The BBC adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice gives its actors a wonderful opportunity to produce some eminently quotable lines.
Take this from the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, played by the peerless Alison Steadman.
My partner’s regular recall of these quotes drew my attention to their musical qualities. There is clear pitch and rhythm here, in amongst the nervous energy. This led me to consider their use in a piece of music, though deciding exactly how was a real challenge. I did not want this to be a piece that was little more than an actor’s monologue but nor did I want to ‘songify’ the speech and make it seem synthetic.
I selected a few of the quotes that seemed to me most musical and got to work.
I transcribed the rhythm of the phrases by ear, trying to keep it as simple as possible. I then used speech software called Praat to analyse the pitch contour of each phrase. The dots in blue (above) trace the clear(ish) pitches that appear. At the end of this – at times tiresome -process I had created a ‘fully’ notated quote.
There are definitely some pitch anomalies (like the low Bb here) as the spoken word moves so effortlessly around the registers and words have differing levels of pitch content. This means that there can sometimes be little for the software to latch onto. Crucially, though, getting the precisely correct pitch is not really the most important bit: they are always spoken and never sung, while the contour is a useful guide for the singer.
More than this, though, the quote above allows speech to be manipulated in all the ways notation facilitates so well. The pitch and rhythm almost acts as an ‘index’ for each word. It identifies the particular ‘and’ that is required, for example, which in turn gives all sorts of indications regarding which character says it and in what tone (the performer is also provided with the audio of the original quotes, which they should attempt to follow as closely as possible).
The quote above makes up the entire first section of so much altered for solo soprano, which, in the final section, also includes a manipulated quote from Handel’s ‘Chastity, Thou Cherub Bright’. The latter can be found in the Austen family songbooks, so is almost certain to have been known by Austen herself.
This recording features the inimitable Rebecca Hardwick.
I have also been working on a companion piece for male voice, though it must be said their quotes have rather less buoyancy than those of Mrs Bennet, resulting in rather more sung material.
All in all, it was a thoroughly fascinating and challenging journey in which the limits of notation and the unending complexity of the human voice were always to the fore. In retrospect, the quotes – and the Handel – reflect something of the stultifying morals of the period, particularly for women. Hopefully the piece itself is rather too irreverent to be in danger of reproducing them.