MUSIC AND JANE AUSTEN
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.
P L SCOWCROFT
Jane Austen Collection
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
Art Ltd. 2 -4107 [47.46]