Clef Notes

Bridging the Worlds of Classical and Pop on “Bridgerton”


Hannah Dodd as Francesca Bridgerton in Season 3 of "Bridgerton." LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

The hit Netflix series Bridgerton shattered streaming records when it debuted in December 2020. This month sees the release of its highly anticipated third season, with four episodes released on May 16 and another batch released on June 13. The Regency Era romantic drama from executive producer Shonda Rhimes based on best-selling books by Julia Quinn has made headlines with its sumptuous costumes and sets, racially diverse cast, binge-worthy plot, and bodice-ripping content. Another key to the series’ success is the whimsical juxtaposition of old and new, particularly in the soundtrack. While some purists may take umbrage with the anachronisms, Bridgerton has shaken up the period drama genre and broadened its appeal to younger and more diverse audiences.

Just as enigmatic as the identity of scandal sheet author Lady Whistledown is the show’s music. Notably, Bridgerton features covers of contemporary pop songs by the Vitamin String Quartet (VSQ) alongside composer Kris Bowers’s original orchestral soundtrack. At first, you might not even recognize the pop covers. But eventually, you realize that the baroque-imitation orchestral music has given way to Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” scored for strings. These songs, once identified, often add another layer to the onscreen action, expressing that which the strait-laced members of the ton cannot. For instance, “thank u, next” plays while Anthony Bridgerton rejects inadequate suitors for his younger sister Daphne at a society ball.

For viewers who do not usually listen to classical music, hearing something they recognize played by a string quartet can come as a delightful surprise, shattering false assumptions about who classical music is for and what classical instruments can do. In an interview with WQXR’s Heather O’Donovan, VSQ violinist Leah Zeger said, “People flip out when I play solo violin covers like Adele and whatever else is on the radio right now on a violin, I think, because it’s just amazing to come that close to a string instrument.”

VSQ’s Director of A&R James Curtiss added that he hopes the ensemble’s work in Bridgerton influences the next generation to pick up a string instrument: “If you can figure out a way to reach out to someone and say, ‘hey, the string instrument isn’t just for this type of person with this type of background with this type of knowledge,’ that’s another true form of success for VSQ.”

Showrunner Chris Van Dusen said that employing classical pop covers was a way to reflect the show’s fresh take on the period romance genre. “Whether it’s music or the world of the show, the scripts, the sets, the costumes; it all comes back to infusing things through our own unique modern lens and making things feel relatable to whoever’s watching,” Dusen told Oprah Magazine. VSQ and the producers also chose pop songs by mostly female artists like Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Madonna, and Rihanna to match the show’s female-centered storylines—another key element of the series’ success.

Bridgerton is certainly not the first piece of media to mix old and new in its soundtrack (see Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby in which music by rapper Jay-Z plays a prominent role.) But by using acoustic instruments that would have been heard in Georgian England, Bridgerton maintains the illusion of the period and captures the romance of the plot in a way that only classical instruments can. Whether it’s through exposure to film scores or something inherent in the sound of acoustic instruments, modern audiences have come to associate classical music with heightened emotions.

The show also adds a healthy dash of extant classical music, though not always entirely appropriate to the 1813 setting. For instance, when Anthony Bridgerton is bedding opera singer Siena Rosso in Season 1, we hear her sing the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s 1881 opera Les contes d’Hoffmann and “O quante volte” from Bellini’s 1830 opera I Capuleti e I Montecchi. More believable is the inclusion of “Grands dieux! Soyez-nous secourables” from Gluck’s 1778 opera Iphigénie en Tauride, which saw consistent performance in the 1810s. (See here to learn more about soprano Rowan Pierce, who provided the singing for actor Sabrina Bartlett.)

Of course, an accomplished young lady in search of an advantageous marriage must be proficient on the pianoforte. As such, Daphne can be heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 (“Waldstein”) and Bach’s Italian Concerto, both era-appropriate choices. Other classical music references include Mozart piano sonatas and Haydn string quartets, as well as Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2.

Bridgerton seems to have struck the right balance between old and new in its soundtrack, enchanting viewers from episode one. In the month immediately following the release of the first season, VSQ saw over 1 billion streams, 4 million downloads, and 1 million physical units sold. The popularity of the show’s music also spurred a surge in Bridgerton-themed playlists on Spotify and YouTube, as well as live concerts and Bridgerton experiences boasting pop covers in the same vein as the show. (You can even catch VSQ in concert at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet, IL, on October 22.) Not only does this give gigging musicians a lucrative income stream, but if hearing a string quartet live induces someone to buy a ticket to the symphony, this can only be a win for classical music. 

Season 3 promises more of the same magic musical formula, with covers of songs by Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Nick Jonas, Pitbull, Sia, and K-pop boyband BTS reportedly in the mix. We will keep our ears attuned for any other classical references as well, anachronistic or not. After all, dearest gentle reader, in the words of Lady Whistledown, “an appreciation of the arts is what lifts us beyond mere animals.”


Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

Clef Notes

Illinois Arts Council Agency

These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.