The eponymous book by Ian Gammie and Dr Derek McCulloch is a catalogue and appraisal of the eight books of music which are held by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust at Chawton. These have never been fully catalogued and on closer inspection proved to have 300 musical items, featuring almost every type of vocal and instrumental music available at the time (the pieces range from the late 1750s to approx 1810).
It has been an interesting project, and is subsequently being continued by academics at Southampton University, Department of English. Three of the volumes are manuscript books of 85 - 95 pages each; two of them are in Jane Austen's own hand. There were travelling music libraries at the time run by various publishers, and she either borrowed works from these libraries or directly from friends. Presumably she copied the pieces she liked best into her manuscript books before having to return the originals.
Four of the books are bound up collections of sheet music - sonatas, songs, a concerto, dance music, chamber music with string or wind instruments, operatic arias arranged for voice and piano or even as piano duets, Scotch and Irish folksongs - virtually every type of music of the day except for symhonies. One book is a 'scrap-book' collection, a mixture of manuscript pieces stuck into a homemade cover amongst a variety of printed sheet music.
One interesting spin-off worth mentioning is the Irish connection. The third manuscript book seems to have been compiled from music published during the 1790s, and there is an interesting group of songs issued by Dublin publishers around the mid 1790s. It was in 1795 that Jane had her brief but apparently tumultuous flirtation with the young Irish student lawyer Tom Lefroy, who was staying for part of his vacation at a neighbouring vicarage to the Austen's in Hampshire. One of the songs even has the refrain: 'Nobody loves like an Irishman' (Lonnie Donegan made that famous in the 1950s - remember that all you golden oldies?). Could Tom have brought them with him from Dublin for Jane to copy into her book?
If you were asked to name three composers from the period 1775 - 1815 who would you suggest? Haydn? Mozart? Beethoven? Not if you were Jane Austen. She preferred the most popular music of her day - music by Shield, Pleyel, Dibdin, Sterkel, Kotzwara and all those others who were household names at the time but many of whom have sunk with little trace in the intervening years.
Yet there are some wonderful pieces in the collection as well as comic songs and others which Jane must have chosen with a particular glint of ironic satisfaction in her eye.
CDs from this series are now available.
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Last updated 15 Feb 2022