Thursday, January 31, 2019

What Jane Heard

It can be tempting to make connections to famous composers roughly contemporary with Austen. This usually means the ‘greats’ of late 18th- and early 19th-century Vienna: composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, whose music is most familiar to classical music audiences today. Studies that draw comparisons between Austen’s fiction and Viennese instrumental music rest on the (usually unstated) assumption that music we now consider great encapsulates its own era in some way that can be related to Austen’s achievement. There is no attempt to establish a historical context in which Austen herself may have known this music or become familiar with its strategies. Thus while such comparisons may generate new readings of her work for those willing to accept the somewhat problematic aesthetics of the point of departure, they provide little insight on Austen’s own musical experience or its relation to her writing. And they are no help at all in understanding the English music culture of her time, the environment her own readers would have understood as the frame of reference for musical scenes in her fiction. 
Austen’s family music books furnish a snapshot of at least some of the music Austen knew and performed. The books, held by Jane Austen’s House Museum and private owners descended from the Austen family, are now freely available online as digital facsimiles. Just under half of the surviving volumes belonged to Austen herself, and she certainly knew the books owned by other members of her family. In total, the 18 books include just over six hundred pieces of music, mainly for voice, keyboard and harp, all of it suitable for domestic performance by skilled amateur musicians. (Read more.)

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