brilliant – a modern homage to Shostakovich and Prokofiev – and it earned him a place on the Academy Awards Best Score shortlist, as well as the IFMCA Award for Best Comedy Score. However, whereas The Death of Stalin was steeped in the musical traditions of all the great Russian classical masters, The Personal History of David Copperfield is wholly English. Furthermore, whereas Stalin was all about power and scale and propaganda and pageantry, only one word fits the musical style of Copperfield, and that word is: joy.

It’s perhaps a lazy comparison to say that Willis was inspired by the greatest English composers of the late romantic period and early 20th century – Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Britten, Holst, and so on – but the truth is that Willis’s music here does draw from that well. There are moments when the string writing has the languorous, elegant feeling of a Vaughan Williams, while elsewhere the busy movement and overlapping chatter in the strings recalls Holst at his most striking. There are also several contemporary film composers whose music is comparable to Willis’s, and admirers of composers such as Patrick Doyle, George Fenton, Rachel Portman, Dario Marianelli, or Craig Armstrong at his most classical, will find this music to be very much to their liking.

In terms of orchestration, The Personal History of David Copperfield is very traditional. It is fully symphonic, and places most emphasis on the strings, but the arrangements are such that every section gets its chance to shine at some point. There are gorgeous piano solos, moments of brass-led bombast, percussive intensity, deft woodwinds, and even places where the harp takes center stage. The score’s main theme is, of course, the theme for David himself, and it first appears in the opening cue “My Own Story”. David‘s theme is a vivid explosion of busy strings, underpinned with woodwind and brass, from which a 4-note motif emerges. The whole thing has a wonderful flow to it, and is full of movement, energy, and dexterity. Naturally, the theme follows David throughout his life, and Willis is careful to subtly alter it to reflect the changes in emotions and circumstances as the story unfolds.

When David makes a trip to “Yarmouth” to visit the Peggotty family, Willis imbues the theme with an idyllic charm and a sense of innocence. In “A Corker of a Corker” he switches the busy motif from strings to brass, giving it a dynamic new tone. Perhaps the best rendition of the theme comes in the outstanding “Adventures of a London Gentleman,” which sees David at his best: strident, important, purposeful, and confident, with music to match. The cue builds to a big finale with wonderfully passionate brass, and is an overall score highlight. The flip side of this is “Emily Gone,” which phrases David’s theme with a frantic, panicked, slightly breathless feeling. As was the case in “A Corker of a Corker” there is a noticeable instrumental switch from strings to brass to capture the angst of the moment, and David’s feelings for his childhood friend.

There is a secondary theme that emerges half way into the score that is less a theme for David himself, and more of a general theme that represents David’s happiness. It is present at all the best times in David’s life; in “A Blissful Summer” the theme soars on a solo violin accompanied by florid brass accents, lively and engaging, as a representation of his warm relationship with his Aunt Betsey Trotwood, while in the subsequent “Mr. Dick and the Kite” the theme is augmented with a prominent rhapsodic piano. Later, “David’s Writings” begins with a bank of impressionistic strings, a haunting cello, a bold harp, and rhythmic woodwinds, which gradually become more intense as the spark of creativity is lit inside Copperfield. When the Happiness Theme comes in during the cue’s second half, underpinned by classical string flourishes, it is clear that it is with pen and paper that David is happiest, and Willis’s music speaks to this concept in a brilliant way.

This Happiness Theme is also related a little to the two standalone love themes for Agnes Wickfield and Dora Spenlow, both of whom David marries at different times in his life, as well as to the life David enjoys at his school in Canterbury . The music for “Agnes,” his true lifelong love, features elegant and pretty writing for piano and strings, while “Meeting Dora” perfectly encapsulates her mischievous and child-like nature with a frothy combination of strings and oboes, prominent basses, and hints of Bach’s Air on a G String, before rising to a lovely waltz-like finale. Meanwhile, “First Day at School” begins with a touch of Elgarian solidity in the brass, before the Happiness Theme returns on solo flute and a tinkling piano; the opposite of this is, of course, “Leaving Day,” which has a baroque feel and uses solo strings to suggest a string quartet within the orchestra. In the subsequent “Steerforth Mucks In” this string quartet idea is explored further via some wonderful interplay between different elements of the string section; rhythmic cellos, violins, and violas all playing different melodic ideas simultaneously.

