For Jane Austen fans, few pieces of music are as instantly recognizable as the Mozart-esque piano concerto that accompanies the credit sequence and recurs from time to time throughout the BBC’s beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The opening bars are basically the Janeite equivalent of Proust's madeleine.
So I was sad to learn of the death last week, at 86, of Carl Davis, the American-born composer responsible for that instantly recognizable melody, which perfectly captures the mood of the adaptation—joyful yet restrained, romantic but un-sappy, and true to the period and spirit of Austen’s original. (Want a refreshing pick-me-up? Listen to it here.)
Davis, I learned from last week’s obituaries, was born into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn and was a precocious musical achiever: “By the age of two he was playing the piano; at seven he could sight-read; and at eight he was standing outside the Metropolitan Opera giving impromptu lectures on the operas that were being performed inside,” the Telegraph reported.
Davis studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and scored off-Broadway shows, but in his mid-twenties he moved to London and never looked back. His long and prolific career encompassed a wide range of work—among other achievements, he scored silent films; wrote the music for the famous 1973-4 British TV documentary series The World at War; won a BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Oscar, for the score of the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant's Woman; founded his own London-based record label; and collaborated with Paul McCartney on the Liverpool Oratorio, the former Beatle’s 1991 foray into classical music. Davis kept working almost up until his death, creating, according to the Guardian, four full-length dance pieces in the last seven years, including one that premiered in May.
It's an impressive and enduring life’s work. But if you don’t have time to watch all twenty-six episodes of The World at War, let me recommend three and half delightful minutes. Go on: Listen to it again.