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The History of the Glass Armonica

glass armonica

The History of the Glass Armonica

“Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has
given me the greatest personal satisfaction”
– Benjamin Franklin

A young lady’s level of accomplishment, during Jane Austen’s day, was in part dependant upon her musical abilities. One of the strangest instruments to gain popularity during the Regency was the Glass harmonica. An example of this can be seen in the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park. Although not mentioned in Austen’s novels, it is a sound that would not have been unfamiliar to her audience.

Listen to Lesley Barber’s interpretation of a period Armonica piece from the Mansfield Park soundtrack.The glass harmonica, also known as glass armonica or simply armonica (derived from “armonia,” the Italian word for harmony) is a type of musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls or goblets graduated in size to produce musical tones by means of friction (instruments of this type are known as friction idiophones).

Because its sounding portion is made of glass, the glass harmonica is a crystallophone. Sets of glasses struck with sticks as a percussion instrument have existed since ancient times. The phenomenon of rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine goblet to make it sing is documented back to Renaissance times; Galileo considered the phenomenon (in his Two New Sciences), as did Athanasius Kircher.

The Irish musician Richard Puckeridge is typically credited as the first to play a set of such glasses by rubbing his fingers around the rims; although it is not entirely certain he was the first, he certainly popularized it. Beginning in the 1740s, he performed in London on a set of upright goblets filled with varying amounts of water. During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention performing in England on a similar instrument.

Benjamin Franklin invented a radically new arrangement of the glasses in 1761 after seeing water-filled wine glasses played by William Deleval. (By this time Puckeridge and his instrument both had perished in a fire.) Franklin, who called his invention the “armonica” after the Italian word for harmony, worked with London glassblower Charles James to build one, and it had its world premiere in January of 1762, played by Marianne Davies.

In Franklin’s version, the bowls were mounted nested on a horizontal spindle and the whole spindle turned by means of a foot-operated treadle. The sound was produced by rubbing the rims of the bowls with moistened fingers. With the Franklin design it is possible to play ten glasses simultaneously if desired, a technique that is very difficult if not impossible to execute using upright goblets. Franklin also advocated the use of a small amount of powdered chalk on the fingers which helped produce a clear tone in the same way rosin is applied to the bows of string instruments.

Some 18th and 19th century specimens of the armonica have survived into the 21st century. Franz Mesmer also played the armonica and used it as an integral part of his Mesmerism.

Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Armonica, along with works by Beethoven, Donizetti, Richard Strauss and Camille Saint-Saëns were composed for the instrument. European monarchs indulged in it, and even Marie Antoinette had taken lessons on it.

The instrument’s popularity did not last far beyond the 18th century, partially because of a strange rumor that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go insane.

One example of fear from playing the glass armonica was noted by a German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung where it is stated that “the armonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation. If you are suffering from any nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.”

While one armonica player, Marianne Kirchgessner, is known to have died at the age of 39, others (including Franklin himself) lived long and full lives. By 1820 the glass armonica had disappeared from public performance, perhaps because musical fashions were changing — music was moving out of the relatively small aristocratic halls of Mozart’s day into larger and larger concert halls of Beethoven and his successors, and the delicate sound of the armonica simply could not be heard. The harpsichord disappeared at about the same time — perhaps for the same reason.

A modern version of the “purported dangers” claims that players suffered lead poisoning because armonicas were (and some still are) made of lead glass. However, there is no known scientific basis for the theory that merely touching lead glass can cause lead poisoning. On the other hand, it is known that lead poisoning was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries for both armonica players and non-players alike: doctors prescribed lead compounds for a long list of ailments, lead oxide was used as a preservative in food and beverages, food was cooked in tin/lead pots, and acidic beverages were commonly drunk from lead pewter vessels. Even if armonica players of Franklin’s day somehow received trace amounts of lead from their instruments, that would likely have been dwarfed by the lead they were receiving from other sources.

