In an 1816 review of Jane Austen’s Emma, Sir Walter Scott asserts that the brilliance of Austen’s novels lies in the realism of her characters, who have “motives and principles which the readers may recognize as . . . their own and that of most of their acquaintances” (64). If we choose to read Emma as an adaptation of real life, we can see that the value of the novel, and arguably what readers most enjoy in reading it, is the way it deftly adapts human nature to literature, creating characters with whom readers can identify. Film adaptations, therefore, are most successful when they succeed in recreating this essential characteristic, this humanity, in the film medium. In Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., there is one element, often overlooked in adaptation studies, that plays a crucial humanizing role: the soundtrack. In what follows, I aim to show how the soundtrack of Emma, an eclectic mix of folk music, classical piano, and an original score by Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweizer, works to connect the audience with Emma and represent her, despite her snobbery and occasional cruelty, as a sympathetic character.
In Emma, Austen’s free indirect style allows us to see the world through Emma’s eyes. Although the story is told as a third-person narrative, the narrator often channels Emma’s voice, as though “Emma” is a costume the narrator can put on and take off as it suits her. Without the mediation of the narrator to reveal Emma’s good intentions and ultimately good heart, her actions would seem both cruel and incomprehensible, her penance inadequate. Consequently, the adaptor of Emma faces the difficulty of representing a heroine whose actions, if separated from her inner reasoning and goodwill, make her utterly unsympathetic.1
Despite the challenge posed by such a character, de Wilde succeeds in endowing an outwardly rude Emma with humanity. I argue that the film’s soundtrack performs a role akin to the narrative voice, adapting Austen’s free indirect style to a musical setting.2 The film music combines with the visual element to create a narrative that prioritizes Emma’s perspective and emotional development, constructing her, over the course of the film, as a sympathetic character and worthy heroine.
My argument is divided into two parts. In the first section, I draw on Bakhtin’s theory of dialogia to examine how, on a macro-level, the intertextuality and generic diversity of the soundtrack modify the audience’s reception of the film such that Emma’s folly seems trivial and her change of heart sincere. The second section is devoted to a close examination of how the music in Emma functions as an adaptation of Austen’s free indirect style, inviting the audience not only to hear Emma’s thoughts but to share in her feelings.
Intertextuality in soundtrack: Mixing genres
Traditional analyses of intertextuality in adaptations are focused on the relationship between adaptation and source text, “devalu[ing] other aspects of the film’s intertextuality,” which often take the form of “non-literary, non-novelistic influences” (McFarlane 21). The soundtrack, according to Glenn Jellenick, can be read as an adaptation in its own right, but when merged with the visual in a film, music forms “a parallel text—one that performs independently, in that it has the capacity not simply to highlight or underscore meanings constructed by the visual and verbal narrative, but to generate an intertextual discourse in ways that image and dialogue cannot” (223). In the case of de Wilde’s Emma., the soundtrack adds not just one more voice to the intertextual dialogue within the film but several. Waller-Bridge and Schweizer’s original score is, to use Roland Barthes’s words, “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (146). It takes influences from several genres, is interspersed with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century folk tunes, hymns, and classical pieces, adapted and repurposed for the film. These large-scale musical choices—choices of genre and style—nuance and moderate our reception of the visual. The amalgam of musical genres and voices that populate the film can be understood through the lens of Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia and dialogia. In a heteroglossic work, “heterogeneous stylistic unities . . . combine to form a structured artistic system, and are subordinated to the higher stylistic unity of the work as a whole” (262). In simpler terms, diverse styles and genres interact with each other to form the overarching style and meaning of the text. Although Bakhtin is writing about novels, the same principle can be applied to soundtrack.
Equally useful to my analysis is Bakhtin’s classification of discourse as either authoritative or internally persuasive. While the authoritative word “demands that we acknowledge it [and] binds us, quite independent of any power it might have to persuade us internally” (342), the internally persuasive word “is affirmed through assimilation, tightly interwoven with ‘one’s own word’” (346); we can “take it into new contexts, attach it to new material, put it in a new situation in order to wrest new answers from it” (347). In other words, discourse is more persuasive if it interacts with the reader’s—or in this case the listener’s—existing ideas and understanding. The soundtrack in Emma. functions as an internally persuasive discourse, bringing together Italian opera and eighteenth-century folk music in the context of a contemporary film to represent Emma’s behavior as understandable.
