Becoming Jane

Adrian Johnston | Becoming Jane | Sony Classical 88697078482 | 23 Tracks | 2007

The romantic novels of Jane Austen may be works of fiction, but they do of course reflect much about late eighteenth century values, particularly those concerning women, love and marriage. There is also it seems something of Austen herself in those famous heroines and Becoming Jane, a film about the author’s life before she became famous, brings to light her own affair of the heart with a young Irishman. Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy bring the young lovers to life in this delightful film, which also owes much to Adrian Johnston’s score.

Johnston teams up once again with director Julian Jarrold, with whom he has worked on a variety of projects including the marvellous Kinky Boots, for which the composer provided a very impressive score, one that was sadly under-represented on album. This time however Johnston’s music fills an entire disc and is a charming listen from beginning to end.

As is the case with pictures of this genre, there is a tendency to lean towards the piano as a central voice in the music, and this score is no exception. Of course the instrument was an important part of social life in the late 1700s and it is only fitting that it should take centre stage. The piano is joined by strings, woodwinds and harp throughout and they come together to create an air of playfulness, romance and tender longing. The opening cue, ‘First Impressions,’ is a dreamy piece with a shy, hesitant theme that is in no hurry to reveal itself. In fact the theme doesn’t appear again until the close of the album. Thematically this is a broad work, not so much in terms of a leitmotif kind of arrangement, but in the sense that each track on the album exhibits a new statement. A Celtic air is implied in cues like ‘A Game of Cricket’ and ‘Selbourne Wood’, while there are moments of infectious wit and character in cues like ‘Lady Gresham’ and ‘Advice From A Young Lady’.

Those cues are indicative of the first half of the album, which is much more playful and spirited than the second. Highlights of this half are the pieces from the various parties and dances, much of which utilise original melodies sourced from music books at the Austen house. ‘The Basingstoke Assembly’ and ‘Laverton Fair’ in particular showcase the energetic refrains that would’ve been danced to in the period, each with a distinct Celtic flavour, while ‘Bond Street Airs’ is a marvellously pompous cue replete with showy brass and piano trills. The very different second half takes in much of the drama of the piece, with languid, reflective passage such as ‘Goodbye, Mr Lefroy,’ ‘The Loss Of Yours,’ ‘To Be Apart,’ ‘An Adoring Heart’ and ‘Distant Lives’ relying on string, clarinet and piano solos to capture the sadness and longing. The mid-point, ‘Rose Garden,’ also sees the introduction of a love theme for Jane and Tom; it’s a simple melody that is in fact the only notable recurring theme in the score, returning again in ‘Runaways’ and ‘A Last Reading.’ It perfectly bottles the mutual love and affection held by the pair and is lovingly orchestrated for piano, backed by harp and strings. It later becomes more passionate when taken on by strings only. A final highlight is ‘The Messenger’, a notable exception to the otherwise reflective rule with its galloping stride, horn statements and wild abandon. It works to break up the more melancholic refrains and adds a dose of passion to the piece, which is not unwelcome.

Before the album closes with the aforementioned love theme, vocal soloist Lynda Lee performs ‘Deh Vieni Non Tardar’ from Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. It’s a piece that sits quite nicely amongst the selection as Lee sings with piano accompaniment. Again it serves to break up the cues slightly, however it seems a slightly random addition to the album that probably would make more sense after seeing the film.

This is a pretty album, full of lingering romantic passages and much character in places. Adrian Johnston imbues the film with a great deal of heart and soul and that is passed over to the album. The shadow of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice lingers over the film’s marketing and the album cover is very similar to that of the Marianelli album. Of course comparisons will be made between the two scores and although both focus on the piano and embrace the period styles in similar ways, they are very different compositions. Adrian Johnston is a mainstay of British screen music and continues to write for higher profile projects.Becoming Jane is a fine example of his talents and ought to gain him much attention and hopefully more high profile scores for the big screen.