Cultures Music

Bridgerton: History (re)composed?

Pandemic boredom has led to a rise in a number of nostalgic activities, from bread-baking and knitting to rewatching memorable sport matches and listening to playlists of old music. When the future is bleak, the past can be alluring. During troubling times, the period drama genre has comparable appeal. Viewed by over 82 million member accounts in the twenty eight days since it’s Christmas Day launch, Bridgerton has become Netflix’s most popular show of all time. Immediately apparent was the show’s inclusive approach to casting, a conscious divergence from the typically whitewashed period drama genre—despite Bridgerton’s historical setting, for creator Chris Van Dusen, it was important that Bridgerton “reflect the world that we live in today.” This drive for relatable audience content over historical accuracy is palpable throughout, from costume anachronisms such as glittery gowns, only possible after the invention of plastic in 1934, and Daphne’s white wedding dress, which only became tradition after Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840, to the rakish Duke’s handsome but not-so-historical facial stubble, but perhaps most notably in the soundtrack. 

The innovative use of modern-day pop songs played by a string ensemble gives the high society balls a veneer of historical authenticity while appealing to current audience tastes, an approach that sees Daphne Bridgerton, the “diamond of the season,” entering her first ball in high society to a string quartet cover of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next. Although the string cover is obviously wordless, the implicit message of Grande’s lyrics about female autonomy in romantic relationships subverts the explicit Regency conventions which see Daphne’s brother, head of the Bridgerton household, choosing with whom she should dance and ultimately be wed. The jarring intertextuality that plays out between the show’s historical context and the pop songs, both in audio and video format, makes such scenes more palatable and relatable to modern-day audiences.

The line between contemporary and classical is further blurred with the use of two tracks from Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi — The Four Seasons. In contrast to the modern-day pop songs played by classical ensembles, Richter’s work takes a classic, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and makes it new. Motivated by a desire to “reclaim” Vivaldi’s famous work, to return to his childhood listening experience and “hear it fresh,” Richter keeps the most exciting features of Vivaldi’s writing—the virtuosic cadenzas, the forward-driving melodic and harmonic sequences, the playful antiphonal exchange between parts—but revamps the work with pounding bass lines and popular chord sequences familiar to present-day listeners. Writing for the Telegraph, Ivan Hewett observes that Richter “notices his own taste in repeating patterns doesn’t mesh with the apparently similar patterns in Vivaldi. They obey a different logic, and the friction between them generates a fascinatingly ambiguous colour.” This “friction” between Richter’s musical language and that of Vivaldi parallels the conflict between present-day and Regency values and conventions explored in the classical covers. 

Richter has said that his reinterpretation of The Four Seasons was inspired by the recent developments in Baroque music performance. The early music movement aspired to perform works from the past, predominantly from the Baroque period but later applied to other eras, in a way which was authentic to the performance style and traditions of the period. Critics of the movement, which was also known as historically informed performance (HIP), complained that its aims and ethos stem from present-day concerns and are therefore anachronistic and, in actual fact, inauthentic. Despite such objections, HIP has been highly popular with audiences for its novel approach to the familiar and well-loved classics. It is for this reason that Richard Taruskin, the movement’s most renowned and fervent critic, contends that HIP is successful “by virtue of its novelty, not its antiquity.”

Grounded in a familiar backdrop of Regency Britain, Bridgerton appeals to the vogue for historical authenticity without compromising on present-day values for the sake of objective veracity. Musicologist Laurence Dreyfus has said that a successful HIP “reconstructs the musical object in the here and now, enabling a new and hitherto silenced subject to speak.” In a similar way, featuring real-life characters such as Will Mondrich, a character based on British black boxer Bill Richmond, and Queen Charlotte, now believed to be of African ancestry, Bridgerton reconstructs history in a way that is more diverse and inclusive than both Regency Britain and Julia Quinn’s novels. Just as in Richter’s soundtrack, historical information is used as a springboard for something altogether new: a chance to reclaim space and allow “hitherto silenced” characters to take centre-stage.

Catherine is a music student at Merton going into her second year. Outside of her degree, she enjoys playing piano and going for long walks with her dog Maggie. In her free time you will find her in the Norfolk wilderness with her head stuck in an OS map or imparting unsolicited recycling wisdom to unsuspecting bystanders in the college kitchen.