When we are introduced to Emma in the first scene of the film, she is choosing flowers for a bouquet, surrounded by a contingent of servants. The scene is accompanied by an Italian operatic duet singing Emma’s theme (entitled “Emma Woodhouse”), a theme that recurs in variations throughout the film. Opera is traditionally considered an upper class, lofty form of entertainment, so the use of operatic voices in Emma’s opening scene highlights her snobbishness, refinement, and her “disposition to think a little too well of herself” (E 3). It is as though Emma is choosing her own musical accompaniment: she believes she is a big fish and wishes the world to see her as such. If we read the music as a narrative voice, we can see that, in this instance, it gives us Emma’s perspective on her place in the social hierarchy.
© 2020 Working Title Films
This is a moment, like many which I will delve into later, where music performs the function of free indirect narration. Emma’s operatic accompaniment is juxtaposed with the folk music that blares as Emma watches Harriet walk down the path after their first meeting. The song “Country Life,” performed by the Watersons, predates the eighteenth-century agricultural revolution and is a celebration of rural farming life. The Yorkshire accent of the singers and the heartiness of their voices, when taken in contrast to the floating operatic lines, situate Harriet as unrefined and lower-class. This instance of dialogia makes use of the audience’s understanding of musical genre, inviting us to share in Emma’s views about her own refinement and Harriet’s lack thereof. Such a characterization makes Emma’s paternalistic treatment of Harriet seem, if not warranted, at least less reprehensible.
Another example of dialogia within the soundtrack can be found in the instrumental music—mainly between Waller-Bridge’s lively orchestral score and the more serious classical pieces that underscore many of the scenes in the second half of the film. The difference in style can be understood in terms of William Crotch’s 1831 taxonomy of music as falling into three distinct, yet often overlapping, categories: the ornamental, the beautiful, and the sublime. Certainly, some of Crotch’s ideas are outdated—I will ignore, for example, the notion that the sublime style is inherently better than the beautiful or the ornamental (38)—but his categorization provides a useful lens through which to analyze the differences in style in the classical and classical-inspired portions of the soundtrack.
Ornamental music, according to William Crotch, “is the result of . . . playful intricacy, and abrupt variations” as well as “eccentric and difficult melody; rapid, broken, and varied rhythm” (36). It is often considered witty and humorous, a musical analogy to a caricature (40), and it “dazzles, delights, amuses, and awakens curiosity” (41). These features characterize most of Waller-Bridge’s score. Although the composer took influences from the Classical Period3 for the instrumentation and form (Waller-Bridge), the main inspiration for the score came from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf: Symphonic Fairy Tale for Children, written in 1936, as well as the music of the Looney Tunes and animated films (Schwedel). As in Peter and the Wolf, each of the main characters in Emma. is associated with a particular instrument—Emma with the flute, Mr. Knightley the French Horn, Harriet a folky violin, and Mr. Elton the bassoon (Waller-Bridge)—and the music is closely synchronized with the action, making each raised eyebrow and pointed glance as significant as Peter lassoing the Wolf. Since audiences may associate this style with the exaggerated slapstick comedy of the Looney Tunes, its use in de Wilde’s film renders Emma’s rudeness and machinations comedic. For instance, when Emma and Harriet encounter Mr. Martin on the path, Emma, true to her statement earlier in the film that “the Martins are precisely the order of people with whom I can have nothing to do,” keeps her back turned while Harriet stays back to greet Mr. Martin. This behavior is obviously quite rude, but the sharp, staccato variation of Harriet’s theme exaggerates the silliness of Harriet’s excitement and makes Emma’s annoyance appear more reasonable. This type of ornamental, comic music trivializes Emma’s cruelty and discourages censure from the audience. After all, no one watching the Looney Tunes would criticize Bugs Bunny for cruelty towards Elmer Fudd.
In the second half of the film, after Mr. Knightley’s fateful dance with Harriet, a new style of instrumental music is introduced, with a tone more comparable to William Crotch’s “beautiful.” According to Crotch’s classification, music is beautiful where “the melody is vocal and flowing, the measure symmetrical, the harmony simple and intelligible, and the style of the whole soft, delicate, and sweet” (35). The effect of such music is to “soothe and tranquilize” the audience (35). This description characterizes the classical pieces by Haydn and Beethoven, as well as some of Waller-Bridge’s more subdued tracks, which play when Emma is feeling serious emotions, such as remorse, tenderness, or sadness. These pieces include the slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Appassionata, played by Jane Fairfax as Emma goes to visit the Bateses’ apartment, and the slow movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.17 No.6 in D major, a bittersweet melody, which plays as Mr. Knightley says goodbye to Emma on his way to London. A close examination of the emotional effect produced by the first of these scenes will follow in the next section of this paper; for now, I confine myself to a discussion of the way the two musical styles—the ornamental and the beautiful—interact with each other.
