History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 June 2010

Jane Austen's Ipod

Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.

Jane Austen's Ipod is the title of a radio program on Austen and her music that's currently available on the BBC site (but not for long, probably only until the end of the week, so get there soon!).

Several more volumes of Austen's music have been donated by a descendant (who remembers seeing the volumes on the family piano) in addition to the eight already owned by the Jane Austen Museum, Chawton Cottage, Hampshire, where the BBC discussion was recorded, creaky floors and all, with scholars Deirdre La Faye and Samantha Carrasco, and the music interpreted by jazz singer Gwyneth Herbert and a very skilled clarinettist.

The piano in the recording is the one in the Museum, which may or may not have been Austen's, a Clementi dating from the first decade of the nineteenth century. We know from her letters that she paid 30 gns for her piano (approx. $3,000 now) and six shillings for a book of piano lessons (approx. $31). Because of the high cost of sheet music, it was common to copy music borrowed from friends or libraries, which Jane did in her meticulous, careful handwriting.

There's one mystery item in the new acquisitions: an anonymous and not particularly good piece of music that the participants speculate may have been written by Jane herself. I don't think so. I believe she was enough of a musician to know her limitations, and it's quite possible a friend or relative composed it and Jane, impeccably polite as ever, felt compelled to copy it for her album with the proud composer breathing down her neck. On the other hand there are plenty of musicians--Berlioz, for instance--who were as at home in the composition of prose as of music.

We have a record of Jane as musician written by her niece Caroline years later in 1867. The quote at the beginning of this entry is also from Caroline's Memoir:
Aunt Jane began her day with music – for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up – 'tho she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose that she might not trouble them, she chose her practising time before breakfast – when she could have the room to herself – She practised regularly every morning – She played very pretty tunes, I thought – and I liked to stand by her and listen to them; but the music (for I knew the books well in after years) would now be thought disgracefully easy – Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.
Can you see Austen as composer as well as performer?

I'm going to England on a short visit in early July and planning to visit both the Museum and Chawton House, the manor house that was owned by Jane's brother Edward Austen Knight, who was adopted by the Knight family. It's been restored and houses a major collection of women's writing in English from 1600-1830. So I'll report on that next month.

Have you visited either? What's your favorite Austen site (internet or real life)?

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Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, Janet. I'm green with envy. I have not been to either place, but was lucky enough to visit Fenton House in London on a day when the wonderful piano forte collection was being played by music students. It was amazing to wander about and hear those instruments being USED! The sound is simply unique. Very much like a modern piano, but not quite . . .

7:59 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I went to the museum about 15 years ago when the future of Chawton House was very uncertain, even tho its association with the Austen family was known. It took a private buyer to restore it and put it to such good use, so I'm thrilled to finally see it.

I love the sound of early pianos. Hearing familiar works from the period, like Beethoven's sonatas, can be quite a revelation.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

How I envy you, Janet! Thanks for the heads up on the radio program. I'll definitely hurry over to give it a listen. I think all musicians with a real love for the art might try their hand at composition. And as much of Jane's prose as a very lyrical rhythm I would not be surprised to find her quite competent at it.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh this is terrific, Janet. Thanks so much. Hurrying over. And so envious re visit to Chawton House.

6:56 AM  

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