Screen Grab: The music of Marriage – new BBC drama brings composer Caroline Shaw to the fore

This week the BBC have started showing the intriguing drama Marriage, which has superstar quality from its two lead characters, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker.

The series has split opinion in its accurate portrayal of every life in a marriage lasting 27 years – largely played out in real time. As the series has developed the many subtleties have combined to a plot that is gathering substance and meaning as time goes on, rather like life itself.

One of the most striking elements of the drama is its bold choice of signature tune, which again has divided opinion sharply. The chosen music is by composer Caroline Shaw (above) – the first couple of minutes of her Partita for unaccompanied choir, specifically the first movement Allemande.

Initially the voices sound like an extra part of Marriage, especially as the plot continues to play out, but as the voices come together in a firm pitch so too do the images, and the end credits roll.

You can listen to the full movement, which lasts six minutes, below – and enjoy Shaw’s wonderful layering of the voices, with spicy harmonic clashes and some vibrant writing for the small choir:

The Partita continues with three further movements, each based on an old dance form. The Sarabande is initially soothing and enchanting, before really letting rip with primal power halfway through. The Courante, the most substantial of the four movements, has a number of hypnotic effects and fresh faced harmonies, especially halfway through as it soars to unexpected heights.

Finally the Passacaglia has a lilting base to its music, and a spoken word commentary resumes as it did at the start of the piece, before the voices end powerfully in unison.

Here is a live performance, given by the dedicatees Roomful of Teeth – with whom the composer sings:

Aside from this high profile appearance, Shaw has been making quite a name for herself in recent years. In 2021, Nonesuch released the album Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, written and performed with Sō Percussion:

Meanwhile the choral piece And the Swallow lingers particularly long in the memory:

You can discover more of Caroline’s music at her website

Radio 2 Piano Room – a ray of light for February

Written by Ben Hogwood

This is not an advert…but it is a post urging you to listen to some of the sessions in BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room series of concerts if you haven’t already.

Over the last month on Radio 2’s weekday Ken Bruce show, a different act each day has delivered three songs from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. While the title implies the act will be alone at the piano, the reality is that two of their songs are recast by the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of expert arrangers. For a bonus the chosen soloist(s) will cover a song of their choice.

The results, quite frankly, have been unexpectedly good and occasionally spectacular. Performers that you might think of as day to day radio fodder have reinvented their songs in this environment. David Gray, for instance, a fine songwriter who arguably suffers from overexposure of his most familiar songs, was transformed. Please Forgive Me (a brilliant arrangement by Tim Bradshaw), This Year’s Love and a cover of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer took on a life of their own in the Piano Room’s first instalment, setting the tone for what followed.

Over the weeks there have been some deeply impressive sessions from newer artists who have raised their game. Radio staples such as Anne-Marie, Ella Henderson and Clean Bandit delivered heartfelt sessions, where every breath could be heard and felt on the airwaves, the musical equivalent to an actor appearing on the West End stage. Anne-Marie in particular deserves great credit for elevating Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits to another level entirely.

The real stars, dare I say it, have been the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of arrangers. They have delivered consistently strong and sensitive versions of these songs, lovingly crafted and gaining new qualities through the exquisite string and woodwind writing. Although they have a full orchestra at their disposal the arrangers have never overused them, always keeping the vocalists at the front.

My personal favourites in this month have been David Gray, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Jamie Cullum and – unexpectedly – Natalie Imbruglia, who sang a beautifully arranged version of Torn that really cut to the heart.

There are however still a couple of sessions I have yet to hear – and if they reach the same standard as those listed then we are in for a treat.

Take my advice, then, and head for the iPlayer or BBC Sounds, where no less than 60 freshly minted songs await. You will not be disappointed. Now, which other world broadcaster could possibly offer this?