The glass armonica was re-invented by a German glassblower and musician, Gerhard B. Finkenbeiner (1930–1999) in 1984. After thirty years of experimentation, Finkenbeiner’s prototype consist of clear glasses and glasses with gold bands. Those with gold bands indicate the equivalent of the black keys on the piano. G. Finkenbeiner Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce these prototypes.


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The Harp as a Status Symbol

The Harp as a Status Symbol

A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.

Mansfield Park

Next to the Pianoforte, the Harp is the most mentioned instrument in Jane Austen’s Novels. Lessons on the Harp were reserved for the privileged daughters of indulgent parents. While the piano was necessary and functional, the harp was stylish. It was an expensive indulgence taught by visiting “Masters”. Some music training, along with art and dancing lessons was deemed necessary to finish off the training provided by the family governess, regardless of Whether the family daughters were sent to school or not.

Indeed, the level of education obtained by Jane Austen’s heroines is in direct proportion to her family’s financial and social status. Jane Fairfax, Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot play the piano, but Catherine Morland, daughter of a country curate neither draws or plays. Mary Crawford, Georgiana Darcy and Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove, wealthy, fashionable young ladies, all, play the harp.

In his essay on female accomplishments, Henry Churchyard notes, “For women of the “genteel” classes the goal of non-domestic education was thus often the acquisition of “accomplishments”, such as the ability to draw, sing, play music, or speak modern (i.e. non-Classical) languages (generally French and Italian). Though it was not usually stated with such open cynicism, the purpose of such accomplishments was often only to attract a husband; so that these skills then tended to be neglected after marriage (Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility “had celebrated her marriage by giving up music, although by her mother’s account she had played extremely well, and by her own was very fond of it”, while Mrs. Elton in Emma fears that her musical skills will deteriorate as have those of several married women she knows). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet displays her relatively detached attitude towards the more trivial aspects of this conventional game by adopting a somewhat careless attitude towards her “accomplishment” of playing the piano, and not practicing it diligently.”

The harp’s origins may lie in the sound of a plucked hunter’s bow string. The oldest documented references to the harp are from 4000 BC in Egypt and 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. While the harp is mentioned in most translations of the Bible, King David being the most prominent musician, the Biblical “harp” was actually a kinnor, a type of lyre with 10 strings. Harps also appear in ancient epics, and in Egyptian wall paintings. This kind of harp, now known as the folk harp, continued to evolve in many different cultures all over the world. It may have developed independently in some places.

The lever harp came about in the second half of the 17th century to enable key changes while playing. The player manually turned a hook or lever against an individual string to raise the string’s pitch by a semitone. In the 1700s, a link mechanism was developed connecting these hooks with pedals, leading to the invention of the single-action pedal harp. Later, a second row of hooks was installed along the neck to allow for the double-action pedal harp, capable of raising the pitch of a string by either one or two semitones. With this final enhancement, the modern concert harp was born.

The European harp tradition seems to have originated in ancient Ireland over a thousand years ago. In Irish mythology, a magical harp, Daurdabla is possessed by The Dagda. Most European-derived harps have a single row of strings with strings for each note of the C Major scale (over several octaves). Harpists can tell which strings they are playing because all F strings are black or blue and all C strings are red or orange. The instrument rests between the knees of the harpist and along their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Irish and Scottish harp24s, however, are traditionally placed on the left shoulder. The first four fingers of each hand are used to pluck the strings; the pinky fingers are too short and cannot reach the correct position without distorting the position of the other fingers, although on some folk harp25s with light tension, closely spaced strings, they may occasionally be used. Plucking with varying degrees of force creates dynamics. Depending on finger position, different tones can be produced: a fleshy pluck (near the middle of the first finger joint) will make a warm tone, while a pluck near the end of the finger will make a loud, bright sound.


