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Research project: The Austen Family Music Books - Dormant

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Focusing on a heterogeneous set of pieces included in 17 music albums that belonged to Jane Austen and her female relations, this AHRC-funded project was a major study of domestic music making in the Austen family.

Chawton concert

A new recording by Southampton's head of keyboard studies, Professor David Owen Norris, presents songs and piano works collected by Jane Austen and her family. Entertaining Miss Austen features soprano Amanda Pitt and baritone John Lofthouse, and was recorded on an 1817 Broadwood piano from the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, Surrey (National Trust). The disc includes world premiere recordings of music Austen sang and played, including three songs her niece Caroline later remembered as favourites.

The CD can be purchased online from Amazon or from the producers at Dutton Epoch. Listen to a track: David Owen Norris plays The Celebrated Fairy Dance, arranged by Matthias Holst.

The recording grows out of Norris's collaboration on a major study of domestic music-making in Britain, led by Professor Jeanice Brooks, and incorporates PhD research by Southampton postgraduate Samantha Carrasco.

Many of the pieces were first given at a concert in Chawton church for the New Directions in Austen Studies conference, organized by Dr Gillian Dow, Lecturer in English at Southampton and Chawton House Library. The July 2009 conference celebrated the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's move to Chawton, the Hampshire village where she lived during the years her great novels were first published. The programme notes below are adapted from those prepared for the concert. We offer them here to complement Norris's liner notes on the music, which are included with the CD.

Useful links:

A Chawton Family album

Jeanice Brooks and Samantha Carrasco

‘We are now happy in the company of our Sister Hancock, Madame de Feuillide & the little Boy [. . .] Madame has grown quite lively, when a child we used to think her too grave. We have borrowed a Piano-Forte, and she plays to us every day; on Tuesday we are to have a very snug little dance in our parlour, just our own children, nephew & nieces, (for the two little Coopers come tomorrow) quite a family party.’ (Jane Austen’s mother Cassandra Leigh Austen to Phylly Walter, December 1786)

‘We were at a Ball on Saturday I assure you. We dined at Goodnestone & in the evening danced two Country Dances & the Boulangeries.—I opened the Ball with Edw:d Bridges; the other couples, were Lewis Cage & Harriot, Frank and Louisa, Fanny & George. Eliz:th played one Country dance Lady Bridges the other, which She made Henry dance with her; and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries.—On reading over the last three of four Lines, I am aware of my having expressed myself in so doubtful a manner that if I did not tell you to the contrary, You might imagine it was Lady Bridges who made Henry dance with her, at the same time that she was playing—which if not impossible must appear a very improbable Event to you.—But it was Eliz:th who danced.’ (Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, September 1796)

‘Yes, yes, we will have a Pianoforte as good a one as can be got for 30 Guineas—& I will practise country dances that we may have some amusement for our nephews & neices, when we have the pleasure of their company’ (Jane Austen to Cassandra, 1809, December 1808)

‘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—
’ (Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir, 1867)

These scraps of family news and memories show how Jane Austen’s life unfolded against a rich backdrop of domestic music-making. Each stage was marked by musical practices that nourished different family relationships: listening to her glamorous cousin Eliza de Feuillide as a girl; dancing to the sounds of her sister-in-law’s playing as a young woman; playing for her own satisfaction and for her nieces’ and nephews’ amusement as a mature adult. Like most women of their generation and social class, female members of the Austen family learned music as part of their acquisition of the ‘accomplishments’, social graces that affirmed the status of the family and provided permissible modes of display for young women on the marriage market. The competitive dimensions of this process are often emphasised: the theme of vying for the attention of suitors through music figures both in fiction (think of Caroline Bingly in Pride and Prejudice) and in many of today’s historical accounts of English musical culture around 1800. At the same time, however, musical activity was a rich field for constructing other kinds of relationships with family members of different generations, as it was in the large and close-knit Austen family.

These pieces are drawn from 17 music albums that belonged to Jane Austen and her female relations. Like many similar collections associated with gentry families of the period, this is a heterogenous set, including compilations of printed sheet music, manuscript albums copied into pre-ruled music books, compilations of separately copied manuscripts, and scrapbooks mixing print and manuscript items. At least seven women from Jane Austen’s close family owned or copied music in the collection. Austen herself was responsible for a large portion, as was her sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges, wife of Jane’s older brother Edward Austen Knight. One manuscript copied by Elizabeth was bound for her in August 1799, around the time when Jane herself spent many hours in music copying, an activity which apparently led to some teasing from her sister-in-law: in January 1799, Jane wrote to Cassandra, ‘Elizabeth is very cruel about my writing Music; - and as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers for her in future, if I were not punishing myself at the same time’. Jane’s mother Cassandra Leigh, sister Cassandra, sisters-in-law Eliza de Feuillide and Eleanor Jackson (first and second wives of her brother Henry), and niece Fanny Knight also contributed material to the Austen collection. A few items (and in one case, most of a manuscript) came into the Austen family’s possession through more distant relationships: for example, from Ann Cawley, née Cooper, the sister of their uncle Cooper on their mother’s side, to whom Jane and Cassandra were sent for schooling in 1783; or from Mrs Henry Jackson, Eleanor Jackson’s mother. Several of the books were started by one family member and continued or used by another; many bring together several copyists’ hands or collectors’ signatures within a single binding. As a set, they are a rich illustration of family ties that domestic music-making and its material culture helped to sustain.

