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The Trinity of Austenian Music

This past week, Gaby and I have prepared our latest Austen-inspired program for the Boston Early Music Festival. Our festival in February focused on the novel Pride and Prejudice and its many television iterations, giving us a good singular look in the lives of female musicians such as Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Bennet, and Georgina Darcy. Our newest program will give audiences a broader look into Jane Austen’s world, and focus on the so-called “trinity” of the Austenian repertoire: accompanied sonatas, popular songs, and country dances.

Our concert will feature two accompanied sonatas as bookends to the program, by composers Johann Christian Bach and Ignaz Pleyel. The accompanied sonata genre was strange but powerful trend in London during the late 18th century. These pieces primarily featured the keyboard (often a fortepiano or harpsichord), with an accompanying instrument (violin, flute, oboe). In terms of difficulty, the keyboard part can be rather virtuosic depending on the composer, while the accompanying line is normally easy, providing harmonic agreement throughout.

According to conduct books of the time, music-making was seen as a woman’s skill meant to occupy the mind, while native men were generally discouraged from pursuing the art on their own. Women were trained to play the keyboard and sing, while men may learn to play the violin or flute. It is no coincidence that the majority of Jane Austen’s novels feature music performed only by women, often either as a pianist or vocalist. Accompanied sonatas provided a musical opportunity for engagement between women and men. As trained musicians, women were likely able to handle the difficult keyboard parts in front of them, while men (with their casual study in music) would be able to pick up another instrument and play alongside them. Overall, the music is meant to be an agreeable conversation that is fun for both parties.

In our concert, the roles will be reversed with me on harpsichord and Gaby playing the traverso. J.C. Bach’s sonata is a perfect example of an accompanied keyboard piece. The traverso has little solo material, and we often play in thirds or trade off gestures. It’s a pleasing piece that encapsulates the musical nature of London. Pleyel’s sonata, while beautiful and enjoyable, is an intense back-and-forth between our instruments, with transformative gestures that urge the piece forward. Both sonatas show the beginnings of Classical-era music, provide an aural reference to the Austen novels, and are very fun to play together.

Finding and performing songs from other countries, such as Scotland, Ireland, and India, was another popular musical pastime. In Austen’s novel Emma, Jane Fairfax receives a pianoforte from suitor Frank Churchill as a lovely Valentine’s Day present. In addition to the instrument, Churchill also gives her a new set of Irish Melodies, likely the sixth volume published in 1815.

This moment leads to the first time in which Jane Austen lists a musical piece by name in her work. Jane Fairfax takes to the pianoforte and plays ‘Robin Adair,’ a well known Irish folk tune

depicting unhappy circumstances with love. The words are said to have been written in the 1750s by Lady Caroline Keppel, whose family had forbade her relationship with penniless surgeon Robin Adair. The song itself became extremely popular in London, selling over 100,000 copies in 1811, and leading to arrangements for the pianoforte as well.

In addition to this Irish tune, we will be playing a couple of songs that originated in London. ‘When first this humble Roof I knew,’ a popular song by William Jackson of Exeter, comes from the well-known opera at the time, ‘Lord of the Manor.’ Our second song, ‘The Lamplighter’, is by Charles Dibdin, a prolific songwriter in London who has numerous works found in the Austen library.

Finally, we draw from Joseph Dale’s collection of reels and dances, presenting a popular pasttime for the citizens of London. Scholar Cheryl A. Wilson describes the country dance in her article as “square dances in which four couples stood in a square formation and the movement of the dance occurred in, around, and across the square.” Dancing was another way for men and women to interact in a special manner. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bingley asking to dance with Jane Bennet a second time, a striking notion as he only asked other women at the ball for one dance. Mansfield Park shows the relationship between Mr. Rushworth and Maria Bertram through their dancing as well. In Persuasion, protagonist Anne Elliot does not participate in the balls as she feels “she has quite given up dancing,” which is potential for giving up on marriage all together.

Jane Austen was an avid player of country dances, and enjoyed doing so for her family. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she writes, “... yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as a good as can be got for thirty guineas, and I will practice country dances, that we ma have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company.” As Austen says, the dances we will be playing are not meant to be thought-provoking or even difficult as our other pieces, but we hope that they serve as good amusement to our audiences.

I’m very grateful to Cayla Mendow, who designed our poster on such short notice and did so beautifully. This program is part of our ongoing project to connect music with other humanities, and we’re extremely excited with the feedback we’ve gotten so far. If you can’t make it to Boston this week, we’ll have videos of our music up for viewing soon!

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