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Regency Dancing

“…To be fond of dancing is a certain step towards falling in Love… ”
– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

The late Eighteenth century brought great changes in both Europe and American society – the upheavals of both the American and French Revolutions had shaken the well-ordered social strata; and the decline of “aristocratic” ideas entered the forum of social dance as well. Public balls and “dance Assemblies” became more popular than ever, especially in America -“all ranks here being equal” – at least on the dance floor.

Country dancing was a favorite evening diversion for the young as well as the more mature ladies and gentlemen of the genteel classes, and a pastine frequently mentioned by the well-known authoress, Jane Austen, whose heroines and suitors often encountered each other at public or private dances.

Bringing to life the ballroom scenes from Pride and Prejudice with fashionable dances such as “La Boulanger” (a favorite of Jane Austen’s) or charming country dances with names such as “Teasing Made Easy”, the dancers of Tapestry bring to life an”Austen Assembly” of the early 1800’s.

Regency dance is the term for historical dances of the period ranging roughly from 1790 to 1825. The term is popular but is actually a misnomer, as the actual English Regency (the future George IV ruling on behalf of mad King George III) lasted from 1810 until 1820. Nevertheless, there are consistencies of style over this period which make having a single term useful.

Most popular exposure to this era of dance comes in the works of Jane Austen. Balls occur in her novels and are discussed in her letters, but specifics are few. Films made based on her works tend to incorporate modern revival English Country Dance; however, they rarely incorporate dances actually of the period and do them without the appropriate footwork and social style which make them accurate to the period. Dances of this era were lively and bouncy, not the smooth and stately style seen in films. Steps ranging from simple skipping to elaborate ballet-style movements were used.

In the longways Country Dance, a line of couples perform figures with each other, progressing up and down the line.

Regency country dances were often proceeded by a brief March by the couples, then begun by the top lady in the set and her partner, who would dance down the set to the bottom. Each couple in turn as they reached the top would likewise dance down until the entire set had returned to its original positions. This could be a lengthy process, easily taking an hour in a long set. An important social element was the calling of the dance by the leading lady (a position of honor), who would determine the figures, steps, and music to be danced. The rest of the set would listen to the calling dancing master or pick up the dance by observing the leading couple. Austen mentions in her letters instances in which she and her partner called the dance.

The cotillion was a French import, performed in a square using more elaborate footwork. It consisted of a “chorus” figure unique to each dance which was danced alternately with a standard series of up to ten “changes”, which were simple figures such as a right hand moulinet (star) common to cotillions in general.

The Scotch reel of the era consisted of alternate heying (interlacing) and setting (fancy steps danced in place) by a line of three or four dancers. More complex reels appear in manuals as well but it’s unclear if they ever actually caught on. A sixsome reel is mentioned in a description of Scottish customs in the early 1820’s and eightsome reels (danced in squares like cotillions) occur in some dance manuscripts of the era.

In the 1810’s, the era of the Regency proper, English dance began an important transition with the introduction of the quadrille and the waltz.

The Waltz (one of the only dances mentioned by name in Jane Austen’s writings) was first imported to England around 1810, but was not considered socially acceptable until continental visitors at the post-Napoleonic-Wars celebrations danced it in London – and even then it remained the subject of anti-waltz diatribes, caricatures, and jokes. Even the decadent Lord Byron was scandalized by the prospect of people “embracing” on the dance floor. The Regency version is relatively slow, and done up on the balls of the feet with the arms in a variety of graceful positions. The Sauteuse is a leaping waltz commonly done in 2/4 rather than 3/4 time, similar in pattern (leap-glide-close) to the Redowa and Waltz Galop of the later nineteenth century.

First imported from France by Lady Jersey in 1815, the Quadrille was a shorter version of the earlier cotillions.

Figures from individual cotillions were assembled into sets of five or six figures, and the changes were left out, producing much shorter dances. By the late 1810’s, it was not uncommon to dance a series of quadrilles during the evening, generally consisting of the same first three figures combined with a variety of different fourth and fifth figures. Jane Austen’s niece Fanny danced quadrilles and in their correspondence Jane mentions that she finds them much inferior to the cotillions of her own youth.

