Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 7 2019 02:00PM

Music plays intermittent cameo roles in Jane Austen’s novels: think of Mary Bennet delighting us long enough in Pride and Prejudice, or Anne Elliot wearily cranking out dance tunes for the oblivious Musgrove girls in Persuasion.

Music is even more important in making the many screen adaptations of Austen’s work memorable and distinctive, from the jangly ‘90s pop of Clueless to the yearning innocence of Marianne Dashwood singing her way into Colonel Brandon’s heart in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility.

To satisfy all your Austen music needs, it turns out that the audio streaming platform Spotify includes among its offerings a thirty-track “Jane Austen Soundtracks” playlist – a total of about an hour and forty-two minutes of music.

The playlist includes eight pieces – popular songs and classical works -- from the Austen family’s music collection; twenty tracks drawn from sixteen Jane Austen-related movies, whether straight-up adaptations of the novels, modernizations like Aisha and Bridget Jones’s Diary, or Austen-themed confections like Austenland and The Jane Austen Book Club; and one song from First Impressions, the 1959 Broadway musical of Pride and Prejudice.

Among the selections are Carl Davis' familiar theme music to the BBC’s beloved 1995 adaptation of P&P; a version of “Robin Adair,” the traditional song that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill sing together in Emma; and a Radiohead track from Clueless. (I don’t know how long the playlist has been available on Spotify; the most recent recording seems to be from Love & Friendship, the 2016 movie adaptation of Lady Susan.)

The mathematically adept among you will have noticed that the above accounting adds up to only twenty-nine. Yes, as I noted, there is a thirtieth item on this “Jane Austen Soundtracks” playlist. It is Carl Davis' theme music from Cranford, the 2007-09 BBC adaptation of the 1853 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Who is not Jane Austen. It seems that Spotify has delighted us long enough.

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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