Music is everywhere and nowhere in Jane Austen’s fiction. Everywhere, in that pivotal scenes in every novel unfurl to the sound of music; nowhere, in that she almost never specifies exactly what music is being performed.
For film adaptations this absence of detail can be a source of welcome freedoms, since the imaginative gap can be variously filled by choosing more or less appropriate historical repertoire or by commissioning a new score, depending on the desired tone and effect of the scene. For cultural historians of music and literature, however, it can be a stumbling block in understanding both how music fed Austen’s creative imagination and how her novels illuminate the musical culture of her day.
It can be tempting to make connections to famous composers roughly contemporary with Austen. This usually means the ‘greats’ of late 18th- and early 19th-century Vienna: composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, whose music is most familiar to classical music audiences today. Studies that draw comparisons between Austen’s fiction and Viennese instrumental music rest on the (usually unstated) assumption that music we now consider great encapsulates its own era in some way that can be related to Austen’s achievement. There is no attempt to establish a historical context in which Austen herself may have known this music or become familiar with its strategies. Thus while such comparisons may generate new readings of her work for those willing to accept the somewhat problematic aesthetics of the point of departure, they provide little insight on Austen’s own musical experience or its relation to her writing. And they are no help at all in understanding the English music culture of her time, the environment her own readers would have understood as the frame of reference for musical scenes in her fiction.
Austen’s family music books furnish a snapshot of at least some of the music Austen knew and performed. The books, held by Jane Austen’s House Museum and private owners descended from the Austen family, are now freely available online as digital facsimiles. Just under half of the surviving volumes belonged to Austen herself, and she certainly knew the books owned by other members of her family. In total, the 18 books include just over six hundred pieces of music, mainly for voice, keyboard and harp, all of it suitable for domestic performance by skilled amateur musicians.
It is immediately striking how little the repertory overlaps with textbook music-historical accounts of the late 18th and early 19th-centuries. Comic and sentimental songs by English theatrical musicians such as Shield, Hook, and Dibdin and piano works by London School composers such as Clementi, Dussek, and Cramer appear alongside French overtures and romances arranged for harp and duets from Italian operas. Viennese music is certainly there—particularly represented by Haydn, though there is a little Mozart too—but often in very unfamiliar forms. For example, Jane Austen copied the immensely popular song ‘William’ into her manuscript songbook, which she probably began in the mid-1790s. This turns out to be an arrangement of the first movement of Haydn’s piano sonata in C major, Hob. XVI/35, transposed to F major and with English words added. She also made a copy of the sonata itself in another manuscript: I wonder if learning the song first—it is the earlier manuscript—was her introduction to the piece.
In a few cases, later family memoirs mention specific pieces that Austen performed. For example, Austen’s niece remembered her singing a setting of Burns’s poem ‘Their groves o’ sweet myrtle’ during the years Austen was drafting Sanditon, with its extended comparison of Burns and Walter Scott. The family music books not only identify which of the many settings of this poem Austen sang, but also show her intervening in the song text in fascinating ways. Austen herself names only one composer in her novels—Cramer—and specifies only a single piece—the traditional Irish song ‘Robin Adair’. Both appear in a single scene in Emma, published in 1816 (and enjoying its bicentenary this year). The text of ‘Robin Adair’ was reputed to be by Lady Caroline Keppel, written while separated from her beloved after her parents forbade their marriage. The song’s theme of parted lovers has been seen as an important musical clue to the real state of affairs between Jane Fairfax and her secret fiancé Frank Churchill in Emma.
Here the music books suggest that what Jane Fairfax plays on the new Broadwood piano may be a set of variations on ‘Robin Adair’ by George Kiallmark (1781-1835), a colleague of Austen’s piano teacher and a frequent visitor to Hampshire during Austen’s lifetime. Kiallmark’s variations appear in the Austen music books in a binder’s volume of items that originally belonged to several different family members, and the copy may well have been Austen’s own. Like most variation sets, this one rings increasingly complex changes on its song model, while never completely losing track of the melody at its heart.
Sound file credit: George Kiallmark, ‘Robin Adair’, David Owen Norris, piano. From Entertaining Miss Austen: Newly Discovered Music from Jane Austen’s Family Collection (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7271, 2011). Used with permission.
My favourite scene in the 2008 ITV television series Lost in Austen is when the hapless 21st-century visitor, Amanda Price, is asked by characters from Pride and Prejudice to provide musical entertainment. Her desperate choice of a song from her own childhood—Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’—and her audience’s subsequent confusion use the incompatibility between 19th- and 21st-century musical knowledge and expectations to produce comic gold. It’s an amusing moment but also a reminder that however well we think we know Jane Austen, there are parts of her world that can still surprise.
Featured image credit: Mansfield Park, ch 11. Tout le monde est gaiement réuni autour de Mary, au piano, pour chanter un glee, sauf Fanny et Edward. Illustration by Hugh Thomson. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.