By the late 1810’s, under siege from the Quadrille, dancing masters began to invent “new” forms of country dance, often with figures borrowed from the Quadrille, and giving them exotic names such as the Danse Ecossoise and Danse Espagnuole which suggested entire new dances but actually covered very minor variations in the classic form. A few of these dances became sufficiently popular that they survived through the entire 19th century. One example of this is the “Spanish dance” popular in vintage dance circles, which is a solitary survivor of its entire genre of Regency-era dances.

Some other dances of the era: La Boulangere is a simple circle dance for a group of couples and Sir Roger de Coverly, mentioned by Charles Dickens, is the ancestor of America’s Virginia Reel.

From Wikipedia, The Online Encyclopedia


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A Lady’s Education

Had she possessed greater leisure for the service of her girls,
she would probably have supposed it unnecessary, for they were under the care of a governess,
with proper masters, and could want nothing more.
Mansfield Park

Excerpted from The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible yet Elegant Guide to Her World
Most young women were educated by a combination of teachers, all working towards the ultimate goal of producing an elegant creature who would take the ton by storm—or at least escape becoming a spinster. Here are some of those responsible for her lessons:

In some households, a girl’s mother taught her to read and write and do basic arithmetic, and perhaps some rudimentary French. Her father also might have been involved in her instruction, particularly if he were a member of the clergy. This may have been all the formal education a young woman received, unless her parents hired a governess or sent her to school around age ten.

A Governess
A good governess taught a young lady history, geography, and languages; to write in and elegant hand; to draw, sew, and do fancy needlework; to play the pianoforte and possibly the harp; and to carry herself with confidence and elegance. The governess stayed with the family until all the young ladies of the house were married, and sometimes she remained in a family’s employ as a companion to the mother or unmarried daughters.

Visiting masters supplemented a young woman’s education with advanced instruction in music, drawing, language, and dancing. The very best masters were found in the city, but even country neighborhoods usually boasted a few masters who tended to the young ladies in the area.

If her parents preferred no not engage a governess, or if a young woman was orphaned or otherwise in need of a settled place to live, a girl might have been sent away to school from age ten to around age eighteen (if she was deemed ready to make her debut in society, she could be withdrawn as much as two years earlier). Schools in London or Bath, often known as young ladies’ seminaries, tended to be more formal and fancy. A young lady educated in such an establishment could command an impressive array of accomplishments, including music, drawing, fancy needlework, and a polished and fashionable way of dressing, moving, and behaving. This polish sometimes came at the expense of the young lady’s health or gave her a falsely inflated sense of self-worth. The luckiest girls were sent to a good old-fashioned boarding school that provided a less stringent education, but from which they were more likely to emerge healthy and happy and good natured—such women could always catch up on their education with extensive reading in their father’s library.

Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible yet Elegant Guide to Her World, a handbook to life during the Regency. The topics covered in this book range from How to Become an Accomplished Lady to How to Run a Great House, How to Indicate Interest in a Gentleman Without Seeming Forward, How to Throw a Dinner Party and How to Choose and Buy Clothing, among others. They are written in an informative style (as to a young gentleman or lady) with examples drawn from Austen’s novels and interspersed with historical information like that shown above. Each section is punctuated with original illustrations by Kathryn Rathke. A myriad of further information is included in the appendix, from a biography of Austen and summaries of each of her works, to suggested reading and helpful websites.

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The Jane Austen Hanbook is published by Quirk Books and available for purchase from and; ISBN-10: 1594741719, RRP: £9.99.

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The Georgian Breakfast

The elegance of the breakfast set forced itself on Catherine’s notice when they were seated at table
Northanger Abbey

Breakfast, as we know it, was developed during the Regency. Prior to this a late morning meal of tea and coffee, rolls, breads, meats, eggs, etc. was provided around 10 a.m. Upon a visit to Stoneleigh Abbey, Mrs Austen, Jane’s mother, was known to have remarked on the quantity of food at breakfast, listing, “Chocolate Coffee and Tea, Plumb Cake, Pound Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, Bread and Butter, and dry toast for me”.

