Jane Austen

Austen and music

I recently went on an online shopping spree with a gift certificate that included buying things I had not received for Christmas and, as is the way, things I didn’t know I wanted until I found them. Last night, while I was wondering what I’d blog about, I listened for the first time to this CD of soprano Julianne Baird and other artists singing music from Austen’s collection. Because sheet music was so expensive (we know she paid six shillings for a book of piano music), many of the pieces were copied by hand from music Austen borrowed from friends or circulating libraries. Her music books include instructions for playing or singing, and in one song, replaced the word soldier with that of sailor, reflecting her loyalty to the Royal Navy.

Baird has a wonderful intimacy to her delivery and the collection of music is extraordinary, including opera arias by Handel and Gluck, songs by Stephen Storace the London theater impresario, and a song arranged by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire to words by Sheridan. This isn’t the only collection from Austen’s music books–I was tempted by one recorded in Chawton Cottage, but according to one review, the sound quality is poor.

As we all know, music was an important part of a Regency lady’s life. Here are some instructions on drawing room performance from an 1813 fashion and how-to book for gentlewomen, Mirror of the Graces:

What has been said in behalf of simple and appropriate dancing, may also be whispered in the ear of the fair practitioner in music; and, by analogy, she may not unbeneficially, apply the suggestions to her own case.

There are many young women, who, when they sit down to the piano or the harp, or to sing, twist themselves into so many contort lions, and writhe their bodies and faces about into such actions and grimaces, as would almost incline one to believe that they are suffering under the torture of the toothach or the gout. Their bosoms heave, their shoulders sill-up, their heads swing to the right and left, their lips quiver, their eyes roll; they sigh, they pant, they seem ready to expire ! And what is all this about? They are merely playing a favourite concerto, or singing a new Italian song.

If it were possible for these conceit-intoxicated warblers, these languishing dolls, to guesa what rational spectators say of their follies they would be ready to break their instruments and be dumb forever. What they call expression in singing, at the rate they would show it, is only fit to be exhibited on the stage, when the character of the song intends to portray the utmost ecstacy of passion to a sighing swain. In short, such an echo to the words and music of a love ditty is very improper in any young woman who would wish to be thought as pure in heart as in person. If amatory addresses are to be sung, let the expression be in the voice and the composition of the air, not in the; looks and gestures of the lady singer. The utmost that she ought to allow herself to do, when thus breathing out the accents of love, is to wear a serious, tender countenance. More than this is bad, and may produce reflections in the minds of the hearers very inimical to the reputation of the fair warbler.

This is the piano in Chawton Cottage which probably wasn’t Austen’s. We do know that it’s a Clementi (the composer, in residence in London, had a piano and print music business) from the first decade of the nineteenth century. Occasionally musician visitors are allowed to play it. It’s a square piano, the instrument that became affordable to the middle classes and invited a whole slew of women to simulate orgasms in public. Which brings me to my next self-inflicted gift, Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and how they caused a Cultural Revolution by Madeline Goold. I started reading this last night, and it’s a wonderful account of how Ms. Goold bought a square piano, had it restored, and researched the history of the instrument. It was made by the Broadwood Company, which made pianos well into the 20th century, and whose records are still in existence. You can read more about the book, the restoration process and hear soundbites at mrlangshawssquarepiano.co.uk.

What Broadwood did was to produce a piano that was compact and affordable, with a base price of 24 guineas, that were shipped all over England and worldwide. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh invites Elizabeth to practice at Rosings, she refers her to the square piano in the housekeeper’s room, not the grand piano in the drawing room. Jane Fairfax’s piano is a square piano, according to Ms. Goold (aha! yet another excuse to re-read Emma) a dead giveaway that it was a gift from someone who knew the dimensions of the Bates’ parlor and not Colonel Campbell. Knightley still complains that it’s too big, though, which gives us a good impression of how low the Bates family had sunk.

Do you play the piano or would you like to learn? What sort of music do you like to listen to, if any, while you read or write?

And in other news, Improper Relations (February 2010) has its first review at Beyond Her Book:

What I continue to love about Janet Mullany’s books is how she manages to convincingly tell her story in first person from both her hero and her heroine’s perspective. The first person narrative gives an extremely refreshing take on the insanity which populates the plot; from the way her heroine observes the foibles of her own family, to the slowly beautiful dance it takes the hero to discover he’s in love. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

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Jane Austen
12 years ago

I fear I lack the talent or patience to play the piano or sing for that matter. I sing, but very ill indeed. Since I can’t draw or paint or cover screens I fear Miss Bingley would find me very unaccomplished. I do, however, rewrite songs which is perhaps my one great talent. I will share one with you:
(sung to the song Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend)
NOTE: It’s not perfect, but I think kind of funny.