The collection was held together in the Knight family library until the middle of the last century, when was broken up, with eight books thought to be most closely associated with the author herself donated to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, and the remainder split between descendants of the family. Through the generosity of the current owners, the remaining books are now on deposit at Chawton House Library, permitting an extended comparison with the better-known set conserved by the Trust. These volumes prove to be equally important for Austen studies: it is in these newly-available albums that we find all three of the songs Jane Austen’s niece Caroline remembers her aunt singing to her as a child. The arrival of the remaining albums at Chawton House has been an essential step in launching a major study of the entire collection by a research group based at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with colleagues at the Jane Austen House and Museum and Chawton House Library. These volumes are fascinating not only for the insights they may furnish into the life and work of a major author. They also provide an intriguing glimpse into the world of domestic music-making of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and to the family and social relationships that musical training and performance reflected and fostered.


The repertoire for domestic music-making was frequently drawn from the theatres and pleasure gardens of London, where the music printing trade exploded at the end of the 18th century. Within a few decades the city had become the most active music publishing centre in Europe. Songs and keyboard music made up the lion’s share of the trade, and fashionable new pieces entered the market at an unprecedented rate. At the same time, some older music continued to be played, reflecting the growing importance of a canonic repertory of musical masterpieces. The music of George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), for example, remained a mainstay of English concert life, and adaptations of his work continued to feature strongly in domestic music collections right through the 19th century. Jane Austen attended concerts featuring Handel’s music in Bath in 1805 and in Canterbury in 1813, and no doubt others she did not mention in her letters. Yet this was really the music of her mother’s generation: this adaptation of the overture to Rodelinda (1725) was copied in 1755 and figures in a manuscript volume that belonged to Ann Cooper before passing into the Austen family. In the 1790s, the most celebrated import to London from the Continent was Joseph Haydn. The composer’s extended visits provided the impetus for some of his best-known symphonic works, created for highly-publicised public concerts during the London season; but the large and profitable English market for domestic music also played a role in his output from these years. 'She never told her love' on a text from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night comes from the Original Canzonettas Haydn produced in 1794-95, mainly setting poems in English by Anne Hunter, whom he had met on his first London trip.

Many pieces in the Austen books had their origins in the theatre. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly (1762-1826) made his Italian début in Florence in 1783; after hearing him in Venice, Joseph II’s ambassador recruited Kelly for the emperor’s new opera company in Vienna, where Mozart composed the roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio for him. On his return to England, Kelly became famous for his theatre works and songs. He also owned a wine shop; Sheridan would comment that the sign should read ‘Michael Kelly, composer of wines and importer of music’. Kelly’s The Wife’s Farewell and The Husband’s Return both featured in the farce Of Age To-morrow (1805) by Thomas John Dibdin, son of the composer Charles Dibdin. Caroline Austen remembered that her aunt Jane regularly sang The Wife’s Farewell when Caroline was a child, and Caroline would later own a copy of it herself. Such lively comic songs were an essential part of the London theatre scene: if Kelly’s pieces provide a witty picture of the disadvantages of marriage, Thomas Cooke’s (1782-1848) Nobody coming to marry me considers the plight of a girl whose aspirations to matrimony seem designed to be frustrated. Born in Dublin, Cooke enjoyed a highly successful career as a tenor and singing teacher, at the same time as he took leading roles in the management of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and later at the famous Vauxhall pleasure gardens. James Hook’s (1746-1827) The Whim of the Day, a song performed at Vauxhall by the celebrated tenor Charles Dignum, may have been particularly amusing to the Austen family, whose country existence was punctuated by London trips that allowed them to become familiar with all that was exaggerated or ridiculous in the latest urban fashions. Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) was a prominent presence in the London theatrical milieu, as poet and librettist as well as a composer. A prolific song writer and legendary one-man entertainer, he was especially noted for his amazing ability to mimic provincial accents. His One half of the world adopts the voice of a country dweller just returned from London who recounts—in a series of frantic lists—the many marvels he has seen there.

