Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jane Austen’s record collection

“Record collection” is a metaphor.  The collection that does exist is of sheet music, songs and piano pieces, in eight books, two in Austen’s own hand.  Of those two, one contains nothing but piano music, the other nothing but songs.  I have been listening to recordings based on these books.  For reference:

Jane Austen’s Songbook, Albany, 2004, featuring soprano Julianne Baird and others.
The Music and Songs of Jane Austen, Isis, 1996, performed by The Windsor Box and Fir Company.
The Jane Austen Collection, Divine Art, 2007, performed by the Concert Royal.

The first album presents the entire book of thirty-seven songs,  beginning to end.  The other two mix the piano music with the songs.  The Jane Austen Collection also includes relevant spoken excerpts from Sense and Sensibility and Emma (who gave Jane Fairfax that piano?) and Austen’s letters, extremely irritating interruptions during ordinary listening.  I have library copies, and therefore booklets for the first two.

Each album pretends to simulate a musical evening at the Austen house, or perhaps, if the moon is full, at a neighbor’s place.  I found this plausible, and Janites or Janists or whatever they call themselves will likely find a lot of charm in any of these performances.  The piano pieces are generally worse than the songs, either curiosities or etudes; a five minute theme-and-variations on “Deck the Halls” was almost unbearable.  The fact that it was likely composed by Austen’s own piano teacher makes it no less grating.   A couple of pieces are by Haydn; I am not complaining about those.

The songs have lyrics, and the lyrics allow annotators and fantasists to squeeze biographical meaning out of them.  The only song shared across all three albums is “The Irishman,” which surely held a special place in Austen’s collection because of her romantic entanglement with the Irishman Tom LeFroy.  Well, who knows, but I am more amused imagining Austen and company belting out these lyrics:

The turban’d Turk, who scorns the world,
May strut about with his whiskers curl’d,
Keep a hundred wives under lock and key
For nobody else but himself to see.
Yet long may he sway with his Alcoran
Before he can love like an Irishman.

The second verse, about corrupt London, is almost smutty.  The songbook has several more supposedly Moorish songs, borrowed from forgotten operas like The Mountaineers or Alcanzor and Zaida, as well as a number of French songs.  “The Marseilles March” is another that, in this context, makes me laugh:

Aux Armes, Citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchez, marchez!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

To Arms, citizens!
Close your ranks,
March, march!
Let their impure blood
Soak our fields!

How I would love to root through the record collection of all of my favorite writers, even though I am perfectly aware that the useful information in a collection is limited, not much more than trivial correspondences – Borges loved the Beach Boys!*  Me, too!  Even here, the assumption that Austen particularly loved the songs in her own hand, compared to the ones in the other books, copied out by a sister or friend, is just wild guesswork.  All I am sure that I learned here was that Austen’s musical tastes were of her own time, although it is nice to be able to listen in.

All of this is a response to an invitation by the Sparkling Squirrel to Austenize a bit without necessarily reading Austen.

*  Plausible, but an invention.


  1. I had no idea such things existed. Did you listen to them on actual records? My partner would love this. To be honest, it sounds like dreadful listening but I would be fascinated by it, too.

  2. As a sort of human dinosaur, I still use "record" and "album" interchangeably, meaning a particular collection of songs. I know that the young'uns laugh at me, I know.

    Actually, I got the first two on CD at the library and the last one from my Rhapsody subscription. So I did not pay for them!

    Having said that, the one that is all songs was pretty good, easily enjoyable by anyone who tolerates operatic singing. And the songs on the other albums were also quite well sung. The question is how often I want to listen to the pieces from someone's piano practice. A similar question could of course be asked about reading Wuthering Expectations.

  3. I second the motion that I had no idea such things existed! Sounds fascinating, and would be an interesting way to liven class discussion (or at least move it beyond the "Darcy is so dreamy" monologue I usually hear).

  4. Years ago I was gifted a CD of one of the songs compilations--I believe similar to the first album you mention but with only the Julianne Baird selections. Quite enjoyable to listen to, especially while reading Austen. I appreciate it most, though, for the historical aspect--that this is an authentic soundtrack to the time period.

  5. Anything to get away from how Darcy was in the movie! Teaching Austen seems to have some unique challenges.

    An authentic period soundtrack - exactly. It's got the Beatles, Mary Wells, Johnny Cash, and Mantovani, all of your favorites hits, all on one durable vinyl record. So to speak.

  6. That sounds charming... And I would rather listen to someone's piano practice (or read Wuthering Expectations) than endure the poisonous fluff of the commercial music industry.

    Any indication that Austen wrote any music? I've been collecting writers' music for years; it's often intriguing stuff.

  7. No, no one claims that any of the music was composed by Austen. A few pieces do not have known composers, but no one went so far as to suggest Austen as the composer - and the Austen-adoring writers of the notes for these albums are not afraid to stretch the evidence!

  8. Ah, too bad. I would have enjoyed hearing what she came up with at the piano. Carry on!