The rich are glad to pay for art
Picasso and Matisse are shoo-ins
But I prefer to play in dirt
And find what others call ruins

Castles may be grand,
But they’re no daub and waddle
Cause ruins are a girl’s best friend
The buildings may be gone
But we’ve still got the model
On this hallowed ground
I wonder what’s underneath that mound?!

Girls grow old
And papers mold
But we’ll preserve the work in the end

Cause rusty or dusty
Or even musty
Ruins are a girl’s best friend

Frick! Morgan!
National Gallery
Buy it for me William Marshall
And send it to my home address!!

Dewey was a man
who like laws and order
But ruins are a girl’s best friend

France’s Napoleon
Was just a big hoarder
With the Rosetta Stone
Watch out Egypt wants it back on permanent loan!

Elgin’s your guy
With Turks on the sly
To England the Marbles he’ll send

But that dirty louse
He divorced his spouse
So ruins are a girl’s best friend

I’ve heard of collections
That are strictly for collectors
But ruins are a girl’s best friend
And I think in this belief
I would be a defector
Because I’d shed tears
If I couldn’t see Viking gold and Vermeers

Time rolls on
And the past is gone

But big debt
Or big fret
You’ll feel great at the Met

Cause ruins! Ruins!
I don’t mean diamonds!
Ruins are a girl’s best friend!!!

That’s really my only musical talent 🙂

When I’m fired up I love to listen to shit kicking bluegrass music and other times I’m a fan of folk or bluegrass, but sometimes I like to go crazy and listen to Tupac or Alkyline Trio. You never know what you’ll get when I’m around.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

JA–LOVE your rewrite! Very funny.

12 years ago

A year of lessons aged twelve, thankfully abandoned – and now I regret not learning. My three year old daughter produces quite tuneful noises though, so she’s up for lessons next!

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Oh, I think I’m going to have to buy that CD, Janet.

Jane Austen….thanks a lot. I’ve got “Ruins are a girl’s best friend” stuck in my head.

Never had music lessons. Always wanted to learn to play the piano.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

Okay Diane, for Riskies eyes only here are three songs I am working on that maybe will get Ruins out of your head:
o they are not finished, but here are some librarian/museum songs for you:

To the tune of Barely Breathing by Duncan Sheik

I’m in this storage room
which is mine to clear
hoping to find something to make my career
grad school had me going, reading bout big finds
I didn’t realize actual archiving would kick my behind
I believe in my profession, preserving the mundane
But it’s become of my existence the banal and the bane
There’s too much to examine, I’m going to go blind
You really can’t be serious if you have to ask me why
I won’t say good-bye
Cause I am barely breathing
And I can’t find the air
I just found a lock
Of Thomas Jefferson’s hair
I know that I could sell it
Post it on ebay
But I don’t suppose it’s worth the price, worth the price
The price that I would pay
(More to come)

To the tune of Somebody to Love by Queen
Everyday I MARC and I MARC and I MARC
but everybody wants me to MARC21
They say I’m goin’ crazy
They say I got a lot of Dewey in my brain
Got no Library of Congress
I got nothing to Dublin Core
Oh, Nancy!
Some books, some books
Can anybody find me books to catalog?
(More to come)

To the tune of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers
When I wake up, well I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the director to fundraise up the wazoo
When I schmooze, well I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the director to schmooze and schmooze and schmooze
If I get Trump drunk, well I know I’m gonna buy
I’m gonna buy Gainsborough’s little boy in blue
And if I keep it up, Yeah I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the director to never say adieu
If I could get 500 donors
And I could get 500 more
I could buy that Turner at off market price
And expand the second floor.
(More to come)

The third is my favorite.

Elena Greene
12 years ago

I love Jane’s Hand, Janet! I highly recommend it both as both research and pleasure.

I used to play piano but now I live vicariously through my daughters’ music (they play violin and piano). Sometime I will get back to it, though.

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

I just picked up that book on the “New Release” shelf at the library! Glad to hear it’s worth the read…

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Jane Austen, you do have a gift! a bizarre one, but a gift is a gift! Who knew you’d be the Weird Al Yankovich of the Library world!!

(seriously, I’m impressed!)

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