Elegant balls and aristocratic entertainments were another source of new music. Mattias Holst (1769-1854), great-grandfather of Gustav Holst, fled to England from St Petersburg in 1799 and quickly built up a fine reputation as a teacher and composer in London, where 'The Celebrated Fairy Dance' was ‘danced in the first Circles of Fashion’. Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) was among the most glamorous figures of 18th-century arts, fashion and politics, often the target of gossip and scandal. The rather melancholic Song for a Stranger sets a text by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an influential member of the Devonshire House circle. The piece appears in manuscript in a scrapbook started by older members of the Austen family before 1778, and later owned by Jane Austen, with a note ‘The words by R.B. Sheridan Esqr. The air by the Duchess of Devonshire’. Ann Thicknesse, née Ford (1737-1824) led a similarly colourful life, insisting on becoming a performing musician against her father’s wishes, which led him to have her arrested. Undeterred, she continued performing, composing and touring with her husband Philip Thicknesse. His A Year's Journey through France and Part of Spain (1777) describes one such tour, which may have been the inspiration for this 'Fandango', a lively Spanish dance in triple time. It is described as ‘from Thicknesse’s tour’ in a manuscript of keyboard music, copied by Jane Austen into a pre-ruled music book produced by London publishers Longman & Broderip. Harriet Abrams (1758-1821) was one of the few women of her generation who successfully managed to work as a professional musician and song-writer. Crazy Jane was her most famous work, setting a poem by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Abrams spent much of her career travelling and performing with her sisters (one of whom was called Jane). The piece appears in the manuscript book bound for Elizabeth Bridges and bound in 1799.

Among the most significant musical scenes in Austen’s novels is an episode in Emma following the arrival of Jane Fairfax’s new Broadwood piano. This is the only time Austen mentions a specific composer—Cramer—and one of the few scenes in which she mentions a specific piece, the song Robin Adair. Johann Baptiste Cramer (1771-1858), from a German family of musicians settled in England, was among the most celebrated pianists of the day. After studies in London with Muzio Clementi, Cramer embarked on his first Continental tour in 1788, playing to huge acclaim in Paris and Berlin before returning to London in 1791 to enjoy a career as successful soloist, music publisher and composer. His earliest works were published during his stay in France, but Les petits riens is a later piece, characterised as a ‘Divertimento’ on the title page of its London publication. It is a set of variations, and the Austen family owner annotated it with an excellent fingering that allows the tune to shine through the successive variations. Popular songs of all types provided material for keyboard adaptations as variation sets, accompanied sonatas and other pieces that were successful on the market for domestic music. George Kiallmark (1781-1835) was a violinist, teacher and composer based in London, whose talent for keyboard arrangements helped boost the sales of music publishers Chappell and D’Almaine. His variations on Robin Adair appear in a volume signed by Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra, which contains some pieces that may have been used for her own musical training.

Politics of the drawing room

If pieces produced for genteel consumption rarely exhibit the extreme topicality and satirical bite of tavern songs and broadsides, music for domestic performance still provided an important mode of mediating and commenting upon current events. At roughly the time when Jane Austen was copying music into her two most extensive manuscript music albums, the situation in France dominated the political arena; and the turbulence of the Revolution was all the more immediate to the Austen family through Jane’s cousin Eliza, whose first husband, the comte de Feuillide, was guillotined in 1794. The anonymous 'Que j’aime à voir les hirondelles' appears in a volume of French songs that probably belonged to Eliza, one of the most accomplished musicians of the family. The album is made up of installments of Parisian subscription publications beginning in 1783 and abruptly finishing in March 1789 at the onset of the Revolution. It may have been through Eliza that Jane learned the song: we have recently identified this piece as one of three remembered by Jane Austen’s niece Caroline, who recalled in 1869 that it was ‘the song that I heard her sing oftenest . . . As a child, this was my favourite - & was what I asked for the oftenest’.

Stephen Storace (1762-1796), like Michael Kelly, moved in Mozart’s circle in Vienna; on his return to England, he composed highly successful operas for the Drury Lane company. His Captivity is ‘A Ballad supposed to be sung by the Unfortunate Marie Antoinette, during her Imprisonment in the Temple’ according to its printed editions. Jane Austen copied the song into her manuscript book directly before Queen Mary’s Lamentation, about the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, suggesting how the fate of Marie Antoinette could be assimilated to events in British history. An example of the popular genre of ‘Scots song’ as well as historical commentary, the first setting of Queen Mary’s Lamentation was by the Italian-born Tommaso Giordani (1730-1806). Jane copied the song into her album not long after manifesting her Stuart sympathies in marginal annotations to the Steventon schoolroom copy of Goldsmith’s History of England. She could still refer to it a decade later in a letter to her sister Cassandra, written from Southampton in February 1807: ‘. . . but to be sorry I find many occasions, the first is that your return is to be delayed, & whether I ever get beyond the first is doubtful. It is no use to lament.—I never heard that even Queen Marys Lamentation did her any good, & I could not therefore expect benefit from mine.—We are all sorry, & now that subject is exhausted.’

