Dario Marianelli & Jean-Yves Thibaudet,
Pride & Prejudice
(Decca, 2005)

The most rigorous, though possibly unfair, test of how well a soundtrack holds up as a piece of music involves listening to it before seeing the film for which it was composed. Unfair because soundtracks are meant to be, well, soundtracks -- musical augmentation rather than music for music's sake -- but it remains true that really good soundtracks stand up on their own. Happily, Dario Marianelli's score for the recent film version of Pride & Prejudice is one of the latter, making for lovely listening even without the context of its film. Its understated, melodic refrains effortlessly conjure up images of rolling green British countryside, quiet and a little melancholy on some overcast morning.

Though Marianelli cites as his primary inspiration the composers who were actually in vogue in the early 19th century (i.e., Beethoven), there is something decidedly more modern, if no less romantic, to the sound of this Pride & Prejudice. Gone is the structured formality of other Austen films scores, including, notably, Carl Davis's score for the A&E miniseries version of the same novel and Patrick Doyle's work for Sense & Sensibility. Nor is there any of the unrelenting cheeriness of Rachel Portman's Emma soundtrack. Instead, Marianelli goes for a subtler, more expressive sound that banishes the sense of restrictive fussiness of domesticity and social behavior common to most Austen scores. Wistful, lightly orchestrated compositions featuring the fluid sound of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet make up most of the 17 tracks. The graceful opening track, "Dawn," sets the tone and introduces the main piano theme that resurfaces, each time in slightly different form, throughout the CD.

Unlike some soundtracks, however, the theme isn't repeated ad nauseam, and Marianelli includes enough variety to keep things interesting. Two lively dance tunes ("Meryton Townhall," "Another Dance") and a military march ("The Militia Marches In") which sound period authentic, add spice and a sense of history to an otherwise quiet and perhaps rather timeless score -- as does an elegant string tribute to Purcell in "A Postcard to Henry Purcell." Soundtrack buffs accustomed to the work of Hans Zimmer and James Horner may be disappointed that Marianelli's score has few moments of high drama, contenting itself instead with understatement and restraint in such tracks as "Your Hands are Cold." There are no rousing battle pieces, no sweeping epic themes and nothing at all likely to inspire an adrenaline rush. Nor, I suspect, unless this new Pride & Prejudice adaptation is unrecognizably different from the book, would any of these be anything but intrusive and incongruous.

Still, it might be fair to criticize Marianelli for erring a bit on the side of blandness. The CD works very well as a whole, but few tracks really stand out on their own, even on repeated listens. At just over 40 minutes, it is also on the short side, though an unexpected plus is that the first and last tracks flow so well together that it invites hitting "play" again. In the end, the soundtrack probably doesn't transcend its original role as background music, but it is beautifully evocative, atmospheric and understated background music that is as appropriate to almost any quiet, solitary pastime as it is -- or so I imagine -- to the film.

Fans of Lesley Barber's somewhat unorthodox soundtrack to Mansfield Park will probably find echoes of the same melancholy in Marianelli's work to be just to their taste. A worthy addition to the Austen score canon, Marianelli's score has piqued my curiosity both about this latest Pride & Prejudice and his other soundtracks.

by Jennifer Mo
7 January 2006

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