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What "Bridgerton" Gets Wrong — And Right — About Classical Music

Clockwise from left to right: In the first photo, an ornate golden ballroom with a glittering chandelier; in the second photo, a pink rosebush in full bloom; in the third photo, a closeup of a violin scroll and bow against a white background.
Clockwise from left to right: Dioga Nunes, Marina Reich, Chuttersnap
/
via Unsplash
Gilded ballrooms, pastel flowers, and passionate strings—the Bridgerton essentials!

Beneath the high ceilings of a gilded conservatory, a ball is taking place. Luscious bouquets of fresh flowers spill out from their vases. Women in jewel colored gowns are swept across the shining marble floors by dashing suitors. Others gather on the sidelines, whispering about marriage prospects or the latest piece of salacious gossip. All the while, a disembodied string quartet is playing a rousing rendition of . . . is that Mozart? Nope, it’s Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

As a lover of period dramas — especially those of the Jane Austen variety — I am a sucker for Netflix’s Bridgerton, which has just released its third season. Sitting comfortably in Netflix’s top ten most streamed shows of all time, Bridgerton wants to make one thing clear: this isn’t your mother’s period drama. In the tradition of Jane Austen and other predecessors, it’s based in the Regency era, but the show seems to flaunt its period inaccuracy, often to enjoyable effect. Who could resist the towering lilac-hued wigs, or the sequin encrusted ball gowns? The spectacle and escapism are half of the fun, and a large part of that spectacle comes from the show’s music choices.

Alongside string quartets by Haydn, and even Mozart’s Funeral March in C minor, groups like Vitamin String Quartet (VSQ) and Duomo play classical renditions of chart-topping pop tunes. In fact, both of these groups owe a great deal of their rising popularity to Bridgerton. On Spotify, VSQ’s cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” featured in one of the show’s many lavish ballroom scenes, is rapidly nearing 30 million streams. Meanwhile, Duomo cites the use of their cover of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” as the reason for their big break – it now has over 65 million streams on Spotify. It’s a style of music that’s hard to pin down into a specific genre, but in recent decades has fallen under the blanket term, “pop classical.”

What even is pop classical?

As a combination of two seemingly very different kinds of music, it can never really be a genre wholly unto itself. Oftentimes, for the casual listener, a piece played on classical instruments counts as classical music. But someone with a trained ear might be tempted to draw bolder lines in the sand. I myself have been guilty of referring to the genre as “pop songs played on classical instruments.” Truthfully, pop and classical music have been inextricably linked since the dark ages. As historical flutist and Juilliard professor, Emi Ferguson, says in her TEDx Talk, before the twentieth century,

People didn’t refer to music as ‘classical’ or ‘popular,’ but instead they referred to it by its function: religious, courtly, dance, or for just plain fun. The classical and popular music worlds shared a very blurry line.
Emi Fergusion

Taking that into consideration, it’s possible that we do the music – and ourselves – a disservice by rushing to define it in the first place.

If we examine the pop and classical “genres” by function, their differences come into focus. In our modern definition, classical music is set apart by its focus on live musicianship and performance. Meanwhile, popular music’s emphasis is on high production, memorable lyrics, and catchy melodies. But when the genres are combined, these key elements can get lost.

Take singer/songwriter Ariana Grande’s “positions” as an example. Grande spends hours in a recording studio layering vocal improvisations on top of one another until she achieves the final desired effect. In translating the song for the four voices of a string quartet, much of the highly-produced, stylistic flair is lost. But is anything gained? At least within the context of Bridgerton, the answer – I think – is yes.

Reader beware! Mild spoilers ahead…

At a pivotal moment in Bridgerton’s second season, the male lead is about to marry the wrong woman. As the bridal party processes down the church aisle — first the woman he loves, and next, the woman he’s actually marrying — an emotional string arrangement of Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” plays. Anyone familiar with the lyrics of the original song can’t help but ascribe another layer of meaning to the scene. “We never learn, we’ve been here before,” Styles sings, along with the repeating refrain, “We’ve gotta get away from here.”

This effect is intentional on the part of the showrunners. As Bridgerton’s music supervisor Justin Kamps told ScreenRant, “We look at the two romantic leads for the season and see where that story is going and what themes are included in their romance. Then we take that to the songs that we're looking at for the covers and think, ‘What lyric themes can we play with?’”

This musical choice also relies on the listener’s own memories and nostalgia associated with each familiar tune for its emotional impact. On the use of Ariana Grande’s “thank u next,” Bridgerton score composer Kris Bowers told Classic FM, “Anybody watching these young women can now project their own connections to this song into this environment. Now they could watch the scene and really feel all these very clear feelings.”

Bowers took inspiration from pop rhythms and melodies while working on the rest of the Bridgerton score. Interestingly enough, he also cites Maurice Ravel as an influence on the show’s sound. “I hadn’t been thinking of Ravel because I was going back and forth between – either this needs to sound like 1813, or it needs to sound like today,” he says in his Classic FM interview. “I never thought about any other time period in between.”

The show thrives in this in-between space, both thematically and musically. Even twentieth-century composer Dmitri Shostakovich is let in on the fun when his Waltz No. 2 plays as party guests arrive at a ball. The musical choices fall into the same vein as the rest of the show’s outrageous and endearing historical inaccuracies — there are no rules here, and that’s what makes it fun!

“Without music, life would be a blank to me.”

So, what were people actually listening to — as Bowers puts it — in 1813? Well, since Regency era romances would not be so popular without the queen of romance, Jane Austen herself, I’d like to use her as an example. As an accomplished amateur pianist, she was an enthusiastic collector of sheet music. Ignaz Pleyel was one of her favorite composers and she owned quite a few of his sonatinas. But she also loved the popular dances and stage tunes of her time, including some by Thomas Arne. And she had a sizable collection of Scottish and Irish folk songs, quite a few of which were arranged by Beethoven and Haydn.

Even in Jane Austen’s personal collection, pop and classical music blurred into each other. Perhaps these modern pop classical covers are just the natural continuation of this coexistence. Today, when the stylistic differences between pop and classical are wider than they were in Austen’s time, translating these easily digestible, familiar tunes into the language of classical music narrows that gap a little.

Anything that opens doors to those interested in classical music is a win in my book. So if the classical-inspired soundtrack of Bridgerton or the Vitamin String Quartet’s pop covers are sparking your curiosity, welcome in! I’m glad you’re here. To get you started on your listening journey, here are some pieces of more traditional classical music I think you might enjoy. Like the soundtrack to Bridgerton, this playlist is not period accurate. But it is romantic, dramatic, and gorgeous — perfect for your next ball.

Edyn-Mae is a producer and host at CRB.