The lateness of the breakfast hour allowed people to run many errands which we would normally consider suitable for later in the day such as a visit to the park or library. While “morning calls” were actually made to friends in the afternoon, other events did take place. Until the late 1880’s, weddings were required by law, to be morning affairs. This paved the way for Wedding Breakfasts- the ancestor to today’s wedding receptions. Breakfast and Wedding cake were served and the party broke up in the early afternoon allowing the couple time to travel to their new home or honeymoon destination.

As the working/Middle class became a greater part of society, mealtimes changed and an early meal around 8 or 9 in the morning was needed to start tradesmen and professionals on their way. This meal would have been eaten in the drawing room or dining room and would have revolved around cakes and breads such as Brioche, French bread, toast, plum cake and honey cake. Tea and chocolate were popular drinks to accompany this meal. In the Austen household, it was Jane’s job to prepare breakfast for the family around 9 every morning. The Austen’s breakfast consisted of pound cake, toast, tea and occassionally cocoa.

Jane often used the hour before breakfast for her own personal time. Her neice, Anna Lefroy describes the routine: “Aunt Jane began her day with music – for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up – ‘tho she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose that she might not trouble them, she chose her practising time before breakfast – when she could have the room to herself – She practised regularly every morning – She played very pretty tunes, I thought – and I liked to stand by her and listen to them; but the music (for I knew the books well in after years) would now be thought disgracefully easy – Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.”

Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories. Creators of custom made Regency Hats, Bonnets and Accessories.

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Playing A Merry Tune

Have you ever wanted to sit down at your piano and play the sprightly tunes and dances so familiar to Jane Austen and her heroines? Even Miss Bingley admits that a “thorough knowledge of music, singing. . . and dancing” is necessary to be truly accomplished.

The Republic of Pemberley has graciously provided sheet music for a number of the dances used in (my favorite) the A&E Pride and Prejudice. These links will bring you to printable pages of music for your playing and dancing pleasure.

Sheet music for Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot: (also used in Emma2)

    • Melody and chord symbols




Sheet music for other dance tunes from P&P2:




Additionally, many of these dances are available on the Pemberley Players’ Pride and Prejudice Collection CD.

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Country Dances used in the Films

Whether it’s Henry Tilney’s observations about country dances and marriage or a Mr. Darcy or Mr. Elton giving offense at not being willing to dance, Austen’s wittiest or most crushing revelations often come on the dance floor. Because these scenes are so crucial, film makers have endeavored to “get them right”, time and again. But where can you find copies of the music that is so evocative of such a pleasant period or scene? Continue reading Country Dances used in the Films

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Jane Austen Music and the “Truly Accomplished” Woman

Jane Austen music

A Short Essay Exploring Jane Austen Music and her Musical Characters

It is vain to expend large sums of money and large portions of time in the acquirement of accomplishments, unless some attention be also paid to the attainment of a certain grace in their exercise, which, though of a circumstance distinct from themselves, is the secret of their charms and pleasure-exciting quality.”
A Lady of Distinction

The Mirror of Graces
, 1811

“The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” As any daughter knows, Mrs. Bennet is typical not only of her time, but of any other. The marriage game has always held a fascination for mothers, and as Fanny Price comments in Mirimax’s Mansfield Park, “Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” With the war in France creating a shortage of eligible men on the homefront, it would seem that the more abilities a young woman had at her disposal, the greater chance she would stand of making a good match. Towards that end, parents during the Regency set about schooling their daughters in accomplishments that would make them stand out in the eyes of “men of good fortune.” Jane Austen’s Caroline Bingley gives us a contemporary definition of “accomplishment”: “No one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”

