The Noteworthy Reign of PBS’s ‘Victoria’

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes at the piano.

Victoria and Albert, as played by Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, duet in art and life. (Photo courtesy PBS Masterpiece)

Queen Victoria is on a campaign — for Emmys! Music is foremost among the deserving categories for this UK production from Mammoth Screen for ITV  and PBS Masterpiece. The original compositions by Martin Phipps and Ruth Barrett every bit hold their own with classics from the likes of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin that highlight each episode. In January Dubois Records released the Victoria — The Original Soundtrack and a compilation of source tunes from the series would be a welcome accompaniment.

Over the course of six seasons, PBS’s Downton Abbey released four musical collections that cumulatively sold about 140,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music (top among them Christmas at Downton Abbey, at 75,000 units). Victoria — The Original Soundtrack has a ways to go before it triggers those benchmarks, but it just starts its second season this fall, and given the queen’s long reign — 64 years — the show has plenty of life ahead.

One can only hope that season two contains musical moments like the tempestuous cascade over which Victoria and her future husband, Albert, lay eyes on each other for the first time as adults. MaxTheTrax sought out novelist, series creator, producer and head writer Daisy Goodwin — a tremendous good sport, leaping the pond to attend the US Television Critics Tours, and making time to answer our questions via email.

MaxTheTrax: Did you do much research into the music of the period when writing the script and novel for Victoria?

Daisy Goodwin: Yes.  When I write I like to listen to music that Victoria would have known.  Lots of Donizetti, Bellini, Beethoven and Schubert.

MaxTheTrax:  Have you been active in the selection of music the characters play as the story unfolds?

Daisy Goodwin: I usually write in the piece of music that I want the character to play, so when at the end of Act 3 Albert arrives and turns the page, I said in the stage directions that I wanted Victoria to be playing something stormy and passionate by Beethoven, and the music supervisor found something just right.

MaxTheTrax: It certainly was. I was quite interested to find the name of the piec, and fortunately for me there was some internet chatter about it: “Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor.” Made me swoon! Seemed to have a more mild affect on Albert, judging by his comment about her making “fewer mistakes” in her playing since they last met.

Author and screenwriter Daisy Goodwin.

Author, screenwriter and producer Daisy Goodwin brings historical characters to vivid life in Victoria

Daisy Goodwin: I think music is so important to the feel of the show.  I almost fainted with pleasure when I wrote the scene where Victoria and Albert play a duet.  In a world where all physical contact was prohibited, the excitement of sitting next to someone on a piano stool an playing sublime music together must have been intense.  I think it is a whole method of courtship that sadly we don’t experience any more.  Playing a duet with someone is a very intimate thing.

MaxTheTrax: The original music is extremely beautiful and affecting, but the scenes in which the characters actually play take on an interesting twist. It’s never a careless gesture, as one might find in a Jane Austen adaptation, for instance. The act of playing and coming together over music definitely heightens the action, both literally and as a metaphorical device. Like when Victoria complains to her uncle Leopold that Albert is rude: “Last night he played my keyboard as if he owned it!”

Daisy Goodwin: Albert and his brother Erst both played the piano. They also composed music, and we have included some of their music in season two.  It was quite a dilemma for me what sort of music should be on the soundtrack.  I loved the music for War and Peace that Martin Phipps did, but when he first came in with his musical mood board for Victoria I felt it all sounded too modern. Then he played me a bit of the Hallelujah theme and the hair on my arms went up.  It was stirring and distinctive and I knew it was an ear worm.  Martin and his fellow composer Ruth Barrett have done a wonderful job with the show, the music really lifts it into a different class.

MaxTheTrax: I agree, their work is outstanding. I find myself listening to that soundtrack quite often. It works beautifully for the show, but also stands on its own. It’s quite original in that it does have a period feel, but with an inventiveness that make it feel a bit modern. Do you have a favorite piece of classical music that you felt you must write in to season two?

Daisy Goodwin: The first piece I learnt to play was a Chopin nocturne. I was determined to work that into series two, and I can reveal to you that I have.

MaxTheTrax: The very lovely keyboards strategically placed throughout the palace all look very authentic. Were they difficult to find?

Daisy Goodwin: I believe that we have tried to be as authentic as possible.  One of the pianos is so expensive to our set decorator that I think we might have bought it by now.

MaxTheTrax: What kind of music do you listen to for pleasure when you’re not working?

Daisy Goodwin: Everything from Scarlatti to Cesaria Evora. At the moment I am listening to a lot of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the film composer (The Theory of Everything, Arrival).  I find his music very interesting.

MaxTheTrax: There are reports out there of  you teasing a very festive Victoria Christmas special, leveraging off of Albert’s special love of the holiday. The musical possibilities are quite intriguing, in terms of the original score and things they might perform. Any other curtain raisers you’d care to tease for us?

Daisy Goodwin: Well you will definitely be seeing Ernst at the piano, and Victoria and Albert.  I might be working in a personal appearance by a very famous nineteenth century composer.

MaxTheTrax: I can’t wait!

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