Jane Austen Program Notes

The Songs Of Jane Austen

Jane Austen's novels resonate with music, reverberate with detailed scenes of concerts, dances, and private performances. All but one of the tunes offered here are drawn from her own music books, eight of which are held at her last home, now the Austen Memorial Trust in Chawton, England. Although we have concentrated on vocal music, her works also contain many challenging instrumental pieces. Because of the expense and the difficulty in acquiring printed music, Austen lovingly, laboriously, and nearly impeccably copied and bound many of these works, having borrowed the printed versions from family, friends and circulating libraries; many contain her own suggestions for playing, and in one case she replaced the word "soldier" with that of "sailor", a profession that figured strongly in her life and novels. We do not know when she began her musical studies, but we do know that she studied with a well-respected organist and composer, William Chard, into her twenties, long after most women left off their studies, and that she continued to play daily long after she was too ill to write.

The popular "conduct books" of the 18th century England, like Thomas Gisborne's Enquiry in the Duties of the Female Sex, recommended that a young woman of gentry, as was Austen, pursue "ornamental acquisitions"; her study was to consist of such subjects as music, dance, drawing, Italian and French, subjects that would allow for "innocent and amusing occupations" for herself and her family, while making her more marketable for marriage. Austen knew her readers' familiarity with conduct books, thus allowing her to satirize the dominant views of women's education. Regrettably, many have continued to view domestic music, that is, women's music, as "an innocent diversion", culturally and historically trivial; the sheer categorization of music can exclude women by deeming vocal and piano as lesser genres than orchestral works. But Austen's musical selections mirror the broad influences, both European and British, that not only reflect 18th century culture but helped to formed it. The songs of Gluck, Handel and others presented here became the songs that the players and their families enjoyed. At home and in concert, this was the popular music of the late 1700's and early 1800's.

Coinciding with women's frequently forced music studies (owning an instrument and hiring a music master for your daughter indicated comfort in this class-conscious society) was the development of the fortepiano. By 1770 this instrument had nearly replaced the harpsichord, and although Austen carefully copied songs for the harpsichord, some of which we are including here, we are struck by the ubiquity of the fortepiano in the homes Austen describes in her novels and letters. Unlike the harpsichord, the fortepiano responded directly to the players touch, light or forceful, with pedals allowing the player control over sustaining or muting; these subtleties demanded more skill but resulted in far greater self-expression, a difference Austen exploits throughout her writings. Although never devaluing the utility or pleasure of playing for dances, for families or for friends, her writings made it clear that music had increased her own vocabulary, providing her with a deeper, at times metaphorical means of expressing herself. But she also knew and heard many poor, insensitive musicians: Mr. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice rightly ends the performance of his youngest daughter, Mary, "also impatient for display", with a sharp, "You have delighted us long enough". And to demonstrate just how uneducated and, consequently, limited is the unlikely heroine of her Gothic parody Northanger Abbey, Austen writes, "The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's life".

Each heroine of Austen's novels exhibits a clear musical or non-musical sense; the musical scenes enrich our understanding, and arouse our curiosity about Austen's own musical experiences, experiences she describes throughout her chatty--and sometimes catty--letters. She frequently attended private and public concerts. About a party in London at her brother's home, she writes: "(T)here is to be some very good music, 5 professionals, 3 of them glee singers, besides amateurs....I expect great pleasure." Several commentators have concluded, however, that Austen was ambivalent towards music. Anticipating a concert in honor of King George III's birthday, a concert including overtures by Pleyel and Handel, with Mr. Nimroide's "wonderful IMITATIONS of the BIRDS" and "god save the king in "Full Chorus," Austen wrote"...the Concert will have more than its usual charm with me, as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound." Ever the satirist, always gathering information for her novels, Austen clearly felt the experience would be worthwhile, even if much of the music was not. Perhaps because Austen was forced to live without an instrument for periods of her life, due to the family's removal to Bath, or to help a relative elsewhere, she criticized those who viewed the fortepiano as merely a stylish possession, another piece of furniture: "I was sorry to hear that she (her cousin, Anna Lefroy) is to have an instrument; it seems throwing money away. They will wish the 24gs. in the shape of sheets and towels six months hence; and as to her playing it can never be anything." Or; "We found only Mrs. Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring besides a grand fortepiano did not appear..."

No matter the tone, Austen's letters reveal her continuing interest and intimate knowledge of music as an artist and a woman. Within her novels, Austen's musicians must walk a fine line, keeping their musical integrity intact. Marianne's passionate, scintillating performance in Sense and Sensibility, for example, cannot deflect Austen's satire, because Marianne reveals only self-indulgence, not self-possession. The player should support rather than overpower the music or the audience, enjoying the freedom of expression while obeying the restraints of propriety; music provides an extension of the voice within an accepted form. By contriving that each player marry her most unbiased listener, Austen reveals a player-listener relationship that prefigures the balance the couple ultimately achieves in the conventional marriage ending of the novels. These are are women with something to say and men with desire to hear them.

With the exception of "Robin Adiar", played by Jane Fairfax in Emma, all music in Austen's novels remain unidentified, thus focusing our attention on the musician. In contrast, we are highlighting that Austen played and selected, the music that informed her writing. It's performance by today's finest 18th century specialists, is testimony to Austen's discriminating taste. The composers whose music Austen admired--Charles Dibdin, well represented in her books, Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, whose air accompanies the lyrics of the premier playwright, Richard B. Sheridan, and Stephen Storace, for example--were well-respected and rightfully so, but because not all composed for the orchestra, much of their work has been dismissed. We would do well to remember that the western canon, of literature or music, had yet to be etched in stone, that comic songs, opera arias, folk ballads and Haydn were frequently on the same program. We have tried to select material that would duplicate the kinds of vocal music with accompaniment heard on the very best of those evenings of music.

last updated February 24, 2002