Deborah Yaffe

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Austen's simple old songs

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2016 01:00PM

Like her characters Marianne Dashwood and Jane Fairfax, Jane Austen was, we are told, a committed amateur pianist.


“In her youth she had received some instruction on the pianoforte; and at Chawton she practised daily, chiefly before breakfast,” her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen. “In the evening she would sometimes sing, to her own accompaniment, some simple old songs, the words and airs of which, now never heard, still linger in my memory.”


At least eighteen Austen family music books survive, some of them containing pieces copied out by hand, including by Austen herself. Now, thanks to the efforts of the University of Southampton in England, the nearly six hundred pieces in the Austens’ collection are available online in digital facsimiles.


“The books present a vivid picture of domestic musical culture in England in the years around 1800, furnishing valuable insights on music making in the homes of gentry families as well as essential contextualisation for musical episodes in Austen’s fiction,” writes Southampton music professor Jeanice Brooks in her introduction to the digital archive. (A decade ago, a member of the Alabama chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America created a site dedicated to Austen's music, but without the benefit of direct access to the Austen music books.)


Although the Southampton archive seems to have become available late last year, I first learned about it from a recent blog post in which Brooks further discusses the significance of the collection. (As an extra treat, the post includes an audio file of piano variations on “Robin Adair,” the love song that Jane Fairfax plays in Chapter 28 of Emma.)


Alas, I’m no musician, so I can’t evaluate what Austen’s musical choices tell us about her taste or proficiency. But it’s heartening, just six years after the launch of a similar web archive devoted to Austen’s fiction manuscripts, to see more and more Austen primary sources becoming available to a wide audience of scholars, whether amateur or professional.


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