This is a delightful idea for a recording. Divine Art, a label based in the North East of England, has released this disc under the title of The Jane Austen Collection with a sub-title Music from the Austen Family collection performed on historic instruments . It attempts to reconstruct a soirée such as might have been held in the house of a well-to-do family in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries and the Austen family connection comes from the music and writings included. These are pieces selected from the collection of the hand-written and printed music that belonged to the family and that are now preserved by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.
A point that emerges strongly from reading Jane Austen and learning from her writings of the times and milieu she lived in is the often overpowering sense of boredom that must have affected her and her kind. Families like the Austen’s living in the country with a limited social circle and little in the way of travel would have looked forward enormously to the occasional musical evenings that brightened their otherwise repetitively tedious lives. In those far-off days when entertainment by oneself or by one’s peers was the norm, some level of musical accomplishment was assumed – certainly of the ladies. No doubt many of the men would decline to be more than listeners (can you imagine Mr. Darcy obliging with a rendition for instance?), but Jane and her kind everywhere would have had some level of musical training and would be expected to contribute to the evening’s offerings. The image of a doting young man entranced by a young lady at a keyboard is a strong one seen so many times in film or on television. What that purveyed image is not likely to show is a young woman with an out of tune piano and a baritone singing execrably. Jane Austen herself apparently practiced regularly before breakfast but would never play in public.
The non-musical items in the programme are short readings – done splendidly by the soprano Margarette Ashton – of two extracts from Sense and Sensibility . In these Marianne firstly falls for Mr. Willoughby and then subsequently is let down by him and, as young ladies did then, and presumably still do today, overreacts as she bares her emotions. There are extracts from two letters from Jane to her sister Cassandra in the second of which she refers to the lack of a pianoforte and says “Yes, Yes, we shall have one… as good as can be got for thirty guineas”. The reading from Emma tells of the mysterious arrival of an instrument for Jane Fairfax – perhaps a case of fiction having a real life basis. The final extract is another letter from Jane that alludes to a romantic interest in an Irishman. These readings are linked to suitable pieces of music.
From the musical viewpoint, what is interesting is the glimpse we are given of contemporary musical taste in provincial England. In the composers’ names Haydn, Grétry and Thomas Arne appear – Arne’s Cymon and Iphigenia with three arias and linked recitatives is the single extended piece – others mean little if anything to us these days, and only Highland Laddie , and perhaps Haydn’s Shepherd’s Song , would be widely recognised today. The pieces are generally slight but pleasing, and doubtless part of their appeal would have been their degree of accessibility for the amateur performer.
The performers themselves, Concert Royal, are excellent. With original instruments which include a one keyed flute and a square piano joining a soprano voice that is small but admirably suited to the repertoire the concept succeeds. The well-recorded programme really does create images of the scene that we are intended to imagine.
A recommendation then for an imaginative and enterprising CD – even though it lasts less than 48 minutes.