“Beautiful” music functions differently in the soundtrack from the ornamental. Unlike the ornamental music, the “beautiful” tracks are not closely matched with the action and consequently do not produce the same comedic effect. Rather, they comment on the overall tone and emotion of the scene, whether it be tenderness or bittersweet sorrow. Viewers familiar with Western film tropes would associate this kind of music with romantic period films of a more earnest nature.4 Consider, for example, the poignant melody in the opening track of Far from the Madding Crowd (2015), by composer Craig Armstrong, or the tender hesitancy of Dario Marianelli’s “Mrs. Darcy” in Pride & Prejudice (2005). In Emma., Haydn’s String Quartet Op.17 No.6 and Waller-Bridge’s “Mr. Turner’s Waltz,” which underscore some of the more tender moments in the film, strike a similar poignant chord. Compared to the levity of the animated style that we experience in the first half of the film, the tone of the romantic drama is mature and serious. This abrupt shift accentuates Emma’s emotional development and newfound maturity, which comes with the recognition of her mistakes. It is another example of Bakhtin’s “internally persuasive discourse”: rather than telling the audience outright that Emma has become more mature, the music plays on audience-members’ understandings of genre and style to show that Emma is maturing, and that her penitence is genuine and deep. The two vastly different tones, moods, and genres evoked by the two musical styles can be read as a musical representation of what Mr. Knightley dubs Emma’s “‘vain spirit’” and her “‘serious spirit’” (358). As the story progresses, the latter subdues the former.
Music as free indirect narration
Psychological studies have found that emotions evoked by music are recognized consistently across audiences (Fritz et al. 575) and that these emotions are not limited to the basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, and fear), but include feelings like tension, tenderness, and joyful activation (Zentner et al. 506). Whether the musical emotion is felt by the audience depends on the listener’s context and musical preference (Zentner et al. 516), but emotions are perceived in music “at a relatively high rate,” regardless of the listener’s individual characteristics (Tan et al. 138). In film, these musically evoked emotions have a strong effect on how audience members interpret characters’ internal states (Tan et al. 147) and can therefore affect how the audience evaluates characters’ actions. In this section, I perform a close reading of several scenes in which musical emotion supplies commentary on the visual, variously from Emma’s and a narrator’s perspective.
Through most of the film, the music prioritizes Emma’s point of view. When Emma is talking, there is silence in the background, but when others are talking and Emma is observing, music often underscores or even overpowers the dialogue. The privileging of Emma’s emotions is especially obvious in scenes where her emotional state differs from the mood conveyed by the scene. In these scenes, the tone of the music is incongruous with the visual information, a technique known as “counterpoint,” wherein “the specific character of the music contradicts the specific content of the picture; thus, the music conveys irony or comments on the content of the picture in another way” (Bullerjahn and Güldenring 100). For example, in the dinner party scenes, the first following Mr. and Mrs. Weston’s wedding and the second at Christmastime, the chatter of the guests is almost overpowered by a slower, minor variation on Emma’s theme, in which the melody is played by the cello (unlike earlier scenes where it was given to the violin or soprano). The music is less joyful and less energetic, and the uniform accenting on every beat produces a repetitive effect that contributes to a sense of boredom or irritation. The music contributes to the idea that Emma’s present companions are a tiresome lot, whose conversation and intellect run at a slower pace than Emma’s own. Just like free indirect discourse, the music, coming here from Emma’s perspective, invites us to share in her sense of the other characters’ inferiority.
© 2020 Working Title Films
Musical emotion is used not only to represent Emma’s interiority, but to modify the meaning and significance of her actions. An example is the scene where Miss Bates accosts Emma in the shop, bringing news of Jane Fairfax. When Emma first catches a glimpse of Miss Bates through the window, there is a sudden loud burst from the double bass, followed by a dissonant sharp staccato on the violins, indicating an unpleasant surprise. This pattern repeats three times as Miss Bates approaches the shop and Emma casts around (unsuccessfully) for a way to hide herself. A dissonant high-pitched trill begins a crescendo as Miss Bates enters, creating a sense of great tension and mortal fear. Although Miss Bates is harmless and in good spirits, the sense of dread and fearful activation conveyed by the music primes the audience to view her in a negative light. Siu-Lan Tan et al. discuss the phenomenon of musical “priming” in terms of schema theory, asserting that “film music may invoke schema”—interpretive frameworks—“that lead to interpretations of visual content in ways that are consistent with the music” (136). When we hear Emma’s thoughts and feelings in the music, we may be inclined to interpret the scene accordingly. In this specific scene, the music encourages us to sympathize with Emma in her desire to escape and rid herself of Miss Bates, despite the obvious rudeness of walking away while Miss Bates is still talking.
