Jane Austen's music collection

Jane Austen liked to play the pianoforte often daily. An article sharing the music Miss Austen liked for senior couples and mature solo travelers interested in the literary and musical heritage of England from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan.

1 Nov 21 · 6 mins read

“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.”

—Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir, 1867

Music was integral to the life of Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen enjoyed music. Music was an integral aspect of her life. Like many of her characters she played the pianoforte and her letters contain enthusiastic accounts of attending performances. She played the piano every day, compiled her own albums of sheet music, and danced when others played. Music plays an important role in her novels and movie adaptations of her books. An 1811 letter about a soirée at her brother, Henry’s home states:

Above 80 people are invited for next Tuesday evening, and there is to be some very good music — five professionals, three of them glee singers, besides amateurs. Fanny will listen to this. One of the hirelings is a Capital on the harp, from which I expect great pleasure.”

Music was the elixir for social contact between genders

In the social and political history of England, the period between 1714 and 1830 is often called the Georgian Era. It is because these years mark the reign of King George I, followed by King George II, III and IV. The Georgian Era was a time period of great social gap between the wealthy and the poor. As a result of this, social behaviour and approval were some of the major areas that the people of this time concentrated on. This resulted in a long list of norms of social etiquettes that people used to follow at that time, which was taken very seriously by everyone in society.

There were highly complex rules for social interaction between men and women, but all women were expected to marry and marry young, but interaction between men and women during these times was very constrained. House parties, salons and balls were therefore an important part of the social culture as these were the only places where men and women could pursue each other in a romantic manner. Even these events were closely monitored and it was still important to follow the norms of behaviour for both genders.

The common factor to all these social contacts was music. Most young women were expected to play a musical instrument to entertain house guests. Salons were where more acknowledged musicians performed and Balls mostly required a group of musicians.

From her biographer, and niece Caroline Austen, we know about the music that Jane Austen played and liked. Her stories of family news and memories show how Jane Austen’s life had a rich background of domestic music-making. She listened to her cousins play, danced to the music from her sisters and sisters-in-law, played for her own satisfaction and for her nieces and nephews. The theme of vying for attention of possible suitors is common in all her novels. Think of Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, Miss Jane Fairfax and the pianoforte in Emma.

Library, Jane Austen books

One has only to watch the numerous films and television shows based on Austen’s six published novels, and one unfinished, to see the key role that music played in the lives of her characters and the people of the Georgian time.

Jane Austen’s collection of music

There were 18 music albums that belonged to Jane Austen and her female relations. Like many similar collections, this is an intriguing collection including compilations of printed sheet music, manuscript albums copied into pre-ruled music books, compilations of separately copied manuscripts and scrapbooks mixing print and manuscript items. At least seven women in the extended Austen family copied or collected music into the 18 albums. Jane Austen was responsible for a large portion. Often a collection was started by one woman then added to by another. As a set, they are a rich illustration of domestic music-making.

The collection was held together in the Knight family (descendants and owners of Chawton House) library until the middle of the last century, when was broken up, with eight books thought to be most closely associated with the author herself donated to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, and the remainder split between descendants of the family.

Jane Austen House Museum

However, the remaining books are now held at Chawton House Library, permitting an extended comparison with the better-known set conserved by the Trust. These volumes prove to be equally important for Austen studies: it is in these newly-available albums that we find all three of the songs Jane Austen’s niece Caroline remembers her aunt singing to her as a child. The arrival of the remaining albums at Chawton House has been an essential step in launching a major study of the entire collection by a research group based at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with colleagues at the Jane Austen House and Museum and Chawton House Library. These volumes are fascinating not only for the insights they furnish into the life and work of a major author. They also provide an intriguing glimpse into the world of domestic music-making of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and to the family and social relationships that musical training and performance reflected and fostered.

In 2005, Ian Gammie and Dr Derek McCulloch published a catalogue entitled Jane Austen’s Music. It was the first complete appraisal of the eight books of music at the Chawton House Library, which had, in the words of the authors, “never before been fully catalogued and on closer inspection proved to have 300 musical items.” This collection has become a valuable resource to scholars and musicians.

In 2016 Suzanne Guldimann published a wonderful collection of pieces arranged for the Celtic harp: a collection she imagined as the type of music that might be played at a country gathering like the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice. Music for the Netherfield Ball is a mix of popular music, folk songs, and composed works intended to entertain.

Guldimann’s Music for the Netherfield Ball contains 19 pieces and their provenance. They are magnificent to play and very well-researched.

Samples from the Jane Austen collection are:

  • Their Groves of Sweet Myrtle – Jane mentions Robert Burns in her unfinished novel, Sanditon. “Poor Burns’ known irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his lines. I have difficulty in depending on the truth of his feelings as a lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a man of his descriptions. He felt and he wrote and he forgot.” However, this song by Burns was reportedly one of her favourites and is copied out in her handwriting.
  • Roslin Castle appears in the second set of Scottish songs in the Austen family collection. The air, also known as “The House of Glamis” was popularized by James Oswald (1710-1769), official Chamber Composer for King George III. The tune is one of the melodies chosen by the composer, Joseph Haydn, for his English and Scottish Songs, Opus III. It is still played by bagpipers, fiddlers and harpers.
  • Fairy Dance is a well-travelled Scottish reel which remains a popular fiddle tune. It was attributed to Perthshire fiddler, Nathaniel Gow (1763-1831), fourth son of the legendary Scottish fiddler, Neil Gow. It has various names and is played in the Isle of Man, Wales, Ireland, England and the USA. Interestingly the version in the Austen family collection was arranged by Matthias Holst, the grandfather of composer Gustav Holst.
  • Robin Adair. Jane Fairfax plays Robin Adair on the pianoforte that arrives as an anonymous gift and is the cause of much strife in Emma. It is the only song mentioned by name in any of her novels. It is highly likely this tune was written for harp.
  • Que j’aime à voir les hirondelles. Jane Austen’s niece and biographer, Caroline Austen, recalled this as one of her aunt’s favourites, and the version in the Austen family collection is in Jane’s handwriting. The tune is traditional.
  • Lochaber No More. The lyrics to this beautiful air were written by Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758). The tune is attributed to the Irish harper and composer, Thomas O’Connellan (1640-1698). This is still a well-known bagpipe tune.
  • My Lodging is on the Cold Ground. Irish poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), borrowed this traditional Scottish tune for the setting of his Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms, but long before Moore, the lyrics were written by Matthew Locke (1621-1677). The tune is instantly recognisable today.

While some scholars seem to enjoy dismissing Austen’s music as popular or even simplistic, the fact that so much of it, especially the Scottish and Irish traditional music, remains familiar, much loved, and still performed says far more about the enduring popularity of this music. Like Austen’s novels, the music that she played and loved speaks to us across time.

Travellers who enjoy Jane Austen’s world and writings can join the 20 day Odyssey Traveller tour, Art and Literature of England.

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