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by Philip Scowcroft

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was fond of music and we should not be surprised to see it cropping up at intervals during her six completed novels. At the time she was writing, music continued to be, as it had been for centuries, a pastime of the leisured classes, while public concerts, a feature of the London scene for a century, were spreading steadily outwards into the provinces.

These developments are reflected in the novels. In Persuasion Anne Elliot, in Bath, looks forward to a concert "for the benefit of a person patronised by Lady Dalrymple. Of course they must attend."

Anne duly does attend the concert with her sister and "had never liked a concert better." The first half (or "Act") includes an Italian song whose words she explains to her companion

In Sense and Sensibility we see disappointingly little of London's concert life perhaps because of Marianne Dashwood's indisposition brought on by Willoughby's rejection of her. Marianne and her unmusical sister Elinor do however go to a musical soirée whose party. "comprehended to a great many people who had real taste for the performance and a great many more who had none at all."

In Emma Mrs Elton proposes to Emma Woodhouse that they form a musical club in the Surrey village of "Highbury", a suggestion which is coldly received - such a club would probably not have promoted public concerts, however.

Dances and, to a much lesser extent, the theatre loom large in Austen's novels; music was an essential element of the former (Austen herself practised playing country dances for the entertainment of her nephews and nieces, rather as Anne Elliot does for the Musgrave girls to dance to and was at that time a normal ancillary of the latter even when specifically musical shows were not on the bill.

A considerable number of Austen's characters are musicians, whether sympathetic ones like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Fairfax, Georgiana Darcy, Anne Elliot, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse, or less attractive characters such as Augusta Elton who is dotingly fond, passionately fond of music" and Mary Crawford. In Austen's pages most of the musicians are women rather than men, though Frank Churchill in Emma and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility both profess to enjoy music (Willoughby sings duets with Marianne Dashwood) and many of Austen's men are fond of and adept at dancing. Not all her women are musical, however. Elinor Dashwood's talents are artistic, not musical, Fanny Price can neither play nor sing while for the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, "the day which dismissed the music master was one of the happiest of (her) life." (She was nine.) All three ladies we are assured however are good listeners.

Practice makes perfect, Austen implies. She herself had lessons until she was 21, studying with George Chard, later Dr Chard and Organist of Winchester Cathedral, and she practised hard thereafter, usually before breakfast so as not to disturb the unmusical ones in the household. Thus in Austen's best known book Mary Bennet is a superior player to her sister Elizabeth whose performance is "pleasing though by no means capital" even though the former has "neither genius nor taste" and her playing has "a pedantic air and conceited manner". In the same way Jane Fairfax's performance is "very superior" to that of Emma Woodhouse, whether on the piano or vocally. Georgiana Darcy practises "very constantly", so her brother assures us.

The instrument usually featured in Austen's novels is the piano which had only relatively recently supplanted the harpsichord in English drawing rooms. Broadwood pianos were fashionable and it is a Broadwood which arrives so mysteriously at Mrs Bates' house for Jane Fairfax to play "... a very elegant looking instrument ... a large sized square pianoforte." Marianne Dashwood takes her pianoforte with her when the family has to move to a small cottage in Devon and as her sister Elinor remarks later on "she can never keep long from that instrument"

She even plays the piano in London when she is in low spirits and poor health after having been jilted by Willoughby. A few ladies like Georgiana Darcy and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, even perhaps the Musgrave girls in Persuasion as they certainly have access to one, play the harp which, possibly an account of its slightly exotic qualities (Fanny Price avers that she "had never played the harp at all") apparently gives them "added status" at least in Austen's eyes. In Emma Mrs Elton thinks that Jane Fairfax with her outstanding musicianship, might have the pick of governess's positions "even without the harp" which she does not play. The unfinished fragment Sanditon contains several references to the harp.

Some of the essential philistinism in appreciating music, which is often said to be endemic (and perennially so) in the English leisured classes, emerges expressed in the gentle irony for which Austen is noted. Elizabeth Bennet performs for Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who boasts of her enjoyment of music and her natural taste but who then proceeds to scarcely listen to Elizabeth at all.

In Sense and Sensibility Sir John Middleton is "loud in his admiration at the end of every song and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted." Lady Middleton had celebrated her marriage "by giving up music, although by her mother's account she had played extremely well and by her own was very fond of it."

One suspects that twenty years after her marriage to George Knightley the same might be said of Emma Woodhouse, if we only knew.

Other exponents however were more keen. As Mary Crawford says, "I dearly love music myself and where the natural taste is equal the player must always be best off for she is gratified in more ways than one." Anne Elliot the heroine of Persuasion is a good pianist and plays for her own pleasure, but "having no voice, no knowledge of the harp and no fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of."

What of the repertoire of all of these amateur musicians? Jane Austen's own collection, songs and piano pieces, copied by herself in manuscript into specially bound albums, included songs by Handel and Haydn and by English composers of the day, like Dibdin, Samuel Webbe the younger and Shield, plus folk songs popular ballads and comic songs, Italian songs, French songs and operatic selections, also instrumental pieces by Corelli, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Pleyel, Cramer and John Christian Bach. Austen's fictional lady musicians have similar tastes to their creator. Italian songs were still popular as they had been for much of the 18th century. On one occasion Jane Fairfax sings some of them; the uneducated Harriet Smith does not approve saying "I hate Italian singing; there is no understanding a word of it." Miss Bingley, too, essays Italian songs and she also performs "a lively Scottish air".

"Scotch" and Irish airs were very popular at that time (Haydn and Beethoven, among others were commissioned to make arrangements of them) and we see Mary Bennett playing a selection of some of them.

Jane Fairfax plays Robin Adair; the music sent with her Broadwood piano includes a "new set of Irish melodies." I can recall only one composer's name being mentioned in the whole of the Austen canon: the English-domiciled Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858) some of whose music, possibly a book containing a selection of his 84 Studies, published in 1804-10, was owned by Jane Fairfax. though he composed 124 Sonatas as well. The prolific Cramer's music was popular in Austen's day and at times it foreshadows Schumann.

Music is thus a recurring thread in Austen's novels. For her it is an important social function and her allusions to it shed light on contemporary attitudes to it and on contemporary taste, even if we may sometimes wish that she had been more like her successor as a great English novelist, Thomas Hardy, in making those allusions more specific and more detailed.


see also

The Jane Austen Collection
Concert Royal.
Margarette Ashton (soprano); Peter Harrison (flute);
Rachel Gray (violoncello); John Treherne (square piano).
Recorded Westfield Farm, Sheriff Hutton, North Yorkshire. Oct 1999 and February 2000 DDD
Divine Art Ltd. 2 -4107 [47.46]
































































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