© 2020 Working Title Films
Another occasion where the music is incongruous with the visual aspect is the scene in which Emma is on her way to bring Harriet the news that Mr. Elton is not, in fact, in love with her and that Emma was mistaken. The song “O Waly, Waly” (more commonly known as “The Water is Wide”), a traditional Scottish folk song, is “a haunting melody of love found and love lost” (“O Waly”) that doubles as a Christmas carol. The melody starts after Mr. Elton exits the carriage, and it continues to play as the scene cuts to Emma in the carriage, visibly sad, and then to Harriet, the following day, happily playing a festive game of bullet pudding with the girls at Mrs. Goddard’s.5 Although most of the song plays over Harriet’s joyous and undignified bullet pudding scene, the poignant melody is more reflective of Emma’s emotions and foreshadows the sadness that she must deliver to Harriet. The music represents Emma’s regret–a sentiment not obvious from her expression of horror as she walks in on the girls pushing Harriet’s face into the pudding. That the music spans a whole day suggests that the sad feeling stays with Emma through the night and into the next day. In the novel, part of what saves Emma from appearing, to the reader, completely unfeeling and abusive is her genuine remorse. As Wayne Booth puts it, “for every section devoted to [Emma’s] misdeeds . . . there is a section devoted to her self-reproach,” in which “we see at great length and in high color her self-castigation” (98–99). In the film sequence discussed above, the mournful music performs the function of Emma’s narrative voice, signaling that she feels the impact of her actions and is capable of empathy.
© 2020 Working Title Films
Emma’s emotional rollercoaster takes another plunge after her cruelty to Miss Bates at Box Hill and Mr. Knightley’s admonition that it was “badly done indeed.” After several scenes of Emma crying noisily, the “Andante con moto” of Beethoven’s Sonata Appassionata begins to play. The character of the music is sad and somber, with low, plodding chords that suggest a heavy emotional weight. The major key makes the piece sound mournful without being ominous. The visual then cuts to the Bateses’ apartment, where we see that it is, in fact, Jane playing the piece, and the film continues to cut back and forth between Jane and Emma, as Emma makes her way over to the Bateses’ home with a gift of apples. It is significant that the music starts when the visual aspect is still focused on Emma: although played by Jane Fairfax, the music is relevant to Emma’s emotions. The effect in this scene is twofold. First of all, the music acts as a bridge between Emma on the one hand and Jane and Miss Bates on the other, alluding once again to Emma’s capacity for empathy. The connection shows that Emma truly feels the negative emotions of sadness and shame that she has inflicted upon the Bates family. Secondly, the tone of the music corresponds to the emotions evident in the body language and facial expressions of the women on screen, a technique known as “paraphrasing,” which is the opposite of “counterpoint” (Bullerjahn and Güldenring 100). According to Bullerjahn and Güldenring, in scenes using the paraphrasing technique, the effects of the music and picture are “additive,” meaning that the information conveyed by each reinforces and amplifies that which is conveyed by the other (100). The result is that Emma’s sadness and remorse are magnified such that her penance seems sufficient.
© 2020 Working Title Films
So far I have focused on scenes where the music reflects Emma’s emotions, but there are scenes in which the music knows and feels more than Emma does. When Emma meets Frank Churchill, a new theme plays: a mysterious ascending legato6 line in a minor key, punctuated by high staccato notes that add an air of fear and activation. The two musical voices call to mind predator and prey—the creeping legato line evoking a stalking predator and the staccato notes a small and skittish animal. This musical image is at odds with Emma’s displayed emotions, forming, once again, a musical counterpoint. Her mischievous, excited smile as she exits the greenhouse with Frank and her obvious pleasure as she flirts with him do not communicate any misgivings about his character. The “voice” of the music belongs to someone other than Emma, a notion reinforced by the fact that the music continues to play over Emma’s speech, almost overpowering it. This voice could belong either to the narrator or to Mr. Knightley, who expresses his negative opinion of Mr. Churchill earlier in the film. But although the music agrees with Mr. Knightley’s view of Mr. Churchill, since Mr. Knightley is nowhere in sight, I am inclined to think that it expresses a narrator’s voice. It makes little difference however, because just as in the novel, this musical narrator is aligned with Mr. Knightley’s opinions.7 The dialogue between the musical and visual aspects shows that Emma is blissfully unaware of the danger posed by Mr. Churchill. This dramatic irony is another strategy used by the filmmakers to engage viewers’ sympathies towards Emma, this time by constructing her as an unsuspecting victim.
