On the left is the Jane Austen Gift Shop’s beautiful new piano brooch, designed to reflect the importance of the piano both in Jane Austen’s life and her works.
Though crafted for the first time in the early 1700s, the piano-forte was, by Jane’s era, the most widely played instrument in the growing middle class. In a time before recordings of any kind, live performance was they only way to enjoy music. Proficiency on an instrument was equally essential for entertainment and as a marketable skill, whether in the job market (as a governess, perhaps) or the marriage market, as yet another accomplishment to add to one’s list. Public performance at parties gave young ladies added exposure on an already crowded field.
More of Jane Austen’s heroines play the piano (in her books, known as the piano, pianoforte and piano-forte) than any other instrument. In fact, as in life, the majority play to some extent and it is, rather, those who do not that we may look to for character observation.
Catherine Morland and Fanny Price, models of modest simplicity, have no desire to learn (and perhaps an inferred desire to avoid performance) Practical Elinor Dashwood leaves the playing to her younger sister Marianne, who excels at both the emotional side of musical interpretation and the art of performing. Anne Du Bourgh is, her mother thinks, too ill to learn (or is it her mother, who similarly never learnt, trying to control her daughter in this area as well?)
Learning to play the piano posed its own problems. Most young ladies would have been taught by a governess or traveling master, though Jane, studied with the respected composer and organist, William Chard well into her twenties, long after most girls would have given up their lessons. After that point, it was up to the student to progress if she wished, on her own. Jane owned a small piano at various times during her life and, when this was not an option, rented one. She played for her own enjoyment and would rise an hour before the rest of the family in order to get her practicing done. This determination made her a delightful player and no doubt in demand for entertainment and impromptu dancing when her nieces and nephews came for visits.
Sheet music was expensive at that time and friends would often loan their copies to each other to be copied into private notebooks. Jane Austen penned several such books, eight of which are held by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust in Chawton.
Now available from the Jane Austen Gift Shop:
Piano Brooch in silver, marcasite and pearls
Jane Austen’s Piano Favourites – part of a wide range of CDs
A Carriage Ride In Queen Square – Sheet music with accompanying CD