Jane Austen’s Musical World

by , under Music history

Jane Austen, by James Andrews“Aunt Jane began her day with music – for which I conclude she had a natural taste; … She practised regularly every morning – She played very pretty tunes, I thought … 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.”
– From the memoirs of Jane Austen’s niece Caroline, 1867

Music, and the piano in particular, were at the heart of Jane Austen’s everyday life. At the time, it was common for women to receive a musical education and playing or singing were seen as talents which could modestly be displayed in public. Men usually seem to have taken a back seat when it came to private musical performance, choosing instead to watch and hear the women of their acquaintance.

In Mansfield Park, for example, Mary Crawford ‘tripped off to the instrument, leaving Edmund looking after her in an ecstasy of admiration of all her many virtues.’ In Pride and Prejudice, Austen reveals the complex associations of piano playing by comparing Elizabeth’s performance to her sister Mary’s:

Jane Austen's home in Chawton

“Her performance was pleasing, though by no means capital. After a song or two, and before she could reply to the entreaties of several that she would sing again, she was eagerly succeeded at the instrument by her sister Mary, who having, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, was always impatient for display.

Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well.”

For Austen herself, however, music was not merely a form of entertainment but a way of life. The Jane Austen Memorial Trust holds eight volumes of music at her house in Chawton. Three books are entirely in manuscript – hand written, on pre-ruled music paper bought from London dealers. The second two of these three are mainly in the hand of Jane Austen herself.

Excerpt from Sonata No. 2 by Johann Sterkel

The musical content of these volumes is varied. Songs, keyboard works (both solo and duet) and chamber music from the core of the collection and a drawn from a variety of sources. The contents are typical of domestic music-making of the period – and consequently include hardly any music by composers famous today.

In Jane Austen’s day, Pleyel and Sterkel were more famous than Haydn and Mozart, their music often more accessible via successful printing and distribution businesses than those of their more talented colleagues with their high-powered court appointments and operatic commissions.

Excerpt from Sonatina No. 1 by Ignaz Pleyel

In Jane Austen’s novels, the finest musicians are those with a real musicality and love of music, not those who have merely learned a good technique. However, she also frequently uses music as a metaphor to provide lessons. In Pride and Prejudice, we learn that Elizabeth naturally plays well, but we also learn that she would play really well if she were to apply herself:

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

Listen to more of Jane Austen’s musical world in Jane Austen Entertains and Jane Austen Piano Favourites.