Other recurring ideas in the score include a series of more downbeat string cues that capture the less happy moments in David’s life, notably in “I Fall Into Disgrace,” “Without a Home,” and especially “Ruined,” which cleverly features a dark arrangement of the Happiness Theme for maximum ironic juxtaposition. There is some discordant string material that captures the lurking presence of David’s nemesis “Uriah Heep,” and some unexpectedly striking action music in cues like “The Murdstones,” “Tall Tales,” and especially “The Bottling Factory,” which is almost Stravinsky-esque with its rumbling muscular pianos and rampaging string/brass combination writing.

The conclusion of the score begins with “The Shipwreck,” an action setting of David’s Theme for heavy brasses, trilling woodwinds, and rushing strings, which gives the terrible watery fate suffered by David’s friends Ham and Steerforth and appropriate sense of gravitas. After a sequence of slow and dreamy string writing in “Concluding Words,” “A Life Well Written” returns with a wonderful final statement of the Happiness Theme featuring gorgeous string phrases, and a superb duet for violin and piano that is full of classical panache. The conclusive “These Pages Must Show (End Credits)” offers a final statement of David’s Theme in all its glory, powerful, large-scale, imposing, and impressive, ending the score on the highest possible note.

As if you couldn’t tell, I absolutely adore the music in The Personal History of David Copperfield. This is the music of an idealized England; the contrast between the bustling streets of London and a more languid life in the countryside, the distinct beauty of its sun-kissed fields and its rugged sea shores, the depiction of lords and ladies and gentlemen, scoundrels and thieves, high society and common folk, and the way that this most profound of literary protagonists weaves his way through it all. As an Englishman, I think there is something hard-wired in my DNA that makes me appreciate scores like this, and the fact that Christopher Willis writes it with such skill, such beauty, such intelligence, and such exquisite technique is just icing on the cake. There is not a dull moment in the album’s entire 55 minute running time. There is not a moment where Willis is not taking the time to say something interesting with his music – presenting a new theme, a variation on an existing one, or painting a vivid musical picture of this specific time and place. To quote Marie Kondo, whose fleeting popularity right now will undoubtedly confuse anyone who reads this review in years to come, the whole thing ‘sparks joy’. We’re not even out of the first quarter of 2020 yet, but I can guarantee this will feature prominently in my end-of-year Score of the Year conversations.

Buy the Personal History of David Copperfield soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • My Own Story (1:46)
  • Baby Davy (1:44)
  • Yarmouth (2:06)
  • Last Days of Innocence (1:50)
  • The Murdstones (1:00)
  • The Bottling Factory (1:16)
  • I Fall Into Disgrace (0:59)
  • A Corker of a Corker (1:28)
  • Without a Home (1:39)
  • 23 Miles to Dover (1:25)
  • Notes and Impressions (1:34)
  • A Blissful Summer (1:16)
  • First Day at School (1:05)
  • Mr. Dick and the Kite (1:16)
  • Agnes (0:46)
  • Tall Tales (1:22)
  • Uriah Heep (1:31)
  • Of Kites and Concertinas (0:49)
  • Leaving Day (2:01)
  • Meeting Dora (1:00)
  • Adventures of a London Gentleman (3:49)
  • Mock Turtle (0:38)
  • Ruined (2:03)
  • Mounting Troubles (2:04)
  • Return To Yarmouth (1:32)
  • Steerforth Mucks In (1:26)
  • Emily Gone (1:09)
  • The Search for Emily (1:16)
  • David’s Writings (2:57)
  • The Shipwreck (2:22)
  • Concluding Words (0:57)
  • A Life Well Written (3:17)
  • These Pages Must Show (End Credits) (2:34)

Running Time: 54 minutes 15 seconds

MVKA 0190296860874 (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Christopher Willis. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Benjamin Hoff, Jamie Thierman, Edward Trybek. and Henri Wilkinson. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by Christopher Willis.

  1. johncockshaw
    April 8, 2020 at 3:14 am

    Thank you for this wonderfully in-depth review. As with other similar occasions when your love of a score is so evident I made sure I purchased the album. It is indeed magnificent from start to finish and is fast becoming a source of joy and escapism during the present anxieties of lockdown. Willis is great to listen to in interviews and it was fascinating to hear the interview you conducted with the composer on the IFMCA YouTube channel for ‘Death of Stalin’ n 2017. The CSR interview with Willis recently was also highly illuminating. Really looking forward to more work by Christopher Willis in whatever capacity. Brilliant review as always and many thanks for the regular posts!

  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:00 am

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