© 2020 Working Title Films
Waller-Bridge and Schweitzer’s soundtrack is carefully curated and composed to represent Emma in the best light possible—a difficult task given Emma’s haughty, icy façade. Contrasts of folk and opera, and of romantic drama and slapstick comedy, create internally persuasive discourses that represent some of Emma’s nastier moments as either comic or well-meaning, and her eventual repentance as sincere and profound. As one reviewer says, “to really appreciate an Austen story you have to be able to laugh . . . at the pettiness of her characters’ quarrels, the smallness of their scandals, and the needlessly roundabout curlicues of their romances while also being deeply and sincerely invested in their outcomes” (Barker). The score weaves together active, rhythmic pieces with beautiful, bittersweet melodies to show Emma’s mischievous mind and “happy disposition” (E 3), as well as her well-hidden human heart. And although the music is intimately connected with Emma throughout most of the film, in the few moments where the score takes up the narrative mantle, it shows an Emma who is vulnerable and naïve, a victim rather than a villain. The film is not simply the sum of its parts. Rather, it is the dialogue between the parts—between the musical genres and between audio and visual representations—that gives the film its full meaning. The musical strategies are designed to stir our sympathies, showing us the humanity, sincerity, and playfulness that exist alongside Emma’s arrogance. Through careful intertextual and musical choices, de Wilde and Waller-Bridge have created, if not a character whom everyone will like, at least one who is as realistic and complex as Austen’s original Emma.
The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.
1Wayne Booth tackles this very issue in “Point of View and the Control of Distance in Emma.” The main difficulty for the author, according to Booth, is to make Emma a sympathetic heroine while showcasing her serious faults: “[i]f we fail to see Emma’s faults . . . , we cannot savor the full comedy as it is prepared for us. On the other hand if we fail to love her . . . , we can neither hope for the conclusion, a happy and deserved marriage with Knightley following upon her reform, nor accept it as an honest one when it comes” (96).
2I say that the music is free indirect, rather than first person narrative, because there are times where the music does not reflect Emma’s point of view, switching instead to that of Mr. Knightley or of a third person narrator. But these moments are few, and, like the novel, the film spends most of its time in Emma’s corner.
3The Classical Period in music lasted from 1750 to 1825; the ornate polyphonic music of the Baroque Period gave way to simpler melodies, symmetry, and balance (Lopinski et al. 49). One defining feature of Classical music is the importance of the melody—a line that listeners could hum along to (“Classical Era Music”). The “theme and variations” structure, where “a melody is stated and then undergoes a series of transformations,” was also popularized in the Classical Period (Lopinski et al. 71). These formal and stylistic features abound in Waller-Bridge’s score, where each character is associated with a particular melody that is adapted based on the mood of the scene. For example, Emma’s theme modulates to a minor key as she marches over to Mrs. Goddard’s to visit Harriet. The agitation of the music and the minor key represent Emma’s displeasure that Harriet is sick, because she “will miss the party at Randall’s.”
In instrumentation, the Classical Period saw the development of the piano, an instrument that, unlike the harpsichord, allows for changes in dynamics (Parakilas 11). The orchestra expanded to include woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet, flute, and oboe, and brass instruments like the French horn (“Classical Era Music”), which are all heard in Waller-Bridge’s score.
4A 1994 study by Claudia Bullerjahn and Markus Güldenring demonstrates that “[u]nderscoring changes the interpretation and perception of a film with respect to emotional mood of the film [and] film genre assignment” and that “[i]ndividual differences among spectator/listeners . . . interact with film and music variables in the interpretation and perception of the film” (102). For the study, researchers paired several soundtracks representing different film genres with the same video clip of an elderly man. The soundtrack pairing affected participants’ assumptions about the man’s motives and intentions (111).
5Bullet Pudding is a parlour activity from the Regency Period, where players take turns slicing away the edges of a cake made of flour which is topped with a coin. The one who knocks the coin off get his or her face pushed into the flour as a penalty (Kim). Although Bullet Pudding does not show up in the novel, it is known that Austen’s family played the game every Christmas (Kim).