Within a month of its release the Netflix series Bridgerton became the platform’s most-watched show ever, with over 82 million views. Netflix’s VP of Original Series Jinny Howe credits, among other elements, the show’s willingness to take creative risks as one source of its appeal. One of those bold creative moves is found in the soundtrack.
The show released in December, but if you haven’t finished watching, know that spoilers are ahead.
While anachronisms in the costuming and customs of the Regency can be spotted throughout the series by eagle-eyed historians, it does not take a thorough knowledge of the era to spot the somewhat cheeky playfulness of the chosen music. Early on, as young ladies begin to approach potential suitors, Ariana Grande’s hit Thank U, Next is woven in, albeit performed by a string quartet.
While string arrangements of popular tunes is certainly not a new idea, Vitamin String Quartet’s instrumental takes retain all of the bounce and rhythmic intricacy of the original modern songs. For a dance scene, the music does indeed dance. And in Bridgerton it reminds the audience that some things are timeless. As the older women gossip their way through “the season,” Ariana Grande brings a subtle reminder that these ladies seeking their suitors are young, and still learning about love.
Viewers certainly took notice. Streams for the Vitamin String Quartet’s pop covers, as used in the series, are up 350% since the show’s debut. Other arrangements of theirs have been heard in shows like Gossip Girl and Westworld. And some renditions are new for the show. But not all of the music in Bridgerton comes from recent Billboard charts.
While the Vitamin String Quartet’s arrangements are all of recent major hits, the ball scene in episode 4 features a work with a political history far more complex than anything covered by Lady Whistledown on the show. In the 1920s as jazz had become mainstream in the USA, it had also become widely accepted in Soviet Russia. But the situation was complicated.
Playing jazz well meant experimentation with a western art form. Soviet government forces took notice, and pushed new leadership into the National Jazz Orchestra, leading the group to function like a chamber orchestra that happened to have saxophones. Musicologist Boris Schwartz points out in his book Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia that this took away all spontaneity from their playing – essentially leaving Russia with an “easy listening” orchestra.
Pieces that Dmitri Shostakovich wrote and called jazz fit more with that lighter style, allowing them to also fit the general sound of the world of Bridgerton. The Suite for Variety Orchestra is a collection of jazz-like music the composer wrote for multiple occasions. It includes instruments generally not in the orchestra at the time, like vibraphone and accordion. And it is also the soundtrack that starts Lady Trowbridge’s ball in episode 4.
Nothing is quite as it seems in the Suite for Variety Orchestra. The work is often mis-titled (and is on the Bridgerton soundtrack listing) as Jazz Suite No. 2, but that is a separate work that was lost to World War II and eventually premiered in the 1990s. The waltz in question is implied to be jazz, but it really isn’t – it’s a pleasant facsimile. And likewise nothing on Bridgerton in this moment is what any of the characters think. Daphne seems to be pursuing the prince while she’s not actually interested, Simon claims to be ready to make a clean break from his ruse with Daphne while he actually “burns for her,” and Marina is hiding the biggest secret of all, due in six months time. Everything in this scene – from Daphne’s necklace to Shostakovich’s “jazz” in ¾ time – is false.
As the evening continues the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann alludes to the situation of poor Prince Friedrich. In Offenbach’s scene the courtesan Giuletta sings of love, but actually exploits Hoffmann’s affection for the favor of another. If only the prince had caught the show and its not so hidden subtext. But like the opera, in Bridgerton, the building frustration only leads to a duel.
It’s worth noting here that the voice of the opera singing ingenue Sienna is performed by English soprano Rowan Pierce, who now has lending a hidden voice to Bridgerton in common with Julie Andrews. And the Barcarolle is, just like all of the other music, out of time with where it should be – as part of a set of four tales of unrequited love from the 1880s.
The entire plot of Bridgerton takes place over the course of a so-called London “season.” As parliament would sit, the elite of English society would gather for all manner of social occasions. The coincided with, as depicted in the show, quite the marriage market. But it also allowed for a natural climax to Bridgerton as the season drew to a close – scored by the reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter.
Richter claims to have kept about one-fourth of Vivaldi’s original material. He’s looped and layered the source in a minimalist manner, but don’t be fooled by the word “minimal.” Richter’s take is even more breathless than Vivaldi’s, amplifying the frenzy of emotions the characters face. Eloise realizes her case of mistaken identity. Daphne allows her frustration to literally be washed away by the rain. And Simon, falling back in love with his new wife, reimagines what he expected his future to be. All this as the season both literally and musically closes in around them.
This is all wrapped together with an original score by Kris Bowers. Main characters have their own theme, with building anticipation throughout the series as the intrigue and emotion builds. While the existing music brought into the soundtrack provides hints of context and a good bit of fun, we wouldn’t possibly feel as overwhelmed by emotions without Bowers’s scoring. A jazz pianist whose on-screen credits include The Green Book and Madden, Bowers described Bridgerton as a fresh challenge, unlike anything else he had done before. Taking inspiration from Maurice Ravel, he has created a cinematic score that is fresh and modern, but somehow not out of place on a show set in 1813.
Since the second season of Bridgerton has been announced, viewers can anticipate another season of intrigue and anachronism. And more chance taking, as described by Jinny Howe,
“Chris Van Dusen and Shondaland’s Regency reimagined isn’t meant to be history. It’s designed to be more lavish, sexier and funnier than the standard period drama.”
And that will surely be delivered with a twist of hidden messages, found in the music, as long as your ears are as open as those of the perceptive Lady Whistledown.