This letter was written at the beginning of a two-year residence in Southampton, where Jane and Cassandra Austen went with their widowed mother to live with younger brother Frank Austen and his family. Both Frank and the youngest Austen, Charles, had successful careers in the British navy, seeing active service in the Napoleonic wars. Composer Charles Dibdin was born in Southampton and he was buried there in 1814 in Holyrood church, not far from the Castle Square house occupied by the Austens. Dibdin’s The Soldier’s Adieu was carefully copied into Jane Austen’s song manuscript, but replacing the word ‘soldier’ with ‘sailor’ throughout, perhaps in honour of her sea-faring brothers.

Home and abroad

The Austen family music albums, like many similar collections of this period, include a vast range of exoticising pieces whose texts – and sometimes musical style – reflect growing interest in the traditional music of the British isles as well as the extensive reach of British trading interests across the world. Musical performance brought faraway places and events into the home, if in highly mediated ways. The African Song or Song from Mr Park’s Travels derives from an episode in the adventures of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, the first European to trace the course of the Niger River. In his Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799) he described how after finally arriving at the Niger, he was at first refused access to the local ruler and told to seek lodging in a nearby village. No one would take him in, however, and he spent the day sitting under a tree until a woman took pity on him and brought him into her house. After feeding Park and showing him his bed for the night, the woman and her female relatives sat working and singing; one of their songs was an improvised piece about the plight of Park himself. Park’s prose translation of their Mandinka lyric was versified by Georgiana Cavendish, duchess of Devonshire, on his return to England, and a setting of the poem by Giacomo Gotifredo Ferrari (1763-1842) was printed as a postscript to Park’s expedition memoir. The Austen family copy comes from Elizabeth Bridges’s manuscript book, bound for her in 1799, the same year Park’s best-selling Travels was published.

In a composite manuscript featuring music copied by several Austen family members, Edward Smith Biggs’s Hindustani Girl’s Song appears as Hindoo Girl’s Song. The piece is derived from A Second Set of Hindoo Airs (1800) provided with English words by the poet and novelist Amelia Alderson Opie and harmonized by Biggs. Biggs’s note to the printed score reads: 'The Melody of this plaintive Air, is but little known, among the Hindoos, and is said to have originated very lately from the following circumstances: An European, previous to his departure for England, being desirous of restoring to her Parents, an Hindoo Girl, who had lived for some years in his family; sent her to them, in a Palanquin, some days journey up the Country. The Girl, was extremely attached to her Master, and was so affected at parting with him, that, according to the relation of the bearers of the Palanquin, she could not be prevailed on, to receive any sustenance during the journey, and was incessantly singing this melody, (which they were able to retain!) to words expressive of her attachment; which are here, so well imitated by Mrs Opie.'

As for many such songs purporting to represent traditional or exotic music, claims about the sources of text or melody are often vague. The Scottish origins of many popular ‘Scots Songs’ were sometimes equally so, but desire to preserve and celebrate Scottish culture underpinned the publication of many such pieces in the eighteenth century, if often in ‘improved’ versions, with new poetry fitted to traditional tunes, or vice versa. The Edinburgh publisher Robert Bremner (1713-1789) supplied music to the Edinburgh Musical Society, one of the many such clubs which aided in the promotion of the Scottish Enlightenment: among his most successful publications were fiddle variations on Scottish tunes, arrangements of Scottish music for guitar, and two volumes of Scots songs (‘the music taken from the most genuine sets extant’ as the title page of the first claims). Jane Austen owned copies of both books; ‘Waly waly’ comes from the second, and like most of the rest of the collection uses verses taken from the poet and song collector Allan Ramsay’s Tea Table Miscellany (Edinburgh, 1724), a collection that included both new poems by Ramsay and his friends, and texts associated with traditional melodies. Ramsay was an important predecessor for Robert Burns, whose verses circulated widely in musical setting in the late 18th century. Burns’s ‘Their groves of sweet myrtle’ ends with the words 'the chains of his Jean' in the poet's works, but in the anonymous setting copied by Jane Austen, the name appears as 'Jane'. Caroline Austen’s 1869 memoir also mentions this song as among her aunt’s favourites.
Unlike the many Scots and Irish songs printed in the period, the anonymous 'The Irishman' does not refer to traditional music. Instead, it is a lively tour round the world comparing the prowess of lovers of every nation, and concluding that none can surpass an Irishman. Previous commentators have been unable to resist pointing out that Austen copied the song into her manuscript book around the time of her famous flirtation with the young Tom LeFroy.

Related research groups

Music Performance Research
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