Hands On! Music in a Bygone Age

In our age, in which printed matter is so easy to come by – indeed, our daily life is dominated by printed matter as are our correspondences – it’s very easy to forget to what extent handwritten texts dominated everyday culture 200 years ago. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a lot of poetry was still circulated privately among friends and family, and would be copied into private albums.

What I didn’t know until I started researching this matter for SPRINGTIME PLEASURES was that a lot of music was also circulated in the same manner. And we are not merely talking about short songs here; no, people copied longer pieces, too, like whole sonatas. Chawton House holds eight manuscript volumes of music that belonged to the Austen family:

The musical content of these volumes is varied. Songs, keyboard works (both solo and duet) and chamber music form the core of the collection and are drawn from a variety of sources. The contents are typical of domestic music-making of the period – and consequently include hardly any music by composers famous today. In Jane Austen’s day, Pleyel and Sterkel were more famous than Haydn and Mozart, their music often more accessible via successful printing and distribution businesses than those of their more talented colleagues with their high-powered court appointments and operatic commissions. 

(from the booklet to the CD Jane Austen Entertains)

Isn’t this fascinating? I have to admit that I was rather flabbergasted by the info that longer musical works were copied, too. So I decided to do an experiment, and copy the first few bars of the Haydn sonata Isabella plays at a party in SPRINGTIME PLEASURES. You can see the result above. From what I’ve seen, the Austens used albums in landscape format, so format wise, my attempt is not quite authentic. In addition, it’s been twenty years or more since I last wrote down music – and boy, did I feel these years!

Apart from the resulting awkwardness, I also noticed a number of other things that make copying music quite different from copying a text. First of all, with music you have to plan ahead and decide which hand to write down first. Secondly, you have to be so, so careful because it’s so, so easy to make mistakes. Also, you want to make sure that you (and others) will be able to read the music after you’ve copied it. As a curious side-effect, you become rather intimately acquainted with the piece you are copying, which, I assume, would also make it easier to learn the piece afterwards.

If you are interested in the Chawton House collection of music, I can recommend the CDs Jane Austen Entertains (you might want to listen to the samples first; several Amazon customers apparently didn’t like the soprano) and Jane Austen Piano Favourites. If you’d like to start copying a few musical pieces yourself, I suggest you do it in style and buy this scrumptious-looking Edition Peters album