Period fashion plate

Jane Austen Music

Jane Austen herself was known to be a diligent student of music, spending hours every day practicing. She played for the sheer love of music and she instilled that love into her “own dear child[ren],” her heroines. She valued this time with her music, transcribing her favorite pieces into a collection of books that exist to this day. This was not, however, her chief charm. That lay in her personality, her lively manner and her ready wit. Jane Austen wrote about what she knew. In her books, she employs music to tell about the personalities of her characters. If Caroline Bingley’s was the accepted standard of accomplishment, however, it would seem that Jane Austen’s heroines fall short. Could it be that there is something more dearly prized among “sensible young men” than all the knowledge and “accomplishment” that a woman can possess? Lady Susan, one of Jane Austen’s early characters (a woman who, one would suppose, knows what gentlemen prefer) offers that: “It is throwing time away; to be Mistress of French, Italian, and German, Music, Singing, Drawing, &c. will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list. Grace and Manner, after all, are of the greatest importance.” It would seem, as her heroines suggest, that this is the view Jane Austen took. She is known to have been a sharp observer of the people and lives surrounding her. Is it possible that she could see evidence of this principle lived out in daily life? None of the six heroines of her major novels are “true proficients.” Most do not play “so well as they could” and three do not play at all!

Elinor Dashwood,”neither musical, nor affecting to be so,” does not play, but rather draws. “The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s [Moreland] life.” As for Fanny Price, her cousins are scandalized to learn that “she does not want to learn either music or drawing.” The others play “tolerably well”– even “delightfully”; however, they also know that they could do much better if they practiced more, and most, at some point, are shown up by superior performers. “My fingers,” said Elizabeth Bennet, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault — because I would not take the trouble of practicing.” Emma Woodhouse seems to excel in everything, but on closer examination we see that this is a carefully constructed facade. “She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labor as she would ever submit to.” However, “She knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit.” Anne Elliot, who can play “for half an hour together, equally without error, and without consciousness” is an exception to this general rule. However “her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself…” Viewers of Persuasion (Sony, 1995) may observe how she is neglected at the piano, left to provide entertainment while others dance.

In transferring Jane Austen’s work to film, most screenwriters have been careful to preserve these scenes of musical diversion and revelation. Because of this, we are treated not only to the sounds of period pieces and instruments (Miramax’s 1996 Emma used music directly from Jane Austen’s own song books) recreating the atmosphere with which Jane was familiar, we are also given the added bonus of seeing the effect of the music and/or performance reflected in the faces of those listening.

None of the rest of Jane Austen’s characters who do play an instrument can be held up as examples of happiness or felicity. All are deficient to our heroines in the area of “Grace and Manner.” Most of her young ladies who are musical play the pianoforte: Mary Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford, and Jane Fairfax were always “happy to oblige.” Anne De Bourgh would have been a true proficient “had she ever learnt.” Elizabeth and Emma took a little more coaxing, but their efforts were rewarded by warm praise and thanks. This popular instrument was easy to learn, and could be demonstrated by students at all levels of accomplishment. There was, however, another instrument that was quite the rage during the Regency- the harp. None of Austen’s six heroines play this instrument, rather, it symbolizes wealth, sophistication, and perhaps a slight snobbery. It is, after all, an instrument of choice for Mary Crawford, Louisa Musgrove, and Georgiana Darcy.

What about the men? Some of them were quite musically inclined and, here again, Jane Austen uses the music to display character. Col. Fitzwilliam is a cultured man who can speak intelligently and entertainingly on the subject. John Willoughby, Frank Churchill,Hugh Thompson Illustration from S&S and Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey, 1986) sing. Mr. Collins finds it a not unacceptable pastime (“If I,” said Mr. Collins, “were so fortunate as to be able to sing, I should have great pleasure, I am sure, in obliging the company with an air; for I consider music as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman.”) Even Capt. Wentworth is seen to play a little. It is interesting then to note that most of these men did not marry the girls they performed with or for! Willoughby and Churchill are well known cads and used music for their own purposes. While both were, at the time, sincere in their attentions to the ladies they accompanied, they are two of the most notorious flirts Austen created. Mr. Collins is only interested in displaying himself. Tilney’s singing, in light of Catherine’s non-musical nature, sets him apart from her — for the moment, he belongs to another sphere. Col. Fitzwilliam seems to be the only character to escape villification.

