The Pianoforte in Jane Austen’s world

Pride and Prejudice is celebrating it’s bicentenary this year and BBC Radio 4 are marking the occasion with scheduled programmes every day this week. I confess I’m addicted to Jane Austen. Her wonderful novels formed the basis of the 3000 word course-work essay I completed as part of my English A Level. The serene world she wrote about, so far removed from that which we inhabit today, exudes a refined polite demeanor. Those who are familiar with Austen’s succinct, beautifully understated, satirical style will be aware of the importance of the piano (or pianoforte as it was known) throughout all her major novels.

Austen was a keen pianist as were the majority of her heroines, who played to various standards. All accomplished young ladies were expected to play the piano (which was a relatively new invention at that time) as a matter of course, so Jane was no exception. She apparently practised every day after breakfast and was quite specific about the music she enjoyed working on as we can glean from her niece’s memoir:

Aunt Jane began her day with music – for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up – ‘tho she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose that she might not trouble them, she chose her practising time before breakfast – when she could have the room to herself – She practised regularly every morning – She played very pretty tunes, I thought – and I liked to stand by her and listen to them; but the music (for I knew the books well in after years) would now be thought disgracefully easy – Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print. (extract from My Aunt Jane, a Memoir – 1867 by Caroline Austen: Jane Austen Society 1952).

Jane was apparently introduced to the piano aged nine whilst she attended the Abbey School in Reading in 1785. The Austen’s appear to have borrowed a piano and it was during this period that Jane compiled several volumes of music. An instrument was eventually purchsed and she studied the piano with Dr George Chard, assistant organist of Winchester Cathedral. Jane had access to a piano most of her adult life and when she did not, her writing appears to have suffered demonstrating just how important music was for her. At Chawton, the house where she lived in Hampshire, Jane owned a Stodart Square piano.

Dances and salon piano pieces abounded in the Austen music collections written by composers who are virtually unknown today: Shield, Pleyel, Dibdin, Piccini, Sterkel, Kotzwara, and Eichner. Domestic music making was apparently drawn from theatre music of the time and composers like George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) and Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) became popular because adaptations of their works were regular inclusions in various music collections. Austen mentions composer and pianist Johann Baptiste Cramer (1771-1858) in her novel, Emma, and it’s thought she often played his works. Songs were another constant in Jane’s repertoire and she seems to have copied them out carefully into one of her two manuscript music albums. Song composers included Thomas Cooke (1782-1848),  James Hook (1746-1827), Tommaso Giordani (1730-1806), Stephen Storace (1762-1796) and Harriet Abrams (1758-1821).

The style of these little known composers is significantly reminiscent of the whole Jane Austen era; elegant, melodious, fairly simple harmonically yet effectively crafted. The music fits perfectly with the distant but completely captivating world inhabited by the autor and her fascinating heroines.

A square Clementi piano believed to be similar to the one owned by Jane Austen; Photo courtesy of (kleurrijkjaneausten.blogspot.co.uk).

You can find more information about Jane Austen’s music here.

www.janeausten.co.uk

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and useful information, here.

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