Saturday, February 1, 2014

Listening to Downton Abbey (part 1)

by Michael Accinno
Spoiler Alert: This post treats Series 4, Episode 3 (US Episode 2) of Downton Abbey, which was broadcast by UK network ITV on 6 October 2013 and by US network PBS on 12 January 2014.
Music can be seen and heard everywhere on the newest season of Downton Abbey, the serialized British television drama that follows the household of the fictional Earl and Countess of Grantham and their slow march to modernity. Set in the early years of the Roaring Twenties, this season’s first episodes studiously demonstrate how music’s “roar” contributed to a growing sense of gender- and class-based equality. Wild-child Rose, the newest addition to the household, continues to throw caution (and class distinctions) to the wind; in one episode, she poses as a Downton servant to visit a local dance hall, nearly causing an alcohol-induced barfight in the process. Later in the season, we watch approvingly as Rose dances with Downton’s first black character, jazz musician Jack Ross, a racial transgression that is universally condemned by upper- and working-class characters alike. The march to modernity, so it seems, is slower for some than it is for others.

To be sure, music has long aided in promoting Downton’s mystique. We need look no further than the theme song, a simple minor-mode melody by British composer John Lunn. The memorable tune provides an unadorned musical counterpoint to the show’s sumptuous visual opening credits, which dwell luxuriously upon the ornate, Jacobethan (and real-life) country manor, Highclere Castle. Such music is what film scholars call non-diegetic: music that comments upon the story’s action from the narrator’s perspective. In this season, however, we also encounter a veritable flood of diegetic or source music that sounds within the “story world” of the characters and affects their actions. In the fictional world imagined by Downton’s creator Julian Fellowes, such music does not resound, it roars.

The gramophone, for instance, reappears at Downton after a season-long absence. In its earlier appearance during the second season, it played an important role in reviving the love affair between Mary, the Grantham’s eldest daughter, and her distant cousin, Matthew. While Matthew’s fiancée suffers upstairs from a fever that eventually kills her—it is 1919, the year of the Great Pandemic—he tries out the new gramophone, a wedding present, by dropping the needle on Marion Harris's 1921 recording (note the anachronism) of the Jerome Kern's “Look for the Silver Lining.” Enter Mary, who descends the staircase of the foyer while Harris sings in the background:
Please don't be offended if I preach to you a while,
Tears are out of place in eyes that were meant to smile.
There's a way to make your very biggest troubles small,
Here's the happy secret of it all. 
Look for the silver lining
When e'er a cloud appears in the blue.
Remember some where the sun is shining,
And so the right thing to do,
Is make it shine for you. 

Matthew and Mary meet in the foyer; romantic dancing ensues; Matthew delights Mary with knowledgeable banter (“I think it was in a show that flopped”); Mary offers witty repartee (“We were a show that flopped”). Suddenly, narrative music cuts in, a silver lining within a “Silver Lining,” and the string orchestra slowly builds in intensity—what is to happen with our star-crossed lovers? Finally they kiss. But even more quickly than it began, the music abruptly disappears, just as Matthew's Lavinia appears on the staircase. As Harris’s crooning returns to fill the sonic and emotional void, Matthew awkwardly tries to begin a conversation with Lavinia. Then, and only then, the needle drops from the gramophone.

Music thus foreshadows what the audience does not yet understand: After Lavinia dies—in other words, after her music stops—Matthew is free to pursue his “silver lining”: Mary. The double meanings that lie at the heart of this musical subterfuge help heighten the effect of gramophone’s reteurning in the current season. In the third episode, the Grantham clan throws an opulent house party to raise the spirits of Mary, who is still in mourning. After being goaded into dancing with a new suitor, she flees the scene when she realizes that Matthew’s gramophone is the source of the  music. But her unease is deeper than the mere presence of what one reviewer refers called “Matthew’s death gramophone.” For the whole scene closely resembles the earlier dance sequence between Mary and Matthew. The gramophone thus juxtaposes the presence of the device with Matthew’s tragic absence. There is still music to be played, but Mary has no silver lining.

For everyone besides Mary, the gramophone, ubiquitous by the 1920s, was unremarkable. (Countess Grantham: “A house party can be so flat if there’s no special moment.”) In the next installment, this “special moment”—a recital at Downton Abbey by Australian opera superstar Nellie Melba—develops into much more than meets the ear.

Michael Accinno is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of California, Davis, and assistant editor of Musicology Now. 

1 comment:

  1. Please, do you know the name of the song that played when they kissed? It's so beautiful, clean... I'm searching, but the version that i find is different. I wish i could have that one...