Capt. Wentworth uses his ability on behalf of the two Miss Musgroves (“[Anne] had left the instrument … and he had sat down to try to make out an air which he wished to give the Miss Musgroves an idea of.”), but it is his musical appreciation (“Capt. Wentworth was very fond of music…”) that brings him to the concert in Bath (one of the few appearances of professional musicians in the novels). It is there that Anne begins to feel that there might be a chance for them after all; “He began by speaking of the concert gravely…. owned himself disappointed, had expected singing; and in short, must confess that he should not be sorry when it was over. Anne replied, and spoke in defense of the performance so well, and yet in allowance for his feelings so pleasantly, that his countenance improved, and he replied again with almost a smile…” Only when discussing music do they finally attain a “real” conversation which opens the way for their reconciliation later on in the book.

Hugh Thompson illustration for MPThis is not to indicate that our other heroes are not appreciative of good music. Indeed, though their motives for doing so were often misunderstood, all listened to their beloved ones (who could) play at some point before finally proposing. Mr. Darcy, Edmund Bertram, and Col. Brandon come readily to mind, and are well known for the rapt attention they give the fair performers. Elizabeth Bennet takes delight in teasing Mr. Darcy about his intentions: “[Mr. Darcy] moving with his usual deliberation towards the piano forte, stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said, ‘You mean to frighten me, Mr Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? But I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.’” Andrew Davies’ film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice makes Darcy’s admiration for her less than superior performance quite apparent with his famous use of close-ups and replay.

Mr. Knightley too enjoys hearing Emma play: “I do not know a more luxurious state, sir, than sitting at one’s ease to be entertained a whole evening by two such young women; sometimes with music and sometimes with conversation.” What he does not enjoy is Frank’s unpardonable audacity in presuming an intimacy with Emma in which he, himself, did not share. It is only Edward Ferrars who is inclined to be dismissive of music altogether– a fact which is incomprehensible to Marianne: “Music seems scarcely to attract him; and, though he admires Elinor’s drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth.” One must attribute his preferences solely to affection.

Music may be the food of love, but it is not apparently the cause of it. As an offering of love, however, it is a most acceptable gift. Robert Martin hires his shepherd’s boy to sing for Harriet Smith and leaves his marriage proposal for her in a packet of music. Frank Churchill, Mr. Darcy, and even Col. Brandon (Thompson’s screenplay, 1995) make gifts of pianofortes to young ladies they adore. Extravagant? Yes. But also thoughtful, sensitive tokens they know will be appreciated.

Hugh Thompson Illustration for P&PWhat is it that Jane Austen is trying to tell us? Why would she create such “untalented” heroines? Wouldn’t she want to encourage her young readers to excel in their studies? There are two categories of performers she describes: those who play out of a love of music (Elizabeth, Anne, Marianne Dashwood, Jane Fairfax, etc.) and those who play for love of attention (Mary Bennet, Louisa Hurst, Caroline Bingley, Augusta Elton). Though the latter are often praised for their execution, it is only the ones who love what they are doing who are described as giving pleasure to their listeners. Is this not another instance of “Grace and Manner?” Is this not another instance of Jane Austen’s perfection of craft? Could unconventional heroines- ones who are admired not for what they can do, but for who they are, be a part of the genre she created? Heroines who seem real — who are as fresh today as when they were penned nearly 200 years ago — heroines who remain as enduring role models for today’s young women. This is, after all, the woman who wrote, “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked.”


Laura Sauer is the only non-musical member of her family. As such this essay is a sort of vindication of her skills and proof that one needn’t play and sing to be “accomplished.” Besides- if everyone were a performer, who would be left to listen?

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